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Posts about Development


Part of the Metropolitan Branch Trail might close temporarily, but that just means a big opportunity

Part of the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) near the NoMa Metro stop may close for several months to make space for building construction, meaning there will be no direct route to avoid the treacherous intersection at Florida Avenue and New York Avenue. But what if there's a way to make the intersection far safer for walking and biking?

The MBT could be closed during construction of an adjacent development. Image by Aimee Custis.

The closure would be for construction of the second phase of the Washington Gateway, which is slated to be 16 stories tall with 372 residential units, 8% of which will have rents capped at affordable levels for people who quality.

"There will be a period of time when we have to pick up the asphalt and put in a better MBT," said Fred Rothmeijer, founding principal at developer MRP Realty, at an Eckington Civic Association meeting. Improvements will include repaving the trail, new landscaping and better light, he added.

The location of Washington Gateway with the section of the MBT in question. Image by MRP.

Michael Alvino, a bike program specialist at DC's Department of Transportation, tacitly confirmed the closure at the meeting, saying, "we're still trying to determine exactly what the impacts on the trail will be, certainly it's not going to be closed for an extended period of time—we're going to push for that to be open as much as possible."

Right now, the trail lets cyclists avoid a perilous intersection

This is a critical section of the MBT. The trail is the only car-free alternative to the congested "virtual circle," as DDOT puts it, intersection at Florida Avenue, New York Avenue and First Street NE.

Also called "Dave Thomas Circle" because it's home to a Wendy's, the intersection has narrow sidewalks along frequently backed up streets, primarily on Florida Avenue and First Street. It's unenjoyable for pedestrians and unsafe for cyclists in the roadway. In addition, the lights are timed to prioritize through traffic on New York Avenue, giving people on foot and bike little time to cross the six-lane wide thoroughfare.

In other words: the MBT is your safest and most practical route if you're headed to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station or the First Street NE protected bikeway.

The closure could be an opportunity

What if DDOT used the potential MBT closure as an opportunity to improve the pedestrian and bike connections through the virtual circle?

The agency is already studying ways to improve the circle as part of a planned redesign of Florida Avenue NE. It proposed two possible alternatives that include direct pedestrian and bike connections through the intersection in the final report it released in 2015.

The orange lines in both options below represent new "pedestrian areas," though the report does not go into detail on exactly what kind of walking and biking facilities these would include:

One potential redesign of the virtual circle at the intersection of Florida Avenue and New York Avenue NE. Image by DDOT.

A second potential redesign of the virtual circle. Image by DDOT.

Right now, DDOT's potential redesigns of the circle face a significant stumbling block: they require the acquisition and demolition of the Wendy's restaurant at its center. DDOT has yet to set a timeline for this, or for redesigning the circle.

An interim solution to allow cyclists a safe path through the circle would be to build a protected bikeway that begins at R Street NE, heads south on Eckington Place to Florida Avenue, then continues briefly on Florida before turning south on First Street NE, crossing New York Avenue and then connecting with the existing bikeway at M Street NE.

Route of a possible protected bike lane from R Street NE to the existing facility on First Street in NoMa. Image by MapMyRun.

This solution would not require the acquisition of private property but it would likely require taking some of the traffic lanes for the roughly 150 feet the bikeway would be on Florida Avenue and the roughly 300 feet on First Street NE north of New York Avenue. There is no on-street parking in either of these stretches of roadway.

The protected bikeway could be created by reorganizing the traffic lanes and parking spaces on Eckington Place north of Florida and First Street NE south of New York Avenue.

Now is the time to speak up

MRP is in the process of modifying its planned unit development (PUD), the agreement where it commits to certain community benefits in exchange for DC Zoning Commission approval of a project, to include changes to Washington Gateway. These include converting one of the planned buildings to residential from commercial, as well as changes to a controversial "bike lobby."

The Zoning Commission has yet to set a date for a hearing but a modified PUD could include specifics for how the developer works with DDOT to mitigate the likely MBT closure during construction.

You can find out more by searching here for case number 06-14D.

Public Spaces

The difference between Maryland and Virginia in one photo

If you've ever flown out of National Airport, you might try to pick out the geographic landmarks you recognize: the Washington Monument, Rock Creek Park, or the Potomac River. Next time you're heading west, keep an eye on the river as it passes through Maryland and Virginia, and you'll notice one big difference between each state.

