The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Development

Transit


Self-driving cars, payment via smart phone, and more will change transportation. Is our region ready?

Picture a DC region with autonomous vehicles, crowdsourced buses, and a single payment system for all forms of transit. These things could very well be on the horizon, but according to a group of transportation experts, they'll mean new challenges when it comes to cybersecurity, safety, and accountability.


From left to right, panel moderator Marisa Kashino, Uber's Annaliese Rosenthal, WMATA's Shyam Kanaan, and Amtrak's David Zaidan. Photo by Joanne Pierce.

Planning to deploy tomorrow's transportation technology requires advance effort even though the problems these technologies aim to solve are acute today. WMATA planner Shyam Kanaan, Uber DC General Manager Annaliese Rosenthal, and Amtrak's David Zaidain discussed tomorrow's technology and today's problems at last month's Urban Ideas Forum.

We (Joanne and Sam) attended the event and later discussed our thoughts in a chat format, and the notes are below. We've also added in subheaders for when we moved from one panel subject to another.

JP: I think given that it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about short-term challenges, the moderators did well to at least draw out interesting points. Of course, "short-term challenges" might be a misnomer since WMATA has had these kinds of challenges for years. We're focused on short-term referring to the next 2-5 years, and long-term being longer than that, it seems.

One of the first things the panel talked about was how lifestyles are changing across the region. I thought it was interesting that Shyam Kannan, the head of planning for WMATA, emphasized SelectPass, a prepaid pass which allows unlimited rides at or less than a user selected price, as a way to link trips. He talked about it in a way I hadn't necessarily thought of before, but have since observed in my own life. People want to make multiple stops without having to pay multiple times. I could go to a restaurant, a movie, pick up library books, go to some bookstores, and not have to pay for each trip since it's all built into my SelectPass.

SW: Shyam called SelectPass "Netflix for transit," with the goal of mitigating people from pay-as-you-go. Though Shyam clearly had bigger visions in mind. Eventually allowing for all modes of transit under a single payment. To use your example - we would be able to go to take Amtrak into DC, take Metro from Union Station, then Uber to a final destination with one simple payment. A cool idea, though not in our near or even long-term future.

JP: This is purely anecdotal, but I had a conversation recently about Charlotte's transit system using multiple forms of payment. If you took rail and bus, you could be paying separately and still use paper fare. Charlotte's CATS system does offer passes like SmarTrip. But you still have a proof of purchase ticket that you show.

Metro has a sea of problems. An ocean of troubles. But SmarTrip to pay for Metrobus, Metrorail, Alexandria's DASH bus, REX bus, Fairfax Connector, etc. is one nice thing about how it functions.

SW: It is, and even better that the SmarTrip cards are readable through your wallet! Shyam spoke of having all payment eventually being made via smartphone or "preferably smart watch." He got some push back from the moderators for that comment, given many who need and deserve to use the system probably don't have access to that technology. What do you see as the future of payment methods?

JP: The future of payment is going to be more mobile options, whether we like it or not. Single payment across transit systems no matter where you are in the DC area, to include Uber and others. The problem is, like the moderators said, this technology is inaccessible for some people.

So obviously, SmartTrip has to stay in some way because not everyone will want mobile payment. When WMATA finally phased out all paper fare, more than 90% of riders were already using SmarTrip. The relatively low cost of entry to get a SmarTrip card ($2) is drastically different from the cost of a smartphone and data plan. Even though lots of people have smartphones, many don't or are uncomfortable with paying with them.

As we move toward more complex and mobile payment systems, we have to be concerned about securing our data

JP: There's also a cybersecurity component that the panel didn't go into, but is going to be an increasing concern as we move more towards connecting our financial systems with mobile technology.

SW: Agreed. It's often thought of with Uber, but Metro also has plenty of data on us - our daily routine and habits. The SmarTrip swipes give them a glimpse into our travel patterns, which can be greatly useful as WMATA plans routes and scheduling.

Having to swipe twice, once for entry then again for exit, can be annoying, but is immensely valuable (I think) to helping them understand how we ride, and accommodate accordingly. With Metrobus, a noticeable difference is only swiping upon entry. Shyam spoke of the future of transit being crowdsourced buses. It seems for this to be feasible, entry and exit data would eventually be needed.

Ride hailing is a promising industry, but questions on passenger safety and accountability are still legit

JP: New Jersey is testing crowdsourced busing, or bus on demand. Related to a single payment option, should Uber be in the same category as WMATA? Uber is a private company and its goals can't be the same as WMATA's goals, and WMATA is beholden to certain government regulations to ensure a degree of equity in its service, particularly if it wants to cut service. There have been studies and articles about whether Uber is equitable with its clientele and neighborhoods it serves, but it's not the same. Are we also trusting that Uber will stick around for the next 10 years? Is this company and this field of ride sharing mature enough to be stable?

