Greater Greater Washington

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Topic of the week: Olympics in DC

An organization called DC 2024 is trying to bring the Olympics to Washington. But the topic is quite controversial. Are the games worth the cost? We asked our contributors what they thought.

Photo by Graeme Pow on Flickr.

The International Olympic Committee will select the host city for the 2024 summer games in 2017. Only one American city will be nominated by the US Olympic Committee, and DC 2024 wants it to be Washington.

Hosting the games would be a prestigious event for the region, but it would also be a costly one.

Contributor Edward Russell was the most positive about the Olympics coming to DC. His thinking:

"A redeveloped RFK could contain the Olympic village. This would attract some decent architecture, like at City Center DC, for attractive high density residential on the sea of parking lots at RFK. I would expect no less than reconnecting the area to the city's grid, and a better connection to the Anacostia River Trail.

Looking further afield, a DC Olympics would likely spur additional investments in the region's transit system. This could include much of Metro's Momentum plan, commuter rail improvements, and other bus and roadway improvements.

Will a DC Olympics cost money? For sure. Is this an unsolveable problem? No. The DC region is a rich area that can, by and large, afford an Olympics. Not one on the scale of Beijing, but it can afford one.

The Olympics is a worthwhile endeavour for the DC region to pursue and, I for one, think we could put on a heck of a games if given the opportunity."

Dan Malouff quoted from a post he wrote last year saying,
"Hosting the Olympics in DC would be expensive, and a huge hassle, and probably wouldn't result in much lasting benefit to the city, specifically.

But all the hate still breaks my heart. It's the civic equivalent of when a school board cuts art & music programs and redirects their funding to standardized mathematics testing. On paper it's the right decision, but it's wrong if you want your students to grow up with anything to dream about using math to create.

Art, music, and Olympics are all luxuries, it's true. But they're luxuries that are good for the soul. They're luxuries that make our civilization more than the sum of its parts. They're things worth doing if we value love.

I love the Olympics, and notably, so do many of the haters, who are happy to watch them on TV when they're hosted in someone else's backyard. Don't we have a term for that?"

A number of other contributors were happy to have the games provided certain conditions were met.

Christopher Matthews thinks it's worth it for two reasons,

"If we got statehood and a new Metro line, I could suck it up (and leave town) for two weeks. Anything less than that, nope, no thanks."
Bradley Heard is also interested in the prospect of a redeveloped RFK,
"[T]he development of an Olympic Village (and future dense, compact housing) on the RFK surface lots could spur the development of the Oklahoma Ave and River Terrace infill Metro stations, as well as the extension of the streetcar all the way to Benning Road Metro"
And Jim Titus is interested in environmental remdiation,
"If making the Potomac River swimmable for some of the events is part of
the deal, then count me in."
But not everyone is sold with the idea of hosting the games.

Matt Johnson thinks that DC doesn't need the Olympics and that arguments about stadium re-use rarely pan out.

"If we were to use the Los Angeles (1984) model, it might have merit. But these days, the only way to win the Olympics is to spend outrageous sums of money to have the biggest, best, most frilly stadia in the history of the games. And most of these venues will not be used 8 times a year. They'll be used once.

If we were in Europe, I might feel differently, because the Olympics do tend to generate significant amounts of federal investment. But in the United States, they do not.

Look at Atlanta, for example. Did the Olympics create any investment in the transportation network? Not really. Yes, a month before the games, the North Line (now the Red Line) opened. But that line had been in planning since 1986, 4 years before the games were awarded. And it didn't actually link to any venues. The Olympic Stadium (now Turner Field) remained disconnected from the rail network, and now, less than 20 years after the games, is about to be torn down. And it likely would have been built anyway, because Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, formerly home of the Braves, turned 30 in 1996.

We don't need the games for prestige, or even as a reason to spur us into action. If we want to do great things in this region, we should do them. We can do them. The Olympics won't make it any easier to do them. And, in fact, by siphoning off money that might otherwise go to other projects, the Olympics might actually make it harder to do some of the things we desperately need to do."

