Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Downtown DC

Events


Events roundup: Silver Line opens, Rapid Transit happy hour, central public spaces, and more

Years of anticipation have led up to this weekend: The Silver Line will officially open to passenger service. Don't miss a ride on the first train! On Wednesday, drink to rapid transit in Montgomery County or discuss Pennsylvania Avenue or Arlington's Courthouse Square.


Photo by Ben Schumin on Flickr.

And at long last... it's here!: The first Silver Line train taking passengers on the new tracks will leave at noon on Saturday, July 26. Let's ride together! We'll be congregating at the new Wiehle-Reston East station leading up to the noon train.

We had been organizing carpools, but it's not necessary to drive there any more: Fairfax Connector is running shuttle buses all morning from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue, so Metro on out to WFC and hop on a bus (or bike, or drive yourself) to get to the opening.

We'll meet at the North entrance to the station. From the Fairfax Connector bus bays, go up the escalators to the glass enclosed area of the Plaza. There's a large space here, and we'll have signs to help you find us. See you Saturday!

The future of America's Main Street: Pennsylvania Avenue is a major symbol of our nation's capitol, but poor urban design and aging infrastructure inhibit activity there. The National Capital Planning Commission and other federal agencies are hosting a workshop to kick off a new study for the street. It's Wednesday, July 23 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500 North.

Rapid transit happy hour: Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Communities for Transit, and Friends of White Flint also on Wednesday, July 23rd at 5:30 pm at Paladar Latin Kitchen (11333 Woodglen Drive, Rockville, 20852) to hear the latest news about the MD 355 corridor and our booth at this year's Agricultural Fair. Did we also mention that Paladar has $5 Mojitos and Margaritas at happy hour? RSVP here.

A new Courthouse Square: Come and get a first look at the future of Courthouse Square. Planners will unveil three draft plans based on input from the public and a working group. See them on (once again) Wednesday, July 23rd at the 1310 N. Courthouse Road Office Building, third floor, from 7:00 to 9:00 pm (Metro: Court House).

Remember Southeast Southwest: Come out of the heat and watch the latest in the Summer in the City Film Series Thursday, July 24th, from 6:00 to 8:30 pm at the Southwest Library (900 Wesley Place, SW). This week's film, Southwest Remembered, follows the effects of urban renewal in Washington during the 1940s. Southwest was one of the first neighborhoods to undergo this effort, which displaced more than 23,000 residents in the process.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

Public Spaces


A "no cellphones" express walking lane appeared on a DC sidewalk. What's the story?

A curious thing appeared on a downtown DC sidewalk this week: Dedicated lanes for pedestrians talking on cellphones, with an express lane to the side for everyone else.


Photo by Rob Pegoraro on Flickr.

The lanes aren't a half-baked experiment from DDOT. They're actually a stunt from National Geographic.

National Geographic workers added the sidewalk lanes on 18th Street NW between K and L streets, with permission from DDOT, to film people's reactions for an upcoming TV show about human behavior.

Film crews recorded pedestrians' reactions for several hours yesterday. The most common reaction seemed to be curiosity, but according to Yahoo! Tech columnist Rob Pegoraro, the new lanes did inspire many people to move to one side or the other.

This might have drawn inspiration from a "tourist lane" New York-based group Improv Everywhere painted on a Manhattan sidewalk in 2010.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

History


A 1912 plan would have built a network of streetcar tunnels around the White House

Tom at Ghosts of DC keeps finding fascinating old plans for downtown. This one, from 1912, proposed a network of tunnels for the streetcars, and an underground terminal at 15th Street and New York Avenue.

Streetcars would have descended into the tunnels as they approached downtown. Part of the purpose was to cut down on traffic on the surface streets; another part, not unfamiliar to any who follow DC federal-local transportation debates, was aesthetic.

The plan said the tunnels' effect would be "relieving the congestion of traffic in that part of the city and adding greatly to the appearance and comfort of one of the most important sections of town, in the neighborhood of the Treasury, White House, and Judiciary square."