SW: I'm not sure. Uber is a very different organization of course. Annaliese Rosenthal, General Manager of Uber in DC, was excited about UberPOOL and spoke of it often throughout the night - its ability to take multiple drivers off the road and into a single car by matching people going the same direction. But at the most, this allows for 3 to 4 people in a single vehicle, which is just not comparable to Metro. It seems Uber is needed at the moment, but maybe not part of a longer term future.

JP: Personally, Uber hasn't replaced anything for me. I still take bus and rail (or walk) more than I take Uber. Part of that is that traffic in DC can be
terrible, but also that I have to gauge risk with getting into a car with a stranger. The audience joked a bit about how the MyMTPD text message number [to contact Metro police] is too long and hard to remember, but at the same time, there's no police department for Uber. So safety and risk for passengers is going to be an ongoing discussion as Uber or any other competitors emerge on the scene.

SW: Yup, safety is very (the most) important. Annaliese brought up Uber's rating system as their immediate feedback security system, I hadn't thought of it being it. It's the backbone of their company, but maybe not capable of dealing with immediate security risks. Do you feel safe on Metro?

JP: I usually feel safe on the Metro system. I also tend to ride during busier times so there are always people around.

SW: I feel safe too, though unfortunately the crowd during rush tends to bring out the worst of people; but a little pushing here and there isn't so bad I guess. Plus the riders aren't to blame for the overcrowding.

JP: There's an aspect of control that Uber doesn't allow. With Metro, if there's some disturbance on my train I can hop off and get on another car or I can alert the operator (if the intercom works). But with Uber, I'm not about to leap out and tuck and roll my way out of a potential problem.

SW: LOL please don't. In a much more immediate way you're trusting your life with the driver, and who knows if he's gotten enough sleep, if he has road rage, etc. (Hopefully) there is less room for human error with the rail system.

JP: I think, statistically, car travel is still riskier.

Autonomous vehicles may be the future, but how do they integrate into traditional infrastructure, and will they create more problems than they solve?

SW: Do you think driverless cars can solve this safety issue?

JP: Not at the moment. The technology is untested and there are larger policy implications. For instance, if a driverless car hits my car, that's a bigger risk for me than it is for Uber. Do you think driverless cars will encroach on public transit?

SW: I don't think so, particularly after hearing Shyam's skepticism stemming from what he called the "geometry problem." Because after it drops someone off, where does it go? If it returns to a staging area, that requires a lot a space and infrastructure be built; if it hangs around downtown waiting for the next rider, that greatly increases congestion; and if it returns to the roads or highways, that's just more traffic. So ideally, for healthy urban (and suburban) living, it seems public transit is a more viable option.

However, Uber is and can be a useful and important complement. The three panelists, particularly for Metro and Uber, spoke of the importance of their relationship in serving the public. It's tempting to see Uber and Metro as competitors, but they understand they're complements.

JP: I thought that was interesting as well. WMATA might understandably think it's too big and too integrated into the city for Uber to encroach too much. But beyond that, I think the fundamental problem with driverless cars is that we are not decreasing our dependence on cars. They're still polluting whether there are drivers or passengers.

Amtrak focuses on transit-oriented development around a renovated Union Station

SW: Agreed. More surprising for me was how David Zaidain of Amtrak drew a clear distinction between his market, and that of the city-to-city buses.
Amtrak is focused on transit-oriented development and making Union Station a destination

JP: Poor Amtrak. We haven't talked about it all so far.

SW: Ha, what did you think of his vision for Union Station, having the feel of an Apple store, with employees walking around with iPads ready to help?


Union Station. The planned renovations for Union Station include removing information booths and ticketing kiosks, so employees can carry mobile devices and help passengers with check-in and ticketing. Photo by Amaury Laporte on Flickr.

JP: I haven't been in Union Station in years, so I'm not sure whether that's a better option than having more kiosks or even mobile ticketing.

SW: Years?!

JP: Yeah, I don't ride Amtrak that often. The last time was 2014, probably. One thing that David brought up was how Amtrak wanted to drive development around Union Station and around transit, and namely affordable housing. Do you think that's the right direction, given that Amtrak is sort of a niche? Metro, I see driving that. But this was in the context of Amtrak.

SW: I think Amtrak would like there to be development around Union Station. And there has been plenty, though not necessarily driven by Amtrak. David was asked at one point if he thought the ability to provide a relatively cheap and quick commute between say Baltimore and DC would aid affordable housing, allowing folks to live in Baltimore and commute into DC. He answered optimistically to that scenario, though it clearly isn't Amtrak's goal to allow for and encourage affordable housing.