Miles Grant also thinks its a bad idea and doesn't like the idea of partnering with a scandal plagued IOC,
"If improving public transportation and affordable housing are such a good ideas (and they are!), why don't we just do that? Why do we have to shovel subsidies at the scandal-ravaged International Olympic Committee that rakes in millions while paying athletes literally nothing and looking the other way on discrimination? As Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban put it, "The greatest trick ever played was the IOC convincing the world that the Olympics were about patriotism and national pride instead of money."

Let's invest in making DC greater for the people who live here, not for people who might visit for a week in 2024."

Payton Chung reflected on his experience in Chicago and its bid:
"I lived through Olympics-mania in Chicago several years ago. Back then, I wrote that the Olympics were a prime example of the worst possible "project planning," to use Roberta Brandes Gratz's dismissive term. The academic literature surrounding sports investments show even more dire rates of return than for convention centers. That goes double for the Olympics, which require a large number of very specialized venues for esoteric events.

Chicago's organizers sold to the public an expectation that the Olympics would somehow, magically solve the region's transportation woes (even though the Bid Book ultimately said nothing of the sort, instead saying that private shuttle buses would move everyone about). Instead, as others have amply pointed out, the federal government does not do anything of the sort. Given the current anti-Washington sentiment nationally and the Highway Trust Fund's bankruptcy, I doubt that a local Games would benefit from much federal funding.

If our region has to raise billions of dollars to invest in transit or housing or parks, we could easily raise it locally. After all, we live in one of the wealthiest regions of the country, and yet pay quite moderate taxes by international standards. If our region wants to build its international stature, we could invest in homegrown ideas and talentrather than lavishing funds building palaces for a tarnished international franchise that demands a multi-billion-dollar tribute."

Some of our contributors are stuck in the middle.

David Alpert:

"To me, this issue is about whether the city/region will get a good deal or let itself be fleeced. It reminds me of the basic economic principle known as the Winner's Curse.

DC could put together a sensible, solid plan for an Olympic bid that has real, definite advantages and avoids overspending. It could submit that bid, confident that if it won, it would get a good deal, but also knowing that some city that's less pragmatic would probably win out. But it's unlikely to work this way. [are]spending taxpayer money. The people on the board of the Olympic bid committee aren't bidding to pay for the Olympics and make profit; they're trying to convince politicians to spend taxpayer money.

How about the business executives who are pushing for the Olympics get some skin in the game? How about, if the benefits to the region do not exceed the costs, ThinkFoodGroup, District Photo, Venturehouse Group, Carsquare, the Mystics, Kiswe, the Nats, Lerner Enterprise, Under Armour, Akin Gump, rand*, the Informer, and EY have to make up the difference by issuing debt or equity in their companies to pay back the taxpayers? Then we can be sure that, being sensible businesspeople, they will take care to not overbid. I'd be all for an Olympic bid in that case."

Canaan Merchant
"I can't definitively say whether it would ultimately turn out good or bad for DC but but it looks like an awfully high risk without a commensurately high reward.

What is risked:

  • A lot of money that could be spent on other things.
  • A huge chunk of land surrounding and including RFK stadium that could be put to almost any better use than what's there currently.
  • DC area residents would bear a huge portion of security costs. Both monetarily and in terms of how it would impact our day to day lives.
Meanwhile the gains could be significant but at the moment we have no idea what those gains actually are. So the city is risking a lot without knowing what it is they stand to get in return
and Malcolm Kenton:
"My views are closest to Jim, Topher and Miles. I see the costs as outweighing the benefits, and a huge benefit (such as statehood, an even more concerted effort to clean up the Anacostia River, or a tremendous, lasting capital investment in transit) would have to be part of the package in order to earn my support.

Otherwise, while I sometimes enjoy the pageantry and athletic performances of the Olympics, I realize that it's primarily about money. And it's hard to feel national pride when I realize how un-level the playing field is for the most part between the world's wealthiest countries and all the rest. The institution of the Olympics needs to be reformed to be fairer to all concerned, but I'm not sure exactly how that would be accomplished."

It seems like there a lot of opinions about whether the Olympics in DC is a good or bad idea and what it would take for DC to have a successful games. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments.