Virginia sprawl on the left, Maryland farms on the right. Photos by the author.

This is a photo I took Sunday morning when I flew to San Francisco. On the Virginia side, in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, there are all the typical signs of suburban sprawl: subdivisions, freeways, and shopping centers. On the Maryland side, in Montgomery County, there's...not very much.

That's because for over fifty years, Montgomery County has aggressively tried to protect its open space. In 1964, the county's General Plan said that growth should cluster along major highway and rail corridors leading from the District, and that the spaces in between should be preserved.

In 1980, the county made it official with the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, which covers one-third of the county will remain farmland and nature forever. (Combine that with the county's 34,000-acre park system, and nearly half of the county is open space.)

That decision has lasting effects today. Montgomery County residents benefit from an abundance of open space for recreation, enjoying nature, and of course, keeping our air and water clean.

In order to preserve this open space, we have to accommodate growth elsewhere in the county, particularly in our town centers like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville. People who try to stop development in their close-in communities may not feel they benefit from open space 30 miles away. But the urban and suburban parts of our region benefit from the Ag Reserve too.

Allowing inside-the-Beltway communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring to grow lets us preserve open space.

Maryland has an abundance of green space thanks to dense urban development

By focusing growth and investment in existing communities, we get thriving downtowns that support local businesses and local culture, and less traffic as people who live closer in can drive less or not at all. We also spend less money building public infrastructure, like roads and utility lines, to far-flung areas, while generating tax revenue to support the infrastructure we do need. (And obviously, those places can and will have open space.)

This is the path Maryland, and Montgomery County, chose over 50 years ago. So far, it's working pretty well. And you don't have to get in a plane to see it.


National links: Don't shame the transit riders

Uber took down some ads that shamed transit riders, Texas researchers are looking at how race, gender, and development intersect, and a new book explains that cities weren't always bastions for Democrats. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Anthony Easton on Flickr.

Uber's advertising effect: Uber and Lyft often have run ads that belittle transit riders. Transit planner Jarrett Walker recently decided he'd had enough, calling Uber out for an anti-transit stance that he says promotes congestion and social stratification. Soon thereafter, an Uber executive saw to it that the ad came down. If ads like this keep running, Walker says, it signals a tacit agreement that we should starve cities of the transportation options they need and deserve. (Human Transit)

Race, gender, and the built environment: The University of Texas at Austin will launch a first-of-its-kind program to study the intersection of race, gender, city planning, and development. In this interview, Professors Anna Brand and Andrea Roberts discuss why they are keen to expand the definition of planning and preservation and how Austin is a great place to be thinking about these issues. (Metropolis Magazine)

How cities went blue: During the time of the US' founding, pretty much everyone in politics disliked cities, as they were seen as places of corruption and vice. But now, as cities are becoming more and more popular, cities have become a stronghold for Democrats. Read about the history of anti-urbanism and the move toward our current landscape in a review of Steven Conn's Americans Against the City. (Los Angeles Review of Books)

White House vs. parking: Last week's White House paper about why we need more housing and how cities can make it happen was the talk of the urbanism world. A major part was its push for less required parking, as parking drives up housing costs and stresses the transportation network. While the White House's toolkit has no teeth to enact reform, it is refreshing to see ideas like these from the top. (Wired)

Look Mom, no signals: The first Dutch-style unsignalized intersection in the United States just went in near the campus of Texas A&M University. The hope is that moving cyclists in front of car traffic at the intersections and painting the lanes green with solar luminescent paint will make vulnerable road users will be more visible, meaning drivers will be less likely to hit them. (Texas Transportation Institute)

Connecting Boston's 2 halves: Boston's commuter rail network is split in two: a north and a south half. Advocates have long been working to connect the two so the entire system functions more efficiently, but haven't had any luck. Now, there's a greater sense of urgency, as a plan to expand a key station would effectively kill hopes of a north-south rail link. Activists hope that building the connection will take precedent. (Boston Magazine)

A new ride hailing service in town

Since Uber and Lyft left Austin, new companies have filled the void. One of them is RideAustin, which is now one of the leading ride hailing providers in the city. Co-founder Andy Tryba sat down to talk about why they started the company, while Jerry, a driver for RideAustin, discussed the new city fingerprinting requirement. Check out what they had to say on Episode 7 of my show, Transit Trends:


National Harbor's colossal never-built skyscraper

National Harbor was originally going to be called PortAmerica, and it almost included a skyscraper that might have been taller than the Washington Monument.