He was honest about Amtrak's desire and need to operate with a business mindset, focusing on services they can get a return on - Which are the higher end, pricier and more luxuries commutes. His vision of the future was offering better wine and food on trains, not bad, just very different than the focus Metro.

JP: Yeah, and I can see how Amtrak can be a good option for the DC to Baltimore commute, though the lowest fare is $26 round trip. We know we need more housing, and more affordable housing, and building it near transit is ideal.

Metro wants to change hearts and minds about buses

JP: What do you think about Shyam and David's point about using infrastructure that already exists. Is this a good strategy?

SW: I think it's practical. Shyam made a good point about how everyone is a closet urban planner, and how fun and exciting it is to think about adding a station here and there, but how difficult it is in the end to get the funding and support. Metro talks a lot about Transit Oriented Development and would love to see the neighborhoods around their stations (notably in Prince George's County) densify.

They want us to come to them, and we want them to come to us. This is a big reason why Shyam was pushing regional bus systems as the future - So much more flexible.

JP: I like the Potomac Yard BRT and I'm happy that Fairfax County is going to invest in BRT as well. It was disappointing to see WMATA hint at dropping it to save money, or to suggest that not providing full funding would lead to BRT getting the chop, though it seems to be spared from service cuts in the FY 2018 budget. Shyam talked about how if/when we achieve maintenance and safety reliability we would be turning back from a dark period in our transit history. I think the audience found that a little surprising, the notion that we will eventually be happy with how much we've achieved once we start pulling out of Metro's dark time.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

SW: Yes, I think he was honest about the issues at hand, but encouragingly optimistic as well. Emphasizing that if we can make smart, tough decisions today, unreliable service will be in the rearview. Do you think WMATA could get more people to ride buses, as Shyam suggested should be heavily featured in the future of DC transit?

JP: Absolutely. Bus has a reputation as being inefficient or confusing to ride. It can be both, but it can all improve if WMATA invests some effort into making better signs that tell people how to navigate the system. Clarify the difference between Metrobus and Circulator (or other regional lines), put up better signs that give people more specific information about bus routes, and not just one big map. Apps can help as well. People who can give directions on which bus to take. I think more tourists can use the bus. I don't have the numbers on hand, but I think more tourists ride rail than bus. If it can spread out a little more, we could handle the congestion better.

SW: I agree; I often avoid buses just out of confusion.

JP: I didn't really enjoy riding the bus until I started riding the Alexandria City DASH bus. It's a small system, so it's not comparable to Metrobus, but the routes are very easy to understand and there are a lot of connecting points so you can transfer between routes or Metro stations easily, or at least hop off and walk the rest of the way.

SW: Given the extensiveness of Metrobus (which is a good thing!) it would be cool if WMATA could provide maps essentially filtered to your potential commutes, like in New York City. This would make the system a lot less intimidating to me because it is nice to stay above ground :)

Development


A tree I planted in Shaw 20 years ago was recently chopped down. I see that as a sign of life.

Twenty years ago, I planted an elm tree on the sidewalk near my house. Despite the relatively high chance that a driver would run their car into it, that never happened. It did, however, recently come down as part of a construction project. To me, my tree being gone perfectly captures just how much DC has changed.


I planted the big tree in the middle of this photo! Image from Google Maps.

Back in the spring, Greater Greater Washington ran post about how drivers just can't seem to keep from running into a building at the intersection of 6th and Penn Street NE, on the western side of Gallaudet University. It got contributors talking about 7th and Q Streets NW, where there's been a similar problem for years.

The conversation caught my attention for two reasons: First, I used to live on that block, and it was a fairly regular occurrence for drivers coming southbound on 7th and turning left onto Q to lose control and crash. I think it happened four times in the six years I lived there; a decade ago, a Metrobus plowed into the building at the southeast corner of the intersection, which is the reason it doesn't have a second story (In fairness, it wasn't the fault of the Metrobus driver, he had swerved to avoid a car whose driver had lost control in the intersection.)

But I was also drawn to a tree that's in a picture of the intersection that someone emailed out.

It was an elm, and I planted it 20 years ago.

Back then DC wasn't really planting trees. In fact, it wasn't doing all that much of anything. The city was broke and had just been taken over by the federal government because it couldn't govern itself.

But there it was, an empty treebox there. Every DC street has a designated species of tree, and for 7th NW, it's elms. So I ordered a bare-root elm seedling from a mail-order nursery, and wondered how the UPS guy was going to bring my tree— the picture in the catalog was something the size of what you see in the photo. I was crushed when it came and was about the length and thickness of a pencil and looked indistinguishable from a dead stick.