If the FBI moves to Greenbelt, here's what it will look like

The FBI is considering moving its headquarters from downtown Washington to either Greenbelt, Landover, or Springfield. If it goes to Greenbelt, here's what the development will look like:

Greenbelt development rendering. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

Under this plan, a new mixed-use transit-oriented development would replace the parking lot at the Greenbelt Metro station. The FBI would occupy the five buildings on the bottom of the rendering, with other offices, apartments, retail, and a hotel taking up the rest.

Greenbelt Metro station is located in the upper left side the rendering, immediately behind the building that looks like a "6" digit tipped on its side. To the right of that building, a central plaza would be the area's main public space, and one of Prince George's most urban spots.

Proposed view from the Greenbelt Metro station. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

The Metro's existing entrance is immediately behind the "6" building. It would be nice if a new Metro entrance would line up directly with the plaza, though it looks more like a short walkway behind the building will connect the station to the plaza.

Since Greenbelt is an end-of-line station, the development replaces all the Metro commuter parking. But instead of surface parking lots, it would go in a new parking garage shown on the far left of the overview rendering, connected to the station with a wide, suburban-style street.

Clustering mixed-use development next to the Metro station and putting the FBI buildings and park-and-rides across the street makes a lot of sense. That layout provides a parking lot for commuters and gives the FBI the space it wants for a buffer without sacrificing the walkability of the entire neighborhood.

Meanwhile, FBI workers who don't commute via Metro would use the parking garage on the far right, next to the Beltway.

Overall, this looks like a decent plan. There are a lot of less than ideal trade-offs, but given the demands of an end-line station and the FBI, it's not terrible.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


In White Oak, the region's east-west divide becomes an urban-suburban one

The DC area has long faced an east-west divide, with more of the wealth going to the west side. Increasingly, investment is also heading to urban areas over suburban ones. For struggling suburban areas on the east side, the only answer is to take on more urban features.

All photos by the author unless noted.

One of those places is White Oak in eastern Montgomery County, where the County Council will vote tomorrow on a plan to create a new town center. Local residents are eager to have more jobs and amenities close to home, but civic and environmental groups want to limit the amount of density in White Oak because it's several miles from a Metro station and roads are already congested.

But the kind of compact, dense development proposed for White Oak could allow residents to access jobs, shops, or other amenities by walking, biking, or simply driving a shorter distance than they would otherwise. It would generate less traffic than the alternative: more of the sprawling, car-oriented development that's currently allowed in White Oak, plus additional sprawl farther out.

Residents say it's East County's turn

East County has experienced little of the prosperity that more affluent parts of Montgomery County take for granted. One reason is the county's traffic tests, which prohibit development when roads reach a certain level of congestion until more roads are built. This standard led to a 20-year development moratorium in East County that ended in 2004.

Development simply moved to the western, more affluent side of Montgomery County or farther out to Howard County while East County roads remained congested. Today, White Oak consists largely of aging strip malls, office parks, and industrial brownfields surrounding the Food and Drug Administration's new headquarters near New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29, which will eventually hold 9,000 workers.

LifeSci Village rendering courtesy of Percontee.

The White Oak Science Gateway plan, which councilmembers will vote on tomorrow, would allow them to transform into urban, mixed-use neighborhoods with up to 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs. Much of this development would occur at LifeSci Village, a concrete recycling plant that the county and developer Percontee want to turn into a research and technology center.

Local residents say it's their turn, speaking out in favor of the plan at two public hearings. At a public forum last fall, community members called the White Oak plan their highest priority for economic development.

Traffic tests won't solve traffic

But the Science Gateway plan would still fail the traffic tests. County Executive Ike Leggett and some councilmembers have recommended excluding Route 29 from traffic counts, arguing that it's a regional highway that would be congested no matter what.

An abandoned office building in White Oak.

As a result, some civic associations and environmental groups around the county have criticized the plan, arguing that urban development shouldn't be allowed away from a Metro station. They say Montgomery County should follow its own rules and stick to the traffic tests.

But the traffic tests can't really fix congestion if their required solution is always to build more roads, which is proven to cause more traffic. And East County residents know that they haven't solved congestion, since they have to travel longer distances for work, shopping, or other things they can't find closer to home.

That's not to say that White Oak doesn't need better transportation. Councilmember George Leventhal has asked Leggett to put together a financing plan for Bus Rapid Transit within two years, so the county can figure out how to fund and build it as development moves forward.