Port America. All images from Johnson/Burgee.

By 2008 when the first part of National Harbor opened, the concept of suburban town centers was tried and true. But developers have been trying to build a town center there since the mid 1980s. When they started, it was the most progressive of ideas.

The original plan for PortAmerica dates from 1987. It would have included a neo-classical, mixed-use town center in the same place as National Harbor's waterfront, plus a large office park on the adjacent property that is now an outlet mall will soon have a casino.

The office park would have included a 52-story trophy office tower. It would very likely have risen above the 555-foot Washington Monument, and definitely would have dwarfed the DC region's current tallest office building, Rosslyn's 384-foot 1812 North Moore (though that won't be the case for long).

We first ran this post back in 2013, but since the facts haven't changed, we thought we'd share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Rent in our region is expensive. Does that mean it's unaffordable?

It's no secret that rent prices in the Washington region are very high. But when we talk about affordable places to live, we often forget that there are two components to affordability: there's how much we spend on rent, but also how much we earn in income.

Rent here might be pricey, but is it expensive? Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Typical surveys like this one by Zumper usually find that a select group of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington have the most expensive apartment prices. According to these measurements, Washington has the fourth-most expensive rent of any large city in the country.

But if rent is $1000 in two different cities, but the average income in City A is 50% higher than in City B, then residents of City A can afford housing more easily, generally speaking. A recent article by Greater Greater Washington contributor Kate Rabinowitz demonstrated how cheaper cities also often lack good-paying jobs.

Here's how various metro areas stack up

To better evaluate this relationship, I looked at households across major metropolitan areas and how much of their income they spend on rent.

Two terms that are critical to understand renting affordability are rent-burdened households (those than spend over 30% of income on rent) and severely rent-burdened households (those that spend over 50% of their income on rent). For my own analysis, I chose only to look at rent-burdened households.

I also did not include median income in this analysis, as large cities in the United States have a large amount of income inequality, so median income does not necessarily reflect the experience of low-income households.

Additionally, I chose to use Census's Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) for data samples, rather than just large cities proper since most Americans live outside of major cities. Here are the 33 metropolitan areas with a population of above two million:

Graph by the author.

The results are very different from what we might expect. Cities typically associated with high rent, such as Washington (7th place), Seattle (10th place), Boston (12th place), and San Francisco (16th) have below-average numbers of rent-burdened households. Rent burdens in Texan cities are among the lowest, while the places where the most people use more than 30% of their income to cover rent are in California and Florida.

For reference, although many cities have significantly lower rent burdens than the US average, over half of renting US households spend above 30% of income on rent. Consequently, over 45% of renting households are rent-burdened in even the most affordable cities.

At the other end of the spectrum, over 60% of households are rent-burdened in the most unaffordable metropolitan areas, such as Miami and Riverside.

Although these measurements help better explain housing affordability, there are a few things that this analysis does not take into consideration.

  1. This analysis only looks at renting households. Some metropolitan areas may have a larger share of owned households, which are difficult to compare to renting households.
  2. The data measure the total number of rent-burdened households; they say nothing about households that are severely rent-burdened. That is to say that these measurements tell us about the breadth of the problem, not the depth.
  3. This analysis does not evaluate apartment size or household occupancy. Accordingly, residents of cities with expensive rent may make the "economic choice" to live in single apartments with a high number of occupants (roommates, multi-generational households, etc.).
  4. The Census's measure of rent-burden does describe how housing subsidies, rent control, and other mechanisms affect households' ability to afford rent. In all likelihood, liberal housing policies in cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco decrease the number of households that are rent-burdened.

Washington DC's relatively high incomes may make it more affordable in comparison to economically depressed cities. This does not mean, however, that all households in the region have equal opportunities to find affordable housing, especially those below the median income.

As income influences affordability, higher salaries should be part of the larger debate of housing affordability in the region and across the country—especially since incomes have stagnated for most workers, while the price of housing continues to rise.