This was projected to cost $5 million; Tom notes that equals about $120 million today, though it's dangerous to simply adjust such costs for inflation. According to Measuring Worth, a $5 million project in 1912 equals $88 million (if you use the GDP deflator), $521-747 million (if you use wage growth, or $2.2 billion (if you look at the share of GDP).

But the biggest obstacle was the streetcar companies. The Washington Railway and Electric Company and the Capital Traction Company each had their own streetcar systems. Who would control the tunnels? Leaders proposed consolidating the companies (an approach which had been floated before), and then the single surviving company could operate the tunnels.

Senator Joseph Johnston (D-AL) introduced a bill in 1918 to do just this, but the idea moved no further. Tom writes,

Some letters to The Washington Times from Washingtonians mentioned that putting lines underground would be ill-advised because Washington is a tourist town, and people often ride the streetcars for the enjoyment of the views.
In DC, such arguments often do come down to the views. But depending on the century, that could mean keeping views free of streetcars, or preserving the views from the streetcars.

Bicycling


Maybe this can stop U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue

Past efforts to stop dangerous and illegal U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes have not had much success, but DC officials are ready to try a new approach with a product, known as a "Park-It," that usually serves as a wheel stop in parking spaces. Will this do the trick?


Rendering of Park-Its on Pennsylvania Avenue. Image from DDOT.

Last fall, crews from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) installed a product called a Zebra, from the Spanish company Zicla, along one block of Pennsylvania Avenue as a test. They studied the number of illegal U-turns before and after the Zebras went in.

While this study was not particularly scientific, there were fewer U-turns within the test block. However, U-turns in the surrounding blocks increased. This suggests drivers just waited to make their illegal turns after passing the barriers, but it did prove that these types of barriers are relatively effective in cutting down on U-turns.

Park-Its will make more of a barrier than the Zebras

Park-Its are 6 feet long and slightly lower than the Zebras. According to a letter from DDOT to the US Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), one Park-It will go in each of the spaces between stripes along the buffer area on both sides of the bike lanes, with a maximum of 8 feet in between. On the sections where there is no crosshatched, painted buffer, such as between 13th and 14th Streets, the Park-Its will go even closer together.

The Park-It will use the same black and white color palette which CFA asked for with the Zebras. These Park-Its are already also in place along the edge of the new 1st Street NE cycletrack.


The First Street cycletrack. Photo from WABA.

This will be a drastic improvement from the Zebras, which were spaced much farther apart than the manufacturer recommends. This happened partly because the contractor striped the buffers differently from what was in the original plans, and the bike planners were unknowingly using inaccurate plans to design the Zebra test.


Zebras installed on one side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by the author.

Unlike with the Zebras, this is not a pilot program. Park-Its will go along the entire length of Pennsylvania Avenue from 15th Street to Constitution Avenue. They will not go on the last half block to 3rd Street, because there is parking in the center lane.

Why DDOT is dropping the Zebras

DDOT officials chose not to expand the Zebras for a couple of reasons. First, people reported that drivers found it easy to drive over the Zebras. Second, the test raised concerns about the long-term maintenance and durability of the Zebras. The winter was not kind to the Zebras, with multiple scarred and broken Zebras scattered across the block from impacts with vehicles and snowplows.

A Park-It costs only about half as much as a Zebra, so replacement and maintenance will be more cost-effective. There are also multiple suppliers. The recycled rubber used in Park-Its has some "give" and should resist impacts better than the hard plastic material of the Zebra. Lastly, in order for the Zebras to be effective, there would need to be many more of them.

DDOT crews will install the Park-Its this summer. Afterward, the bike planners will monitor the area to count illegal U-turns and keep an eye on the Park-Its' durability.


Photo by League of American Bicyclists on Flickr.

New traffic signals will come one day

The DDOT letter to the CFA also says they will install bicycle signals on the current traffic lights. Right now, signs point to green arrows on the signals, and tell cyclists to go when those arrows are green. Bicycle-specific signal heads would make it possible to independently let bicycles and vehicles go through an intersection.