East County's future depends on having a town center

More development doesn't have to mean more driving. Montgomery County added 100,000 residents over the past decade, but the rate of driving actually stayed the same. That's because as the county grows around Metro stations, more people can get around without a car. But even in town centers away from Metro, like what's proposed at White Oak, people would have more transportation options than they do otherwise, whether that means walking, biking, taking the bus, or even driving a shorter distance.

It's possible to create urban places away from Metro stations, like Shirlington in Arlington County.

We know that people increasingly want to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. We've seen businesses gravitate to more urban locations in the region, like Choice Hotels, which moved from an office park near White Oak to Rockville Town Center.

For decades, there's been a growing divide between the east and west sides of Montgomery County. East County increasingly lags the rest of the county when it comes to new town centers like White Flint, Crown in Gaithersburg, and even Germantown. If we're going to close the east-west gap in Montgomery County, White Oak can't stay a land of office parks forever.


Casey Anderson is Montgomery's new Planning Board chair

Montgomery County's new Planning Board chair will be Casey Anderson, a strong advocate for growing the county's urban areas and improving its transit network. The County Council voted 8-1 to appoint him this morning.

An attorney who lives in Silver Spring, Anderson has been a community activist on smart growth, transit, and bicycling issues, previously serving on the board of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. He stepped down to join the Planning Board in 2011, and can be seen walking or biking to meetings there. The council will have to find a replacement for his old seat.

Councilmembers appeared to rally around Anderson last week over four other applicants for the position. "Anderson comes closest to holding the vision I have for our County's future," wrote Councilmember Roger Berliner in a message to his constituents. "He is a strong proponent of smart and sustainable growth, served by world class transit. These are the key components of a strong future for our county."

The Planning Board chair is responsible for giving the County Council recommendations on land use and transportation issues, meaning they can play a big role in how and where the county grows. As chair, Anderson says he'd like to look at the way Montgomery County uses the amount of car traffic as a test for approving development. The tests often discourage building in the county's urban areas, where people have the most options for getting around without a car.

As a board member, Anderson has advocated for more transportation options and more nightlife as ways to keep the county relevant and attractive to new residents. He was the only vote against approving an extension of Montrose Parkway through White Flint, where the county wants to create a pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented downtown. He also served with me on the Nighttime Economy Task Force, which sought to promote nightlife in the county.

Anderson was a strong influence in favor of the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, and persuaded some of his fellow commissioners to support repurposing existing lanes for BRT. Anderson also pushed for performance standards for BRT which aim to prevent BRT from being watered down in the future.

Upcounty, he opposed the board's unfortunate vote in support of the M-83 highway last fall. He did support keeping development in a part of Clarksburg near Ten Mile Creek which turned the Montgomery Countryside Alliance against his candidacy.

Councilmember Marc Elrich was the only vote against Anderson. Though he didn't nominate her this morning, Elrich favored former Planning Board member Meredith Wellington, who had support from some civic activists who feel that the county is growing too fast. The field of candidates also included current board member and real estate developer Norman Dreyfuss, current deputy planning director Rose Krasnow, and former County Councilmember Mike Knapp.

Montgomery County offers a wide variety of urban, suburban, and rural communities. Anderson's appointment suggests that the county's ready to embrace its urban areas while preserving the suburban and rural ones, providing a greater variety of community types and transportation choices for an increasingly diverse population.


Is a big building "incompatible" with a historic area?

Dupont Circle has a mix of large buildings, medium ones, and smaller rowhouses. If a property owner wants to build something as high as zoning allows, which is lower than some buildings but taller than most, is that "incompatible" with the historic character of the neighborhood? That's one debate around a proposed project at 18th and Church streets, NW.

Perspective view of proposed building on Church Street. All images from the project team unless otherwise noted.

This corner was once a grand gothic church which burned down from arson in 1970. The St. Thomas Episcopal parish has been using a secondary building, which had been their parish hall, ever since, but wants to build a new church.

St. Thomas solicited bids from developers who could build the residential building and a new church. The winner, CAS Riegler, then reached out to neighbors to understand people's desires around the project.

Neighbors who share the alley with the church wanted some open space along the alley. The current parish hall comes right out to the alley, and the neighbors wanted it set back from the alley. It also would mean that if the residential building extends upward, it would not block light from the southwest which they get in afternoons and evenings.