Adams Morgan could get more housing and preserve its plaza, too. But it probably won't.

Some Adams Morgan leaders have said "no" once again to a proposal to replace an ugly 1970s bank building at the corner of 18th and Columbia. Redevelopment would destroy what's now a plaza, but does it have to? If neighbors got over some "height-itis," maybe not.

April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

For most of this year, controversy has swirled around proposals from PN Hoffman to redevelop what's now a two-story SunTrust bank building dating to 1973 and a brick plaza. Hoffman's initial proposal left a much smaller (but more attractively landscaped) plaza at the corner. Opposition was immediate, and took two forms.

Some people, like the "Save Our Plaza" group, focused most on the plaza itself. The place has some history involving the neighborhood's past efforts to push for fair lending to low-income homebuyers from the Perpetual Federal Savings bank, which used to use the building. Others simply feel that an open gathering space at Adams Morgan's central corner is a worthwhile part of the urban environment.

The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Others, like Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A zoning committee chair JonMarc Buffa, focus opposition mostly on the size of the proposed building. Much of the 18th Street strip is three stories high, while this building would have been six or seven to the cornice line (plus a set back penthouse).

There are buildings of similar height in the immediate area, but many people including HPRB member, architect, and stalwart opponent of height (except on his own buildings) Graham Davidson said it was too tall and too massive.

September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

Many others, like the commenters on this Borderstan article, argue that Adams Morgan could benefit from more residents (helping neighborhood retail besides bars and late-night pizza places thrive), that DC needs housing, and besides, this is private property.

Open space isn't a bad thing, but neither are buildings. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

How about a plaza AND new housing?

While this is indeed private property (though the city's historic preservation process has wide latitude to control what's built), there's some merit to the argument that in a well-planned Adams Morgan, it would still be good to have a plaza here.

My neighborhood has a large circular park right at the Metro station. Even though it takes a lot of land away from being used for needed housing, it's a terrific amenity and I wouldn't want it developed.

However, that doesn't mean I want to keep people out of the neighborhood, either. I support building more housing on other sites and would support taller buildings around the circle where they are low.

What is the priority for Adams Morgan residents? If the plaza is the most important thing, they could propose that instead of shrinking the building, PN Hoffman makes it even taller, but in exchange leaves more of the site open. Or want to minimize height? Then the plaza, which is not public land, probably has to go.

Site plan showing the current building.

I'd go with more height and more plaza space if possible. Tall buildings at prominent corners are actually a defining feature of DC (to the extent any DC building is "tall") and other cities. This marquee corner would be a great spot for something really dramatic that could anchor and characterize Adams Morgan. All of the proposals were architecturally conservative, and have gotten even more so in subsequent revisions. This is why DC has a reputation for boring architecture.

The best vehicle for such an arrangement would be what's called a Planned Unit Development. It's a more involved process that gives a developer more zoning latitude in exchange for benefits to a community. Hoffman hadn't been pursuing a PUD, perhaps hoping for a quicker turnaround in the process, but if neighbors agreed to support something with more density and more plaza space, it would reduce the uncertainty of doing a PUD and open up possibilities for a better project.

I don't want to represent that something is possible that might not be: I haven't talked to PN Hoffman about this possibility. Making a building taller adds construction cost; I'm not privy to the dynamics of their deal to control the land. But in most projects, there is some opportunity for give and take if neighbors really were willing to prioritize asking for one thing and being more flexible on another.

Not a lot of activity. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And let's not kid ourselves—this plaza is nothing special. It's hosted a farmer's market, but Hoffman has said they'd work to relocate it to another large expanse of sidewalk right across the intersection. For most people walking through Adams Morgan, this spot is just the ugly dead zone in between the interesting commercial strips in various directions.

A smaller but well-designed plaza could be more useful. A larger AND well-designed one could be even better, and potentially even feasible if height weren't such a bugaboo.

Unfortunately, area activists don't seem likely to suggest a taller building and a better plaza. Instead, the Save Our Plaza people seem almost as angry about the number of feet proposed for the building; their petition actually mentions the height first, before the plaza.

