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This DC park is pretty much the definition of desolate. How can the National Park Service change that?

Though it's only a few blocks south and west from the epicenter of new restaurants and high rise apartments in neighboring Navy Yard, Buzzard Point has largely gone undeveloped. That's going to change soon, including at Buzzard Point Park, where the National Park Service (NPS) is asking the public for its ideas on how to best use the space.


Buzzard Point today. This is the Pepco station, but there isn't much more going on at the park. Photo by David Meni.

Buzzard Point is the area south of Q Street SW, east of Fort McNair, and west of South Capitol Street. Though it had a few residents in DC's early history, it was almost always a dumping ground for things that needed to be out of the way—like disposing of dead horses in the 19th century. A Pepco power plant went up there in 1933 (and was in use until 2012), and in 1940, the area had a population of only 34 people.

Buzzard Point right now is still staggeringly empty. There's the shutdown plant, the Coast Guard's abandoned headquarters, and a Pepco substation. While demolition is underway to make room for the new 20,000 seat DC United Stadium, it's currently just empty lots and piles of dirt.


Image from Google Maps.

Coming soon: A new Buzzard Point

Along with the DC United Stadium, there's a master plan for Buzzard Point Park that includes tons of mixed use development, a new Frederick Douglass Bridge, and a new plaza at the end of a redesigned South Capitol Street.

One key to all these plans is a makeover for for Buzzard Point Park, where just south of the powerplant, the green space nestled against the edge of the Anacostia doesn't have much to offer the community. There was a marina there for 50 years, but it closed last December (on some of Google Maps' images, it's still there because they're from 2009). The docks are gone, with only a parking lot, a small office building, and showers remaining.

Through October, the National Park Service is conducting a visual preference survey to find out how the public wants to use the space. NPS hopes to emphasize the space's unique presence in the city, redeveloping the bankside park into a community resource that respects the ecology of the area.

The survey consists of nearly 50 images that show ways to build a park, and participants are asked to rank each. There's also space for saying what you like or don't like about particular designs.

These are some of the options on the survey:


All images of park possibilities are from the National Park Service.

Rotating food trucks, a DC staple, could be an option.


Bleacher-style seating, like that near the Memorial Bridge, would emphasize views of the Anacostia, which look across to the Bolling Air Force Base training center.


River recreation at the site is another option. As it stands, the Anacostia isn't safe for swimming. But this could certainly draw in visitors when that changes.


At some point, the Anacostia Branch Trail is due to cut through the park. A pedestrian/bike overpass could be an effective way of using vertical space to make a more inclusive park.

A playground seems an obvious choice for any new park—there aren't any in Buzzard Point yet.

The old marina served about 60 boats, and perhaps the new park could serve boats as well.


A skating rink, like a handful of others in the list, are reminiscent of amenities that have popped up in Navy Yard over the past few years. Nearby neighborhoods are almost sure to be inspirations.

A ferry that took people across the river, to Anacostia Park, could be an option.

Development


How housing vouchers work, explained

Millions of Americans struggle to pay their rent each month. With rents rising and incomes stagnating, paying rent is the largest monthly expenditure for many families.


Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Across the country, over 20 million households—more than four out of 10 renters—are rent-burdened, meaning they pay at least 30 percent of their income on rent. The share of rent-burdened households is even higher among low-income renters.

The government helps some of these low-income households pay their rent by providing vouchers through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8.

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program is the largest federal program to subsidize low-income renters.

Across the country, nearly 2.2 million households receive housing vouchers to subsidize their rent. In DC, the voucher program provides assistance to 13,000 families.

There are two types of housing vouchers. Project-based vouchers are tied to a specific apartment and used by the family living there. When that family moves, the voucher stays with the unit, rather than moving with the family. Tenant-based vouchers, on the other hand, are given to a specific family. The family keeps the voucher when they move.

Because they are much more common, this explainer focuses on tenant-based vouchers in the District.


Photo by Tax Credits on Flickr.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program works by limiting the amount of their income that low-income families pay toward rent.

Voucher holders pay 30 percent of their income toward rent for an apartment on the private market. The federal government pays the rest of the rent directly to the landlord.

To be eligible to use a voucher, families typically must earn less than 50 percent of the median income in the place where they live (officially called Area Median Income, or AMI). In the Washington region, that's about $50,000 for a family of four. However, most voucher holders in the region earn less than 30 percent AMI, or about $30,000.

After securing a voucher, families are required to find an apartment—or "lease up"—within sixty days. While they search for housing like anyone else in the city, their rent must fall within the Fair Market Rent (FMR) guidelines established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In the District, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,623. Households using a voucher can rent any apartment at (or below) that threshold.