The architects, from MTFA (for the church) and Hickok Cole (for CAS Riegler) accommodated this. They also reversed a parking ramp so that drivers going in and out of the parking garage would not travel all the way down the alley, and they set back upper floors from the adjacent townhouses.

Perspective view of proposed building on 18th Street.

The church and developer did not, however, accede to requests from some neighbors to significantly shrink down the project to more like four stories. Neighbors have been organizing to oppose the project.

The Dupont Circle Citizens' Association passed a resolution asking the city to consider buying the property for park, but even if it were for sale (and it is not), the recent Play DC Master Plan delineates an area of high need for parkland, and this area isn't inside it.

What will the preservationists say?

DC's Historic Preservation Review Board will examine this project, since the site is part of the Dupont Circle historic district, and will determine whether the size of the proposed building is "compatible" with the historic district. Is it?

A group of neighbors hired preservation consultant Stephen Hansen to assemble arguments against the proposed project. Among many points, Hansen's report argues that any building of 70 feet, the height that zoning allows, is incompatible with the historic district.

There are a number of even taller and larger buildings in the immediate area, including the Dupont East at 18th and Q, the Copley Plaza apartments at 17th and Church, and the Parisian-style building that used to house the National Trust for Historic Preservation at 18th and Massachusetts.

According to Hansen's report, the "Statement of Significance" for the historic district, formed in 1977, says:

the immediate area around the Circle itself contains some high-rise mid-twentieth century intrusions, the remainder of the Historic District is characterized by a juxtaposition of grand, palatial mansions lining two of the avenuesMassachusetts and New Hampshirewhich traverse the historic districtand rowhouse development of excellent architectural quality of the grid streets.
Therefore, Hansen argues, the similarly-sized and larger buildings in the area are "intrusions" and allowing another building beyond row house height will "compromise the historic integrity of the entire historic district."

The arguments around this project are very similar to the ones around the Takoma Metro: This is right near a Metro station, but the proposed height, which is larger than many nearby houses but not as large as every building, is nonetheless incompatible, some say.

The Dupont Circle Conservancy, the local historic preservation group, didn't agree. In its resolution, that organization supported the overall project, though a majority of members felt the church design could be further improved and wanted the building to rise more gradually from the existing rowhouses toward 18th Street, basically setting the top floors back farther on that side.

I don't believe this is incompatible

I live nearly across the street from this project and don't think it would destroy the street or make the historic district lose its character.

The original church was also large and tall, though very different in design. Erecting a prominent building on this corner actually restores, rather than damages, this characteristic of the historic district during its period of significance. The still-standing parish hall building was always subordinate to the church itself, so incorporating it into a larger building is an appropriate and compatible way to adaptively reuse this site.

Sidewalk perspective rendering from Church Street. Image from the project team.

Photograph from the sidewalk in front of my house. Photo by the author.

Like many residents of the area, I appreciate and cherish the park-like space at the corner of 18th and Church. However, I also recognize that this is not a public park, but an empty space where a church building once stood, and that zoning gives the church every right to build a structure on this site.

If the park is to disappear, adding housing is a valuable use of this land for the public good. The District faces a housing shortage which has made living in many neighborhoods, including Dupont Circle, out of reach for many people. This building will have to provide a few affordable units under the Inclusionary Zoning law. Further, adding more housing will take one small step toward adding the housing the city needs.

No one building is going to single-handedly address the housing crisis, but since most people do not want to see neighborhoods like Dupont Circle redeveloped wholesale, adding housing at sites like this one is an excellent way to make a start.

I do want to ensure that the buildings' operations do not lead to lines of cars queueing and idling on Church Street, such as for pick-up and drop-off if the church hosts a small school, for funeral processions, and regular deliveries. The applicants have promised to work out further details as the project proceeds through the development process; if they get historic approval, it looks like they will also need some zoning exceptions.

The area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 2B, will discuss the project tonight at its meeting at the Brookings Institution, 1775 Massachusetts Avenue, NW. The meeting runs from 7-10 pm and this project will probably come up between 8 and 9. Any residents or other people can (and should) speak up with their views.

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