A more detailed plan could help

The DC Office of Planning created a vision plan for the neighborhood last year, and it in fact cites the plaza as something to hopefully preserve. But there was no official policy change to protect it, nor did that plan consider offsetting zoning changes to add more housing elsewhere in the neighborhood. The plan had good uncontroversial ideas (better wayfinding, more green roofs, public art) but doesn't actually determine where new housing can go.

The zoning for this site allows a building atop the plaza. Historic preservation is almost wholly discretionary and the preservation board doesn't publish detailed written decisions, making it impossible to know what is and isn't acceptable.

If DC's practice was to devise more concrete plans, we could imagine having a clear vision that lays out how much housing DC needs, what proportion of that would be fair to allocate to Adams Morgan, and a strategy for where to put it and where not to. The zoning could then match this vision instead of bearing at best a passing resemblance.

Instead, it seems that the only thing that would satisfy Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C is virtually no change at all. That's not reasonable; the city is growing, and so should Adams Morgan's core. But neighborhood leaders can think through how they'd best accommodate that change, and the government could help. And maybe this site could still have a better building and a plaza at the same time.


Scarred by urban renewal, Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood gets a second chance

Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood has a rich history, but urban renewal nearly destroyed it. With the Purple Line coming, this historically-black community could get a second chance, but not everybody looks forward to it.

Urban renewal nearly destroyed Lyttonsville in the 1970s. Photo by Alan Bowser.

Located west of the Red Line tracks from downtown Silver Spring, Lyttonsville is one of Montgomery County's oldest neighborhoods, founded in 1853 by freed slave Samuel Lytton. The area could soon be home to a Purple Line station if the light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton opens as scheduled in 2022.

Over the past two years, Montgomery County planners crafted a vision for a small town center around the future Lyttonsville station, bringing affordable housing and retail options the community lacks. Some residents are deeply skeptical of what's called the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, though it could restore the town center Lyttonsville lost long ago.

A rough history

During the early 20th century, a thriving main street developed along Brookville Road, including schools, churches, and a cemetery. As surrounding areas became suburban neighborhoods exclusively for white residents, the black Lyttonsville community lacked public services like running water and paved roads. For decades, its only connection to Silver Spring was a wooden, one-lane bridge that remains today.

In the 1970s, the county seized much of the area, destroying Lyttonsville's main street and replacing much of it with an industrial park, a Ride On bus lot, and storage for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Many of the older homes were replaced with large garden apartment complexes.

This wooden bridge was once the only way in and out of Lyttonsville. Photo by the author.

Today, Lyttonsville is a racially diverse community, and sought-after for its location between Silver Spring and Bethesda and being in the vaunted Bethesda-Chevy Chase school catchment. But one out of ten residents lives in poverty, compared to 6.9% of residents countywide. Lyttonsville is hard to access by any form of transportation, isolating its residents from nearby jobs.

Some residents claim the county's plan will continue a legacy of destructive planning decisions. They're worried about traffic and density, about getting redistricted out of the B-CC cluster, and that the area's affordable apartments could get replaced with luxury housing. Others are wary of the Purple Line after fighting off plans to locate a storage yard in the neighborhood.

Charlotte Coffield, who grew up in Lyttonsville during segregation and whose sister Gwendolyn fought to bring services to the area (the local community center is named for her), has emerged as one of the biggest critics. "All [Purple Line] stations do not need to be town centers," she wrote in a letter to the county planning board. "The proposed density would destroy the stable character and balance of our ethnically diverse neighborhood." Last week, the Lyttonsville Community Civic Association, where she is president, voted to accept no more than 400 new homes in the area.

New development in Lyttonsville

Bethesda-based developer EYA, which is currently building townhomes next to the future Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line station, has an alternate proposal for Lyttonsville that could address residents' concerns. The biggest land parcels in the area are owned by several different property owners, including multiple government agencies, each with their own plans. Some want to build lots of new homes, while WSSC has a large site that they intend to leave alone.

EYA's vision for Lyttonsville.

EYA has reached out to several landowners about coordinating, allowing development on a combined 33-acre site to happen together. First, they would partner with WSSC to build several hundred affordable apartments and townhomes on their property. Residents of existing apartments could move there first without getting displaced. Then, EYA would partner with the two non-profits who own the affordable apartments to redevelop them with market-rate townhomes. The county would restrict building heights to 70 feet.