While voucher holders are permitted to search for apartments throughout the region, in practice, they are much more likely to find affordable housing in just a handful of neighborhoods. Few apartments in wealthy neighborhoods, like Georgetown, are inexpensive enough to meet HUD guidelines, while most apartments in low-income neighborhoods, like Deanwood, rent for below the market average.

While families mostly search for housing in the region, their vouchers are portable. If a family moves from Washington, DC to Mississippi, for example, they can take their voucher with them. Critically, housing vouchers do not expire. Households can continue to use their voucher as long as they remain eligible for the program and abide by program rules.

Local public housing authorities (PHAs) distribute housing vouchers through lotteries.

In DC, the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) runs the city's voucher program. There are other public housing authorities in the region, including the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Housing Authority of Prince George's County, which also administer housing vouchers.


Photo by Bill Dickinson on Flickr.

With guidance from HUD, PHAs often prioritize certain types of households in distributing vouchers. For example, a PHA can give priority to homeless households, families living in extreme poverty, or those displaced by substandard housing conditions. In DC, the housing authority gives preference to homeless families above other households needing assistance.

To distribute the limited supply of vouchers, PHAs create waitlists for eligible families. This can be an open waitlist, where families join at any time, or a closed waitlist, where the housing authority opens the waitlist for limit periods of time. At the moment, the voucher waitlist in DC is closed.

Although new vouchers are rarely allocated by Congress, vouchers do become available when existing families leave the program. PHAs use the waitlist to select new voucher holders, either by holding a voucher lottery or simply selecting the next applicant on the list.

Housing voucher programs were created in the 1970s with the dual goals of de-concentrating poverty and empowering families to pick their own neighborhood.

Until the 1970s, nearly all federal housing assistance was provided through public housing developments. However, policymakers realized that these developments concentrated poor families in certain neighborhoods. They also contributed to racial segregation in cities.

The first voucher programs were proposed in 1970 and formalized through the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. The Act amended Section 8 of the National Housing Act of 1937 to create the voucher program. As a result, the program became known as Section 8 vouchers. In 1998, Congress passed the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, which formally changed the program name to the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Housing Choice vouchers and Section 8 vouchers refer to the same program, but Housing Choice vouchers are the preferred (and correct) terminology.

By giving households an opportunity to pick their own apartment, rather than living in public housing, policymakers expect vouchers to lead people to improved housing units in better neighborhoods. Voucher holders can move away from communities of concentrated poverty and live in high-quality housing.


Photo by anaxila on Flickr.

There is substantial evidence that when low-income families move into mixed-income neighborhoods, they do benefit. For example, people are often healthier and safer in these high opportunity neighborhoods. Children attend better schools and more regularly interact with middle-class neighbors.

However, critics argue that the benefits of the voucher program are overstated. Voucher holders typically cannot move to wealthy neighborhoods because the rents are too high. Many landlords refuse to accept housing vouchers. And even when they do move into a high-opportunity neighborhood, low-income households often find it difficult to stay there.

Perhaps most importantly, critics of the voucher programs note that housing assistance is not an entitlement. Unlike other government assistance programs, like Medicaid or TANF, most eligible households do not receive a voucher. In fact, only one-quarter of households who are eligible for a voucher actually receive one.

Politics


What do you want to ask the candidates for your neighborhood council?

In a year where we have a lot of questions we'd like to ask politicians on the national stage, we should also take time to focus closer to home. DC voters will elect hundreds of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners in November, and we want to make sure you get a chance to ask them about what matters to you.


Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs) are unique, hyper-local elected officials (they represent about 2,000 voters each) that can make significant impacts on the development and landscape of your neighborhood. These positions are non-partisan, meaning there is no primary and the November 8th general election is the only chance you get a chance to vote for these candidates.

Many residents in DC don't even know these officials exist. I remember the first time I voted in DC; on my way to the voting site I was stopped by a nice man with a firm handshake who asked me where I lived. When I told him, he said "Great! You live in my district, and you should vote for me for your ANC commissioner!" Sure enough, his name was on my ballot, and I'll admit it: His handshake won my vote.

Now that I know a little more about how important these leaders can be, I don't recommend the handshake-vetting process. But because of the relative low-profile of these elections, finding out more about the candidates before election day can be a challenge.

We'd like to try and fix that

Greater Greater Washington is in the process of creating a questionnaire that we will send to ANC candidates across the city. After collecting and organizing candidate responses, we will publish our opinions and each candidate's words on the site in a way that you can easily find the information you need to make informed choices about your local ANC race.

We'd like your help in crafting questions for this questionnaire. Please fill out the form below with questions you would like ANC candidates to answer publicly. We'll sort through your suggestions to help us finalize the questionnaire we distribute in September.

Because these elections are so local, we're looking for questions relevant specifically to your neighborhood or ANC, or they could apply over a wider range like much of your ward, or even the whole city.