DDOT may allow drivers to turn left at more intersections where they currently can't, and/or let cyclists ride through the intersection at a time when drivers cannot. This could reduce drivers' desire to make illegal U-turns in the middle of the block.

DDOT officials have given no timeframe for the signal changes. However, they wanted to give CFA a complete overview of all planned changes at one time.

CFA's agenda for this Thursday lists this project on the "consent calendar," meaning that CFA staff don't think it even needs to be discussed at the hearing and the board can potentially approve it along with other consent items without any debate.

Will this increase safety along Pennsylvania Avenue corridor? Hopefully. If this doesn't work, perhaps nothing will. Since Pennsylvania Avenue hosts an inaugural parade every four years, it's not possible to build anything more permanent in the street. But this barrier is the strongest step DDOT has taken thus far to curb U-turns, and cyclists are sure to welcome it.

History


Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza

Poking through the archives of the Washington Post, Tom at Ghosts of DC found a plan to sink several roads in downtown DC into trenches, build tunnels, and create a large underground parking structure beneath a big plaza where Freedom Plaza now stands.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

Tom writes that, "The motivation for this was the push to make Pennsylvania the 'grand axis of the Nation,' removing unnecessary bottlenecks and messy intersections."

From the Post article:

Between 6th and 13th sts., E st. would be simply a "depressed street"a road sunk beneath ground level and roofed over at intersections, but mostly open to direct sunlight.

At 13th, however, it would become a tunnel, dipping under the proposed National Square and continuing beneath the southern fringe of the White House grounds, emerging at a point just west of 17th st.

Under the plan, E st. would be widened to six moving lanes and two access lanes and would have separate underground levels for traffic, parking and pedestrians. ...

Pennsylvania ave. itself would be kept at its present 8-lane width but would be repaved with a tinted, decorative material, such as hard brick laid over concrete.

Because of the distinctive materials used, one architect commented, "it will not only look different but sound different" to motorists.

This would have turned E Street into something close to a freeway downtown, continuing the existing freeway west of the White House. Downtown would have felt a lot more like another product of that era's transportation mindset, L'Enfant Plaza, with its multiple levels of roadways that go under and over in an effort to speed cars while forgetting about what's best for the pedestrian experience.

A "depressed street" creates a big barrier, psychological as well as physical. Even if people only cross at the corners, a street with stores on each side but a huge trench of traffic in between feels much more like two disconnected places than one with a solid street in between.

Harriet Tregoning has stated a belief that after the Connecticut Avenue underpass near Dupont Circle cut one side of the street off from the other, it hastened the decline of retail along that stretch. Besides, this plan would have demolished most of the buildings along E at the time and made it far wider, curb to curb.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

What's now Freedom Plaza (and large Pennsylvania Avenue roadways on each side) would have instead become a square with special pavement to create perhaps a sort of shared space not solely for cars. The picture from the Post doesn't seem to depict any cars nor any people, so it's hard to know how it might have worked.

It perhaps couldn't have been much worse than the complete failure of a plaza we have today; a fountain would have been far more appealing to people than a giant marble dead zone only appealing to the skateboarders Park Police constantly chase off.

Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life.

History


How politics sank a radical monument 105 years ago

The simple Commodore Barry monument in Franklin Square gets lost among the many dead generals of Washington. The original design was very different, but was scuttled amid battles over how much a memorial in Washington, and immigrants in American society, should maintain a clear identity or assimilate into the conventional.


A plaster model of Andrew O'Connor's winning design.

In 1906, an alliance of Irish-American groups decided they wanted a monument that would assert their participation in the founding myth of the United States. This had been denied; before 1700, the principal means of Irish immigration was through indentured servitude. The Irish, upwardly mobile and increasingly tired of their second-class ethnic status, were arguably making a bid to become fully a part of white culture.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a friendly society, saw the Revolutionary War naval hero John Barry as precisely the man to plug into the American foundation myth. The French had done it with Rochambeau and Lafayette. The Poles would do the same with Kościuszko, and the Germans with von Steuben.