Next to the Lyttonsville station itself, EYA envisions a plaza surrounded by market-rate apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space (about half the size of a Giant supermarket), and a small business incubator modeled on Baltimore's Open Works that would offer job training to local residents.

Public art would promote the area's history, while Rosemary Hills Park would get a small addition. Local streets where drivers speed today would get traffic calming and new pedestrian and bicycle connections.

The $500 million proposal addresses most of the neighbors' concerns. EYA seeks to build 1200 new homes on the land, compared to the nearly 1700 the county would allow there. (What Montgomery County wants to allow in Lyttonsville is still less dense than plans for other Purple Line stations, including Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake.) One-third of the new homes would be set aside for low-income households, and every existing affordable apartment would be replaced.

Lyttonsville's future Purple Line station. Image from MTA.

"The county can leave a legacy for how you can build Smart Growth," says Evan Goldman, VP of Land Acquisition and Development at EYA, stressing that the private development could help pay for the public amenities neighbors want. "There's only so much [public benefits] this can afford," he adds. "If you reduce the units so you can't pay for the benefits, the public benefits won't come."

Can the proposal actually work?

Residents I've spoken to like EYA's proposal, but are skeptical if it can happen. This project could have a transformative effect on Lyttonsville, but only if all of these partners agree to it. Recent experience in Shady Grove suggests finding new locations for the Ride On bus lot or WSSC's facility may be difficult.

"If EYA can execute its plan, there are more upsides," says resident Abe Saffer, "but since they don't have any letters of intent or partnerships firmly in place, I remain nervous."

The Montgomery County Council will hold two public hearings on the Lyttonsville Sector Plan next week in Rockville. Here's where you can sign up. If the plan is approved, the county would then have to approve EYA's proposal, which could then start construction in 2020 and take 10 to 15 years to get built.


When the Metro first arrived in Shaw and Columbia Heights, they were far different than they are today

During rush hour, northbound Yellow Line trains need to reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there isn't enough capacity for all of them to run to Greenbelt. That's because when Metro designed the Yellow Line, it was hard to imagine neighborhoods like Shaw and U Street developing as rapidly as they did.

This pre-2004 map shows original full-time Yellow Line service. Image from WMATA.

Why can't Yellow Line go farther north full time?

For the Yellow Line to operate north of Mount Vernon Square full-time, there would need to be a pocket track somewhere between that station and Greenbelt, so that Yellow Line trains could turn back towards Virginia without impeding Green Line trains at rush hour. (Right now, a few Rush+ Yellow Line trains do go all the way to Greenbelt, but usually only about four per hour during peak periods).

The tunnel that carries the Green and Yellow Lines under 7th Street and U Street NW opened in two stages: from L'Enfant Plaza to Gallery Place in April 1983, and from Gallery Place to U Street in May 1991. These tracks initially only provided service for the Yellow Line, but the Green Line would soon utilize the tunnel when it began operation from U Street to Anacostia in December 1991. Check out the Evolution of Metrorail graphic below, which we initially ran two years ago to see how service has changed:

The tracks running through the 7th Street tunnel had always been intended to be shared by the Green and Yellow Lines, but only for a short portion. Although it was intended for the Green Line to operate along the entire length of the tunnel - continuing onwards to Petworth, Fort Totten, and northwest Prince George's County - the Yellow Line would short turn at a pocket track somewhere along the route, so as not to overwhelm operations at Greenbelt (as I discussed in my first post on this topic).

Metro's planners opted to build the necessary pocket track at Mount Vernon Square station, which meant that Yellow Line trains would have to end their route and turn back towards Virginia without serving neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Petworth. Except for the brief six-month period between the opening of Mount Vernon Square, Shaw, and U Street stations in June 1991 and the commencement of Green Line service that December, the Yellow Line has always terminated at Mount Vernon Square in regular rush hour service.

Off-peak Yellow Line service all the way to Fort Totten began in 2006. This has certainly been a first step towards meeting the increased demand in DC's Mid-City area (generally thought of as the neighborhoods served by the Green Line from Shaw to Petworth). However, these areas have now grown enough in population that full-time Yellow Line service is warranted, despite the significant obstacles that stand in the way.