What do you wish you had answers to?

Why doesn't this area have more grocery stores? A dog park? What should be done about that terrible intersection? Here's your chance to ask the people who might represent you on these issues.

Not sure which ANC or district you're in? Find out with this tool!

History


Was your neighborhood "obsolete" in 1950?

The National Capital Park and Planning Commission, forerunner to today's NCPC, declared most of Shaw, Mount Vernon Square and Triangle, Capitol Hill, Southwest, Buena Vista and other neighborhoods "obsolete" in 1950. Yes, amazingly, they really used that term.


"Problem areas" and "obsolete characteristics" according to NCPPC, 1950.

That's some of the astounding information in the 1950 document Washington, Present and Future from NCPPC. ShawNeighborhood listserv participant RayM scanned a number of pages showing plans to radically remove multi-family dwellings from historic neighborhoods and force the kind of low-density, single-use, less walkable pattern of development that permanently destroyed many urban areas.

What was wrong? People lived in neighborhoods with alley dwellings, some of which were less well maintained. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs talked about how planners in Boston declared the North End a similar "slum" simply because people lived at a certain population density per acre, and the view at the time was that government had to force people to live more spread out.

There are certainly reasons to believe race played a part as well; these neighborhoods were predominantly African-American. The solution, people thought at the time, was to tear down the old neighborhoods and build new ones in the "towers in the park" style of the housing projects we all know and loathe today. Here is their plan for Shaw:

Fortunately for Shaw, a thriving neighborhood with beautiful old row houses and some of DC's best-preserved carriage homes, most of this plan never came to pass. It largely did, however, in Southwest:

Besides wholesale demolition of neighborhoods, planners tried to push people out of so-called "blighted" neighborhoods with zoning. On Capitol Hill, for instance, the zoning plan wanted to take the fabric of different size buildings coexisting and declare that illegal. Instead, all commerce in the NE quadrant of the Hill would be restricted to H Street, Massachusetts, and a 2-block stretch of 8th, and all multifamily to Maryland Avenue.

They also wanted to widen 11th Street and demolish everything for 2 blocks on either side of East Capitol to create a new extended Mall. (This is the reason that the street between A and C NE is Constitution, not B, and likewise in SE is Independence, even though the original L'Enfant plan called them B Street).

Many of these decisions were efforts to segregate

It's important to recognize that some characteristics of the District today come directly out of explicit "social engineering" decisions that planners pushed on the District when the 1958 zoning code was written. Rules against accessory dwellings and corner stores, parking minimums and single-use zoning were all efforts to zone many of the people, mostly African-American, out of the neighborhoods.

That's just one reason to be pleased that last January, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6th, doing away with the code that came from this era.

This post originally ran in 2012, but since the history hasn't changed and the new zoning code goes into effect soon, we wanted to share it again!

Bicycling


These two new short bike lanes, called "pocket lanes," help traffic flow and keep cyclists safe

There are some unusual new bike lanes at two intersections in DC. They keep traffic moving more smoothly and protect cyclists from a dangerous situation: where they're going straight but a driver to their left is turning right.


Photo by Mike Goodno, DDOT's bike lane designer.

The District Department of Transportation recently installed "pocket lanes" on southbound 2nd Street NE at Massachusetts Avenue and at Hawaii Avenue and Taylor Street NE. A type of through bike lane that's less than a block long and doesn't continue on the other side of the intersection, they sit between the lane for going straight or turning left and the right turn lane.

Pocket lanes have several uses, and they make intersections more efficient for everyone. For starters, they keep people on bikes who are heading straight through an intersection from having to wait behind a queue of left-turning vehicles, whose drivers are in turn waiting for a break in oncoming traffic. They also keep drivers from having to wait in line behind a cyclist who's traveling straight.

Another benefit is that they give people on bikes their own space that's to the left of right-turning traffic, which prevents a situation known as the "right hook." The "right hook" occurs when a driver who's turning right hits a cyclist riding on the right hand side of traffic and going straight.

With the 2nd Street example, traffic often backs up there because there's only one lane for either continuing straight on 2nd or turning left onto Massachusetts. The pocket lane allows cyclists to ride past the backed up traffic, and to be to the left of cars turning right. Here's what the intersection looked like before the new pocket lane:


Image from Google Maps.

Here's a shot of the pocket lane at Hawaii and Taylor:


Photo by Mike Goodno.

These lanes work when engineers can narrow the adjacent travel lanes to fit a pocket lane beside a right-turn only lane. Protected bike lanes are still the safest option, but in places where space is constrained this can make cycling more efficient and possibly safer.

DDOT is actively looking for more locations where they can add pocket lanes. If you have suggestions, contact Mike Goodno (mike.goodno@dc.gov).

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