The Hibernians wanted the best, so they courted the judgement of stars like Daniel Burnham, Frank Millet, and Herbert Adams. They had no idea what they were getting.


Andrew O'Connor in Paris.

The jury's eyes smiled upon an Irish-American devotee of Rodin, Andrew O'Connor. From Paris, he contrasted a naturalistic portrait of Barry with impressionistic depictions of Irish history. A freestanding personification of Ireland blends into a low relief depicting Irish history. After St. Patrick, the frieze turns quickly toward English oppression, until it terminates in tormented nudes looking west across the ocean to a new life. (R-L)

Situating Barry in a narrative of British violence was wildly unconventional, but completely accurate. Protestant landowners expropriated the Barry family farm when John was a child, casting him into even more abject poverty. He was at sea by 14.

The statue of Barry is tough, if not butch. He's leaning into the deck of a rocking of a ship, staring at a threat unseen. O'Connor exaggerated his hands and face to realize a psychological intensity that is present in only a few monumental sculptures in DC, Henry Schrady's Grant, and the Adams Memorial.


Left: Detail of the Emigrants. Right: Detail of the John Barry portrait.

As far as I know, only the Eisenhower Memorial combines freestanding portraiture in front of bas-relief sculptures in a way that comes close to O'Connor's layering. The flickering of a radical direction for traditional sculpture appealed to artists steeped in psychology and modern philosophy but made enemies of Washington elites and populist conservatives.

The Hibernians balked at what they saw as a reification of hot-tempered Papist carnality. It's an altar behind a rail, for God's sake! And all that affliction was just so terribly 1545. It wasn't hard for the groups to push the stereotype further and see the statue of Barry as little more than a Bowery thug in Colonial duds. And those eagles...

The Hibernians wanted a statue that would include one of their own into the genteel pedigree of the memorial landscape. Looking around, that seemed to be mostly men in Classical repose with bald assertions of greatness. All this emphasis on misfortune and victimization was effete nonsense.

Controversy over the design went on for three years. A number of Beaux-arts sculptors and architects spoke out in favor of the design. In the end, the Hibernians reminded President Taft of their voting power, and he rejected the design on June 1st, 1909. The replacement is a competent statue by John Boyle, with an aristocratic commodore and a vacant female allegorical figure.

Like so many competitions, the winner judged by peers was brushed aside by the actual power behind it. After having a contest to make it look open and democratic, they put up whatever they actually wanted.

As one might expect, the appeal to respectability didn't work. At the dedication in 1914, Woodrow Wilson sniped at "Americans with hyphens" who wanted respect without shedding their identities.

Franklin Square, which seemed so promising at the time, never became a memorial ground like Lafayette Park. It never worked as a city park, either. Attention shifted elsewhere, leaving Barry adrift and alone.


John Boyle's completed Commodore Barry Memorial after completion.

Images: O'Connor design from Kirk Savage and the National Archives. Boyle design from the Commission on Fine Arts. A version of this post appeared on цarьchitect.

Bicycling


Curb-protected cycletracks are now appearing in DC

Two new cycletracks will open in DC this spring, on M Street NW and 1st Street NE. Their designs are a step up from previous DC cycletracks, since they each include spotsthough on M, a very brief spotwhere a full concrete curb separates bikes from cars.


The 1st Street NE cycletrack (left), and the Rhode Island Avenue portion of the M Street NW cycletrack (right).

The 1st Street NE cycletrack connects the Metropolitan Branch Trail to Union Station and downtown DC. DDOT installed its curb last week, from K Street to M Street. Crews are still working on striping and signals, but the project is close to opening.

The M Street cycletrack is longer than 1st Street's overall, but the portion with a curb is shorter. It's less than one block, where the cycletrack briefly curves onto Rhode Island Avenue in order to approach Connecticut Avenue more safely. Officials say the M Street cycletrack is a week or two from opening.