The growth of Mid-City has led to a need for increased Metro service

Massive redevelopment in Mid-City began around the turn of the century, and has continued at a frantic pace to the present day. That's meant increased demand for service along the Green/Yellow Lines at all hours.

When the Mid-City section of the Green Line opened in 1991 (between Gallery Place and U Street) and was completed in 1999 (from U Street to Fort Totten), the area was still reeling from the destruction caused by the 1968 riots. Shaw and Columbia Heights were still plagued with empty storefronts, and the landscape was pockmarked with empty lots where incinerated buildings had once stood.

Aftermath of DC's 1968 riots. Image from the Library of Congress.

The corridor has since benefitted from an incredible amount of reinvestment since the opening of the new Green (later Green/Yellow) Line stations in the 1990s. New construction has ranged in scale from projects like Progression Place, a huge mixed-use center that was recently built directly atop Shaw Metro, to smaller infill developments aimed at repairing the urban fabric.

Apartments at the Columbia Heights station. Photo by Alice Crain on Flickr.

A problem inherent in the system's design

Unfortunately, plans for Metro service patterns in Mid-City didn't anticipate the future growth that these neighborhoods would face. The Yellow Line was designed to provide a direct connection from Virginia to downtown for the commuting crowd; it travels express between Pentagon and L'Enfant Plaza, then provides a connection to each of the other Metro lines downtown before turning back at Mount Vernon Square.

The system's planners didn't predict that a significant amount of Yellow Line passengers would desire to travel past downtown, to neighborhoods like Shaw and Columbia Heights. Thus, it was assumed that the Green Line would provide adequate service for this portion of the line. Hence the pocket track going in at Mount Vernon Square, rather than at a more northern station like U Street.

So, could Metro build a new pocket track to account for the development spree?

Unfortunately, because this service pattern is cemented by the chosen location to build a pocket track, any attempt to correct this past oversight will be very laborious and costly.

It would be extremely difficult to add a pocket track to the Green and Yellow Lines anywhere between Mount Vernon Square and the District line because the tracks run almost entirely underground all the way to West Hyattsville. It would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive to excavate along the existing route and construct a pocket track between the mainline tracks—a WMATA study placed the cost of a Fort Totten pocket at $150 million.

Although the lower platform at Fort Totten is mostly built in an open cut (a shallow excavation that puts the tracks slightly below ground level), the tracks emerge directly from tunnels on both sides. The necessary location for a pocket track - the east side of the station, on the far side of the platforms from the city - is also the location of the B&E Connector track, a non-revenue link between the Red and Green Lines. The combination of these factors would make the construction of a pocket at this location very complex.

The track layout at Fort Totten. Light-colored tracks are below ground. Graphic by the author.

The next logical place to build a pocket track beyond Fort Totten is in Prince George's County, at the point where the tracks emerge from underground near West Hyattsville station. However, while construction of a pocket here wouldn't require excavation, it would still be extremely difficult and disruptive because the tracks are side-by-side on an elevated viaduct.

Because a pocket would have to be built between the existing mainline tracks, Metro would have to reconstruct a roughly 600-foot section of this elevated viaduct in order to pull the tracks apart and create space for a third track in between. This would be comparably disruptive and expensive to constructing a pocket track underground near Fort Totten. What's really required is a section of track that is at-grade, e.g. resting at ground level rather than underground or on a viaduct.

The Green Line viaduct and platforms at West Hyattsville. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The next feasible place to build a pocket track would be at the above-ground embankment behind Home Depot on East-West Highway near Prince George's Plaza station (although that, too, might be difficult due to the curve at that location).

Of course, a pocket track gets less and less useful the further it is from downtown. The next possible location for a pocket would be near College Park, at which point Yellow Line trains might as well continue all the way to Greenbelt.

It looks like for now, stations north of Mount Vernon Square will have to make do without full-time Yellow Line service. Until WMATA can procure $150 million to add an expensive new underground pocket track at Fort Totten, as well as $100 million for new rolling stock (plus millions more in annual operating funds), rush hour Yellow Line trains will have to continue to terminate at Mount Vernon Square. But the temporary terminus at U Street offers us a glimpse of what could have been if Metro had built a pocket track there back in 1991.

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