Undeterred, I planted it in my yard, where it took, and after a year or so, when it got to be a few feet tall I transplanted it out to the street. And for 20 years, as you can see, it thrived. Miraculously, an out-of-control driver never ran it over!

This corner has undergone enormous change in the past two decades, with a major mixed-use development replacing the old Kelsey Gardens on the other side of 7th Street, Dacha Beer Garden on the opposite corner, and a number of new business nearby. For nearly all of the time since I planted the elm, the corner has been in a state of semi-demolition.

And this is happening all around DC: buildings going up, roads getting paved, trees getting planted. I look around and DC isn't perfect now, but it's not bankrupt anymore either.

Last weekend I went back to my old neighborhood for the first time in a while and saw a flurry of construction: street work, new sidewalks, utility work. It even looks like the corner building might finally be redeveloped.

But I noticed something else as well: The elm is gone.

A neighbor told me it didn't survive the latest round of utility work, so it came down, along with a sycamore around the corner on Q Street (sycamores being the designated species for Q Street). It's funny to think: back when I lived there, if a tree died, it just fell over. Nobody came to properly cut it down because there was so much disinvestment going on.


20 years later, my elm is gone. Photo by the author.

It's almost paradoxical, but I see the death of this tree as a sign of life. That's how it goes: a never-ending dance of growth, destruction, and rebirth.

Links


Weekend links: Montreal's attempt to slow growth

Montreal's city council is limiting the number of new restaurants in one neighborhood in hopes that the move will slow rising prices. The buildings we live and work in shape how we think, and designers are hoping that's just the tip of the iceberg. Some argue that our urban policies of the last two decades drove down city voter turnout earlier this month. Read about this, and more, from world of transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by La Belle Province on Flickr.

Of Montreal: In an effort to fight gentrification, the city of Montreal has determined that a street in a booming neighborhood will not open any new high-end restaurants. The law passed by city council states that a new restaurant cannot open within 25 meters of an existing one, while other stores are more than welcome. This has drawn complaints from merchants but has pleased residents that think the move will keep rents in the city lower than in contemporaries like Vancouver and Toronto. (Guardian)

Messing with your mind: Stop for a second and look around. The place where you are reading this could be controlling your mind. Interiors and exteriors of buildings have a strong influence on how humans feel. Designers are working to learn more so they can do things like build hospitals that heal people more quickly or prisons that do a better job of rehabilitating. (Curbed)

Blame urban policy: Is our country's urban policy of the last 25 years the reason fewer urban voters turned out this year than in 2008? Commentator James DeFilippis thinks so, saying that policies that are too market focused, help people that already have capital, and outsource community action have failed to make a noticeable positive difference in the lives of many city dwellers. (Metropolitics)

Car, car revolution?: Ford's CEO Mark Fields believes that cars aren't the future of his company. At the recent Automobility LA conference, Fields said he wants to focus on moving people rather than moving vehicles. A focus on urban transportation modes and partnerships with cities would be a welcome shift for anyone hoping we'll cut back on our car dependence. (Los Angeles Times).

Three paths for self-driving cars: Some people see three different scenarios coming to pass once electric autonomous vehicles are really a feasible option: dense, high-income places where people share self-driving cars the way we do with ride hailing services now, sprawling places where most people buy their own, and places where the technology just doesn't work because the infrastructure isn't good enough or there are too many unpredictable pedestrians. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

The psychology behind why we're OK with sitting in traffic

Most people hate traffic, yet we are willing to sit in it for long periods of time to get to where we are going. Have you ever wondered why you put up with it? In this episode of Transit Trends, Dr. Bob Duke and Dr. Art Markman, the hosts of the podcast Two Guys on Your Head and recent authors of a book called Brain Briefs, sit down with host Erica Brennes to discuss the psychology behind sitting in traffic.

Development


Planned Unit Developments are a big part of building in DC. Here's an explanation of what those are.

When it comes to development, there's often tension between what's practical or ideal and what the zoning rules at a given site allow. One tool available to builders in DC is called a Planned Unit Development. PUDs allow flexibility in the rules, and since they're happening all over the city, it's worth understanding what they are and how they work.


The space on the left, which is on E Street SE, between 13th and 14th Streets, used to be zoned "light industrial." Thanks to a PUD, residential units (rendered on the right) are going in. Images from Google Maps and Insight Property, respectively.

What is a Planned Unit Development?