Typically DDOT uses plastic bollards instead of curbs. The bollards are less expensive, easier to install, and can be removed occasionally to perform street maintenance. But they're less attractive and less significant as a physical barrier, compared to a curb.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Government


Where is the DC tech hub? It keeps moving

DC officials are trying hard to woo technology companies to DC, and one strategy to do that is to establish a place in the city with a critical mass of tech jobs. But the location officials say they are focusing on keeps moving.


Photo by Danja Vasiliev on Flickr.

Before 2002, DC offered a tax break to high tech companies, as long as they located in one of multiple "high tech development zones." Those encompassed the majority of land in the city, but excluded a lot of DC west of Rock Creek Park, some lower-density neighborhoods along the Maryland border in the north and northeast, and a few other areas.

In 2012, Mayor Gray pushed for legislation that removed these boundaries and let tech companies anywhere in the city get the tax breaks. Around the same time, Gray announced plans to turn St. Elizabeths East Campus into an Innovation Hub that would "stimulate formation of a technology cluster." The administration reached out to many universities and companies like Microsoft about establishing a significant presence there.

Then, in 2013, the administration invested $380,000 in a new coworking and incubator space, 1776, at 15th and M Street NW. Many small new businesses will definitely want to locate downtown even if and when there is a thriving tech center at St. E's, and St. Elizabeths is far from ready to be a center of tech jobs.


Left: Former "high tech development zones." Image from Google Maps with data from GeoCommons. Right: Locations of St. Elizabeths, 1776, and the Digital DC Tech Corridor. Image from Google Maps.

But last month, the Gray administration announced a new initiative, the Digital DC Tech Corridor, which runs along 7th Street and Georgia Avenue from New York Avenue downtown to Kansas Avenue in Petworth.

A new Digital DC Tech Fund offered venture funding to startups, so long as they locate in this corridor. This is the opposite of the earlier move to eliminate the requirement that tech companies locate within a "tech zone" to qualify for incentives. Georgia Avenue is also a part of the city that could benefit from new jobs and economic growth, but it seemed odd to have a fund that specifically targets one area that's totally different from the other two.

Tech startups in 1776 will not qualify for these grants. Neither will those in the Innovation Hub at St Elizabeth's, nor those at private tech startup hubs like The Hive in Anacostia or Canvas in Dupont Circle. District Cap Table pointed out how the new tech corridor misses the many existing incubator and coworking spaces:


Image from District Cap Table.

Finally, earlier this week and just before the Democratic Primary where the mayor is struggling to win renomination, he announced plans to build a $300 million hospital at St Elizabeths East Campus. This is a completely new idea that's nowhere in the 5-Year Economic Development Plan for St Elizabeths East, and doesn't seem that compatible with the walkable tech hub previous plans envision.

This isn't to say the city has to pick just one and only one spot within the entire District for tech jobs and only focus on that. There will be different kinds of tech companies that might want different sizes of office space, want to be near other companies of a certain type, and have workers who live in different parts of the city.

But all of these changesto remove a specific zone for incentives and then add one, to announce one tech hub, then create another, and change plansis creating whiplash. The city can only create and un-create so many tech hubs before tech policy looks more like a political football than a serious strategy to diversify our tax base beyond the federal government.

Transit


DC pulls back on the one bus lane it was actively planning

The snail's pace of progress on speeding up DC's busy bus routes has taken another step, but a step backward: A dedicated bus lane east and west across downtown has moved from being on the list of projects to build in the near future back to the purgatory of projects in planning.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Elected leaders and transportation officials have been talking for several years about designing dedicated bus lanes for H and I Streets past the White House, which carry some of the highest volumes of bus traffic in the region. Numerous routes all converge there to travel east and west.

In 2011, staff from then-transportation chair Tommy Wells' office, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), and WMATA were talking about how to move forward on bus lanes. Wells was really pushing the city to do more for bus riders, and WMATA had recently issued their "Priority Corridor Network" vision that recommended bus lanes, queue jumpers, signal priority, and more to maximize the region's large investment in bus service.