Many residential or mixed use construction projects, whether carried out by a homeowner or a developer, meet the letter of DC's current zoning laws. In these cases, the city deems the plans "by right" and goes on to issue a construction permit. But other times, zoning rules allow for flexibility in their interpretation, and "zoning relief" can be granted.

For projects where a homeowner or developer wants to do something a bit different, like building closer to the edge of the lot than what's prescribed, additional review and approval are required, typically by DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). However, the BZA process is for relatively minor zoning relief, such as exceeding lot coverage or reduced parking requirements.

A third type of project, a PUD, gives developers more significant zoning relief. This can come by way of allowing a building to be taller or denser than what the zoning code says is allowed, or building a residential or commercial building in space that's zoned for industrial.

PUDs are managed by DC's Zoning Commission, which is in charge of changes to the zoning regulations or zoning map. The commission can grant zoning relief if it believes the proposed project—and, in particular, the way it deviates from what's allowed by right—will allow for something better for the surrounding neighborhood or city.

Because a PUD can provide substantial zoning relief, developers are expected to provide benefits to the community in return. The PUD process also provides the community an opportunity to engage with and influence the project in a substantial way. So while a PUD often means a developer can build higher or denser buildings, it also means the community can get things like streetscape improvements, community resources, or additional affordable housing.

Below is a map of all of the developments in DC that currently have approval to move forward, or whose approval is pending, and that used a PUD. There are 221 of the former and 28 of the latter.


Colors represent the proposed zoning through the PUD process. Map by Mao Hu, using the leaflet package for R. Data from DC Open Data.

What do PUD cases mean for the community?

Any case that requires zoning relief provides an opportunity for neighbors to weigh in on the planned project, through the ANC or the BZA. Because a PUD is typically a larger project with larger impacts on the community, PUDs typically involve a longer and more detailed community engagement process.

Another important feature of PUDs is that they require developers to provide a benefits and amenities package to the community in exchange for the request zoning relief. This means community participation in the PUD process is critical.

What is a benefits and amenities package?

When a developer asks for exceptions to zoning rules through a PUD, those exceptions clearly have some value; that means the developer has to "pay" for them. That payment usually comes in the form of a suite of benefits and amenities to the community, which should be roughly equal to the value of the zoning relief.

Benefits and amenities packages vary by project, and there are relatively few restrictions or even guidelines on what a package can include. The "benefits" component accrues to the community, while the "amenities" are typically more relevant for the residents of the development. An example of a benefit might be improvements to a local dog park or streetscape upgrades. Another might be a transportation "hub" in the development that provides information to residents on local transportation options.

Here are some typical categories of benefits and amenities:

  • Architecture and landscaping
  • Efficient and economical land utilization
  • Safe vehicular and pedestrian access; transportation management measures
  • Historic preservation projects
  • Employment and training opportunities
  • Affordable housing
  • Social services or facilities
  • Environmental benefits
In general, District agencies involved in PUD cases prefer public benefits that are physical investments, like playground equipment or bicycle racks, rather than "soft" investments, such as monetary contributions to a nonprofit organization. The rationale is that physical investments are relatively guaranteed to provide benefits to the community for the long term while soft investments may not always provide the intended stream of benefits (for example, the nonprofit could close).

PUD benefits don't have to be right on the development site, but they must be within a quarter mile or within the boundaries of the ANC in which the PUD sits.

Cross-posted from Nick Burger 6B06.

Development


Silver Spring's most prominent corner could get a new hotel

For decades, Silver Spring's most prominent intersection has been home to a gas station and a giant blank wall. Soon, a new hotel could fill this hole in the urban fabric.


Looking at the proposed hotel from above. Images from the Montgomery County Planning Department unless noted.

County planners are currently reviewing a proposal to build a 173-room hotel at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, two blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station. The hotel is geared towards long-term travelers, containing studio apartments with kitchens and a handful of one- and two-bedroom suites.

The proposal includes some features that would be available to the public, including conference rooms, a rooftop deck and bar, and 4,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, including a coffeeshop. The sidewalks around the hotel, which today are narrow and have lots of curb cuts for the gas station, would become wider and gain street trees, and there would only be a single curb cut on Colesville Road.


The corner today. Photo by the author.

Together, wider sidewalks and new retail will bring more street life to this stretch of Colesville, which is centrally located between the Metro and the AFI Silver Theatre, but has few reasons for people to stop.

The hotel will also have fewer parking spaces than the county requires, with 28 spaces instead of 89. Guests would instead have to park in one of the nearby public parking garages; in Montgomery County, developers can provide less parking if they pay a fee to the Silver Spring Parking Lot District. This allows hotel guests to use the parking that already exists in Silver Spring, as over 40% of downtown public parking spaces are empty at any given time.

Compared to the thousands of apartments that have risen in downtown Silver Spring over the past few years, a new hotel is a surprising twist. There are several hotels in the neighborhood, but the only apartment-style hotel is the Homewood Suites on Colesville Road. This could provide a new option for long-term travelers, like the visiting families of veterans recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda.


The proposed hotel seen from the corner of Georgia and Colesville.

We don't know who will operate the hotel, though Starr Capital's renderings look very similar to a Hyatt Place hotel that opened last year in southwest DC. However, the developer claims that the hotel design was inspired by the actual "silver spring" that town founder Francis Preston Blair discovered in 1840, with metal and glass panels that "[recall] the changing patterns of the shimmering rocks of the spring," they told the Planning Department.

The new hotel will cover up the 15-story blank wall of its neighbor, an apartment complex called Twin Towers best known for its funky, 1960s-era sign. But it'll create a new blank wall on its south side, where the adjacent building is just two stories tall. The developer proposes placing a large mural there, giving people walking up Colesville from the Metro something to look at.

Politics


Our endorsements for ANC in Ward 4

A series of hilly neighborhoods at the top of the District, both in terms of geography and elevation, comprises Ward 4. Residents here are from Petworth, Manor Park, Brightwood, 16th Street Heights, and Takoma, among other places. We found five candidates running in contested Ward 4 races for Advisory Neighborhood Commission to endorse, and we hope you go vote for them.


Map created with Mapbox, data from OpenStreetMap.

 

What are ANCs, and why should I care?

Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs, are neighborhood councils of unpaid, elected representatives who meet monthly and weigh in with the government about important issues to the community. ANCs are very important on housing and transportation. An ANC's opposition to new housing, retail, a bike lane, bus improvements, etc. can stymie or significantly delay valuable projects. On the other hand, proactive and positive-thinking ANCs give the government suggestions for ways to improve the neighborhood and rally resident support.

Each ANC is divided into a number of Single Member Districts (SMDs), averaging about 2,000 voters. Races often hinge on a small handful of votes; Your vote—every vote—really counts.

Not sure which SMD you live in? Find out here.

Here are our endorsements

After reviewing the candidate responses from each competitive race in Ward 4, we chose five candidates to endorse. You can read their positions for yourself here, along with responses of many unopposed candidates.


Brightwood. Photo by las.photographs on Flickr.

In ANC 4A, we endorse Patience Singleton

ANC 4A is a long, narrow area that runs along 16th Street from the top corner of DC to Piney Branch Parkway. It's a place with a mix of churches, single family homes, parkland, and some apartment buildings, and one lots of people pass through as they commute down 16th Street from Maryland.

Transportation and the heavy commuter traffic are primary concerns for many neighbors here. Better bus service, both along 16th Street and nearby 14th Street, could make a huge difference to the area, but some proposed changes (for example, dedicated bus lanes) could require residents to sacrifice some on-street parking. We hope commissioners in this area will work through this situation with tact, but a clear preference for improving bus infrastructure and service.

One candidate in this area earned our endorsement: incumbent Patience Singleton. Singleton is running to keep her seat in 4A04, a small district on the eastern border of the ANC between Van Buren and Rittenhouse Streets.

Right away, Singleton was clear that "[a]s a commuter who uses the 16th Street bus lines most work days, [she] would support a dedicated bus lane along 16th Street" even if it meant removing some on-street parking. Similarly, she "strongly support[s] express bus options for the 14th Street corridor," and has worked closely with District agencies during her tenure to improve street and pedestrian safety around her SMD.

On housing, Singleton is positive and forward-thinking, something we wish we saw more of across DC:

ANC 4A will definitely add more market rate and affordable housing over the next decade; much of it will be placed on or near the Walter Reed complex. Additional housing will likely be available through the conversion and renovation of multifamily housing within our ANC. I am committed to ensuring the availability of various types of housing in ANC 4A.
Challenger Michael Bethea seems less amenable to change. When asked about his vision for the neighborhood in the next 20 years, he wrote: "I truly would like my neighborhood to look very similar to the way it looks now." Bethea avoided taking strong stances on many of the issues we asked about, and thought that the area has "sufficient" bike lanes and sidewalks. To us, giving Singleton a second term is the best option here.


Takoma Metro Station. Photo by RealVirginian on Flickr.

In ANC 4B, we endorse Natalee Snider and James Gaston III

To the east lies ANC 4B, a triangle formed by the DC/Maryland border to the east, Missouri Avenue and Riggs Road to the south, and Georgia Avenue to the west.