There was a consensus at the time around starting with one really high-quality bus route with dedicated lanes, real enforcement to make the lanes work, signal priority, and more. This demonstration project would go in a corridor where there are enough buses to make such a project really improve travel times for a lot of bus riders. Folks at the time agreed that a good place to start was H and I.

DDOT started collaborating with WMATA on a study about how to design these lanes. It also added a bus lane project for H and I onto the regional Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP), a regional mechanism for DC, Maryland, and Virginia to assemble their lists of transportation projects and ensure they comply with federal air quality rules.

Momentum stalls, and DDOT stops being supportive

The study took a long time to get through procurement, and there were other bureaucratic obstacles that slowed things down. Still, by late 2012 WMATA was close to having options ready to go. Instead, DDOT basically pulled out of the study.

In June of 2013, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy sent a letter to WMATA planning head Shyam Kannan, which we have been able to obtain. The letter says DDOT wasn't interested in pursuing the option of two-way buses using a contraflow lane on H Street, which is what the study ended up recommending.


Potential H Street contraflow bus lane. Image from WMATA.

This year, DDOT removed the bus lanes from the CLRP, and is listing them as a study rather than a project to actually happen. Councilmember Mary Cheh asked about the project this spring in preparation for the annual oversight hearing, and DDOT's response is a classic engineer non-answer saying, in effect, that there are a lot of technical details to work out, and maybe they will work them out sometime in the future, but not now.

What's going on? Mostly, DDOT couldn't do this and the streetcar on K Street at the same time. According to Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT's Associate Director in charge of planning, building the K Street dedicated lanes for the streetcar will likely require moving buses temporarily off K, rerouting traffic, and more, although DDOT has not decided the details this time. DDOT may need the flexibility to configure H and/or I in various ways during construction on K.

The agency is also concerned about operational issues, such as how driveways into parking garages and deliveries would work with the lane. As DDOT's responses to Mary Cheh show, the agency also wants to look at fixes identified by the WMATA study that don't involve a lane, such as ways to reduce bus dwell times at stops or prohibiting right turns at some intersections during rush hours.

Sources who participated in internal bus lane discussions, and insisted on remaining anonymous, also say that during the study, DDOT was going through environmental review for the K Street streetcar, and having better bus service on H and I would have reduced the apparent benefit of investing in the streetcar.

Will bus lanes take a generation?

DDOT is still keeping this project on its list of projects under design, and the moveDC long-range plan still shows bus lanes here. But it's clear that, perhaps because of staff turnover or political priorities, DDOT has gone from trying hard to build a bus lane to thinking of this as a low priority at best.

There's more momentum at the moment for a 16th Street bus lane, and maybe that can be the first example instead of H and I. But any lane will need a detailed analysis that could take a year or more, and would have to go onto the CLRP. The H and/or I Street concept had already surmounted at least these obstacles, and could have become reality more quickly.

Even if DDOT has good reasons to wait on H and I, there are always reasons to slow down or not to move forward. Over the years, there has also been plenty of off-the-record finger pointing between DDOT and WMATA about which agency is not doing what needs to be done. Ultimately, it takes courage and commitment to actually work through all of the issues, problems, and community concerns and build something, just as DDOT is now doing with several streetcar lines.

The streetcar is a good project, but there will still be many bus lines serving large numbers of riders. The streetcar will attract a lot of transit riders and drive growth in corridors like H Street, but without dedicated lanes (and in most places, there won't be), it won't be a speedy way to get from one part of the city to another. There also won't be streetcars everywhere in the city, and definitely not Metrorail lines, which are extremely expensive.

Buses move a lot of people today, and if they could spend less time in traffic, could move a lot more without more expense, or save a lot of money. (On 16th Street, for example, the delay around not having bus lanes adds $8 million a year in costs that either could go to more bus service or other city priorities.)

The reasons are clear, and many opportunities are available if and when the transportation department wants to pick up on them. It will just require leadership that's interested in actually making it happen.

Support Us

How can our region be greater?

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