One long-standing and key issue for these neighborhoods has been the redevelopment saga at the Takoma Metro station. After years of back and forth, some in the community still are pushing to preserve the under-used parking lots there rather than build housing or encourage more neighborhood retail.

Nearly all of the races in 4B are contested, but we only found two candidates that clearly deserved our endorsement and hopefully your vote.

The first is Natalee Snider for ANC 4B06, covering the neighborhoods surrounding the Blair Road/Kansas Avenue intersection and nearby Fort Slocum Park.

As someone who frequently uses Takoma Metro station, Snider is cautiously in favor of redevelopment there, seeing "the benefit to both residents, commuters and local businesses [of] developing housing on an under utilized parking lot." She also had very specific recommendations for where housing could be added throughout the neighborhood to better accommodate new residents.

Snider is a self-proclaimed "strong proponent of a 'walkable/bikeable' neighborhood," and would advocate for the extension of both bike lanes and the Metropolitan Branch Trail within the ANC. Overall her responses were energetic, informed, and positive. As one reader wrote: "Thoughtful, responsive answers to the questions and she understands that increased density, more transit options and balance are all important if Ward 4 is to thrive."

Incumbent and current ANC chair Ron Austin has voted in opposition to many of the plans at the Takoma Metro stop over the years, citing traffic concerns and the needs to protect green space. We strongly encourage you to vote for Natalee Snider here.

Another candidate who earned our endorsement in 4B was James Gaston III, in the race for 4B07, along the DC/Maryland border. On the Takoma Metro station controversy, Gaston is clearly hesitant to take a firm side but says that the project proposal "has true merit" and later advocates for "more development near the Metro station."

Gaston's opponent, current commissioner Judi Jones, also responded to our survey but didn't reveal much in her short answers. In the end, we have a better idea of what Gaston's ANC term would look like and are willing to give him our support.


Petworth. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

In ANC 4C, we endorse Charlotte Nugent

If you live in Petworth or 16th Street Heights, you probably live in ANC 4C. Along the border of this ANC lies the Old Hebrew Home, which has long sparked debate over what to build there. A plan for redeveloping it is currently under review by the District government, and the new proposal could include large amounts of affordable housing.

Other issues for these neighborhoods include the previously mentioned proposals for express bus service on 14th street and the ongoing debate about condo redevelopments and "pop-ups" throughout the area.

Out of the ten seats in this ANC, only one has two candidates in the race: 4C01, near the intersection of Georgia and Colorado Avenues. Both candidates in this race are good, but in the end we decided Charlotte Nugent was the strongest choice.

Nugent's responses were thorough and at times incredibly in sync with Greater Greater Washington values (she is a long-time reader). She explains that she supports "100% affordable housing" at Hebrew Home because she believes there is a current unbalance in market-rate and affordable housing development in the neighborhood, and "we urgently need to build more affordable housing in the Petworth area to keep residents with average or lower incomes from being pushed out."

Her answer on the spread of often unpopular "pop-ups" is worth quoting in its entirety, as it deftly navigates the issue to highlight solid arguments for increased housing at multiple affordability levels, multi-income neighborhoods, and smarter transit-oriented growth:

The greater Petworth area has seen many condo and "pop-up" developments in recent years that cater to residents with higher incomes. While we welcome these residents to our neighborhood, there has not been an equal increase in units of affordable housing. In order to keep residents from being pushed out of our neighborhood, we must build more housing to accommodate all who desire to live here. At the same time, business corridors such as Georgia Avenue and upper 14th Street have not seen as much development, while businesses on these streets sometimes struggle to gain customers and traction.

We are in this situation because the DC government has not focused on encouraging development in the locations where it is most needed. Instead of waiting for condos and pop-ups to appear haphazardly, we should encourage development on corridors such as Georgia Avenue and 14th Street, and in areas where zoning already allows taller buildings."

::applause::

Nugent's answers on transportation issues are similarly balanced and thoughtful; she is a strong supporter of bus improvements and bike lanes, being that her immediate neighborhood is not closely situated to Metro stations.

Opponent Sean Wieland is a good contender. He wants to advocate for both retail and housing at the Old Hebrew Home, including a percentage being affordable, and hopes the same style of development can happen along Georgia Avenue. Wieland also has clear ideas for bike lane improvements, though he is slightly skeptical of the proposal to add express bus service to 14th street.

In the end, it's great this SMD has such good candidates to choose from. This term, we think Charlotte Nugent is the one who should get a chance to serve.


Brightwood. Photo by thebrightwoodian on Flickr.

In ANC 4D, we endorse Amy Hemingway

Directly north of ANC 4C is 4D, including Rock Creek Cemetery and the neighborhood of Brightwood. One particularly salient topic for this area is the concentration of vacant buildings there, an issue current commissioner David Sheon (running unopposed this year) took on this summer on our blog.

What is more, the area has seen a spike in crime recently that demands the attention of ANC commissioners, and neighbors are anxious to see the continued revitalization of Georgia Avenue as a place for businesses to thrive.

Amy Hemingway caught our attention for 4D06, a district west of Sherman Circle. Hemingway believes "all of us should be aware of... if not concerned" about the issue of vacant housing, and supports current legislation that grew out of the ANC's work on this issue.

She also proclaims that "local economic development is a passion of [hers]," and that she will work hard to encourage smart development and support businesses along Georgia Avenue, including the production of more housing along the corridor.

Hemingway's opponent is incumbent Bill Quirk, who did not reveal much about his positions in his short responses to our survey. When asked about the biggest controversy in the neighborhood, he responded: "Whether or not to have benches in Sherman Circle has previously been a contentious issue. While previously I've opposed them, there has been one placed there recently and it hasn't had a negative impact. It might be time to revisit the issue."

Oh, ANCs, the place where neighbors tackle everything from affordable housing and crime to... benches. Unless you're a single-issue voter and your issue is benches, we suggest voting for Hemingway.

Want to read the responses of all of the Ward 4 ANC candidates who responded to our questionnaire and judge for yourself? Check out the full PDF for Ward 4. You can also see responses and our endorsements for all 8 wards on our 2016 ANC Endorsements Page, and we'll publish our rationale for those in upcoming posts.

These are official endorsements of Greater Greater Washington. To determine this year's endorsements, we sent a reader-generated candidate questionnaire to all ANC candidates. We then published candidate responses and collected feedback. Staff evaluated all candidate responses and feedback for contested races and presented endorsements to our volunteer editorial board, which then made the final decision.

Transit


We know where most of DC's population lives. Does Metro run through those places?

The maps below show where DC's most densely-populated pockets are, as well as where its Metro stops are. It turns out they aren't always the same places, or in other words, DC isn't building enough around transit.


Highest density census tracts comprising 50% of DC population, with Metrorail overlay. Map by John Ricco, overlay by Peter Dovak.

Back in July, John Ricco created a pair of maps showing that 50% of DC's residents live on 20% of the land, and a quarter of the population lives on just 7% of the land. Peter Dovak, another Greater Greater Washington contributor, did me the favor of overlaying John's maps onto the Metro system.

Looking at the map above, which shows where 50% of the population lives, there are some obvious areas of overlap between density and Metrorail access, including the Green/Yellow corridor through Shaw, Columbia Heights, and Petworth. The southern area of Capitol Hill also has multiple Metro stops and is relatively dense.

But what stands out are the dense places that aren't near Metro. The northern end of Capitol Hill, including the H Street corridor and Carver Langston, as well as the areas to the west around Glover Park, a few tracts to the north near Brightwood, and two larger areas east and west of the Green Line in Ward 8, near Congress Heights and Fort Stanton Park.

All of these places show that DC's growth isn't being concentrated around its transit (its transit isn't being extended to serve dense areas either, but that's harder to do).

Of course, Metro is far from the only way to get around. Residents of high density, Metro-inaccessible neighborhoods rely on buses and other modes to get where they need to go; specific to northern Capitol Hill, for example, there's also the DC Streetcar). Also, some areas next to Metro stops are low density due to zoning that restricts density or land nobody can build on, like federal land, rivers, and parks.

Still, it's useful to look at where DC's high-density neighborhoods and its high-density transit modes don't overlap, and to understand why.

25% of DC's population lives close to metro... mostly

Really, the S-shaped routing of the Green Line is the only part of Metro in DC that runs through a super dense area for multiple stops.

Looking at the map that shows 25% of the District's population, the Green/Yellow corridor helps make up the 7% of land where people live. But so does Glover Park, Carver Langston, and a tract in Anacostia Washington Highlands near the Maryland border—and these places are a long way from a Metro stop.


Highest density census tracts comprising 25% of DC population, with Metrorail overlay.

There are historical reasons for why things are this way

According to Zachary Schrag in The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, Metro wasn't meant to be an urban subway; it was always meant to be a regional rail system. It explicitly bypassed the relatively few people in DC's high-density areas, in favor of speeding up rides for the greater number of through-commuters. Apparently, DC had little say in that decision, which is evident in the map.

On the other hand, the citywide streetcar plan was meant to bring rail access to many more DC residents—partly because, well, it was to be built by DC's government, for DC's residents, which Metro was not.

The first version of this post said that a tract was in Anacostia, but it's actually in Washington Highlands.

Bicycling


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.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC