Greater Greater Washington

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Transit


North-South streetcar starts to take shape

A north-south DC streetcar will almost certainly use Georgia Avenue north of Petworth, but could take one of several different paths downtown and to Buzzard Point. DDOT has narrowed down options for this streetcar, and designed potential configurations with and without dedicated lanes.


A potential streetcar stop layout. All images from DDOT unless noted.

This week, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is holding its second round of public meetings on plans to build a line between Buzzard Point and either Takoma or Silver Spring.

Residents can weigh in on routes along Sherman Avenue or Georgia Avenue between Petworth and U Street, 4 possible routes downtown (14th, 11th, 9th, or 7th), 2 across the Mall (7th or 4th, and several options for navigating Southwest to Buzzard Point.

At the northern end of the line, DDOT planners are still deciding whether it should go to the Takoma Metro station via Butternut Street NW or all the way up Georgia Avenue to Silver Spring, which has far more merit as a terminus.


Possible streetcar routes. Click for a larger map (PDF).

Streetcars could get their own lanes, but planners aren't enthusiastic

Street widths vary greatly throughout the corridor, and the streetcar study team has proposed a number of configurations. Some include dedicated lanes, which could provide a faster, more reliable ride but would involve removing curbside parking, which will be controversial.

Other options would place the streetcar in the center of the street, but have it share the lanes between streetcars and private vehicles. DDOT planner Jamie Henson said it would be possible to convert center lanes to dedicated lanes in the future.

Are dedicated lanes worth it for the speed advantage? Henson said that in many areas, including parts of Georgia Avenue, the traffic volumes are not heavy enough to provide a significant speed benefit from dedicated lanes. Aside from downtown, DDOT planners have deliberately excluded congested corridors that would make service unreliable and slow.

Right now, the study does not assign specific layouts to portions of the corridor, but offers alternatives based on how wide each street section is.


Cross-sections with dedicated streetcar lanes and with streetcars in the center of the street. Click to see all of the options.

DDOT is also contemplating ways to accommodate cyclists and streetcars in the same space. One alternative, Option E, includes a bike sidepath around streetcar stops.

Other cities, like Portland, have used a similar design.


A sidepath next to a streetcar stop in Portland. Photo by Matt Johnson.

14th Street and 13th Street through Columbia Heights are off the table


Boardings and alightings along 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue NW. Click for a larger version.

Henson said 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights is too congested to ensure reliable, high-capacity service, especially as the street narrows to one lane in each direction north of Irving Street. The agency also eliminated 13th Street, Henson said, because the streetcar cannot climb the steep hill beside Cardozo High School.

Furthermore, DDOT looked at adjacent land uses to consider the development potential of specific routes. Georgia Avenue is the only north-south corridor that has room for the higher-density, mixed-use development that transit investments spur.

Meanwhile, 16th and 14th streets north of Columbia Heights consist largely of single-family homes, with a few nodes of commercial and apartment buildings along 14th. Georgia Avenue, however, has a greater variety of uses and densities along its entire length.

This disparity between 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue is also evident in how people use the bus routes in each corridor. Throughout the length of Georgia Avenue, there are consistently high numbers of boardings and alightings on the 70/79 Metrobus, while on 14th and 16th Streets, they drop substantially north of Military Road.

Streetcars won't replace bus service

Some residents, particularly in Southwest, have voiced concern that the streetcar may reduce bus service in the neighborhood, which has already lost Circulator service and the 70 bus. Henson said that streetcar service is intended to supplement, not replace, bus service.

What do you think? DDOT wants to know

DDOT is hosting its second round of public meetings this week and next week, including one meeting this afternoon. All of the meetings are open to the public so they can comment on the proposals. Here are the remaining dates:

  • Wednesday, February 19
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Banneker Rec Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW
  • Thursday, February 20
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Emery Rec Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW

Public Spaces


3 choices show different visions for Franklin Park

Should Franklin Park mostly stay as is and get a facelift, or more significant changes? A study by the National Park Service, DC government, and the Downtown Business Improvement District has devised three options for us to consider.


Photo from the study documents.

All of the options add a much-needed children's play area in the northeastern portion of Franklin Park. Residents of the Chinatown area have nowhere close to take their children. They also create some measure of plaza or promenade space which can give people places to eat lunch or for events.

Right now, the park is very large but doesn't provide a lot of usable spaces. The benches are all in a line along the paths, which don't create good spaces to eat lunch in groups. The fountain in the center is, as Dan Malouff put it, "nothing but a squat ledge set in a sunken plaza." The paths also force people to walk an indirect route even to get there.

The first pair of alternatives keeps the layout mostly as is, but widen a few paths to create space for farmers' markets and other events, and add bike racks and electric charging stations. At the northern edge there would be a plaza with some moveable seating. One sub-option also adds a building there which could house a cafe, restrooms, park offices, and provide information, while the other has no building.

A second option, called "The Edge," would activate the southern I Street edge with a larger plaza that could hold two small buildings, one for a cafe and restrooms and the other for park management and information.

Dan pointed out that good parks engage the city around them by putting activity along some of the edges. This option would do that. It would also move the southern path so that it leads people more directly into the center, where a fountain with a different design would better engage people than the standoffish current fountain.

The most dramatic change would come in the third option, "The Diagonal," which creates direct diagonal paths from three corners into the middle of the park. There would be plazas on the 14th Street and I Street edges, and the fountain would be much more interactive, the kind where jets of water shoot out from the ground over a large area. The document notes that this can let people enjoy the water at times, while the jets can be turned off at other times to program the center space for events.

This option has the greatest number of movable tables, with many around the fountain and others on the 14th and I edges. Both this and the Edge option give bus riders, many of whom board along I Street, more places to sit in the park while they wait as well.

Some of the options keep more of the existing trees than others. 37% of the trees are large, mature trees, while some trees are not in good shape. "The Center" concept, which changes little, would preserve about 90% of trees; "The Edge" preserves 77% and "The Diagonal" 49%.

As is often the case with such studies, there is a tradeoff between keeping the existing design and trees and building a park that serves the most people. If one were designing Franklin Square from scratch, it might be fairly clear to use The Diagonal. Is that the right call here, or should we make more modest changes for the sake of history, tree preservation, continuity, or other reasons?

Development


Downtown & Georgia Avenue Walmarts open for business

Walmart's foray into urban format stores officially begins today, with stores on H Street and Georgia Avenue opening for business. The H Street store marks the first time in 18 years DC has had two downtown department stores.

I stopped by the downtown store and snapped a few pictures.


H Street Walmart. Photos by the author.

The main entrance leads into a small ground floor lobby. The actual store is one floor up. I was surprised to discover that aside from the lobby, the whole store is a single level.


Walmart layout. Photo by BeyondDC.

Up on the store level, it looks like any other Walmart. Perhaps with slightly narrower aisles.


Walmart interior. Photo by BeyondDC.

Outside, smaller stores will line H Street. A Starbucks and a Capital One bank branch will be first.


Walmart front sidewalk. Photo by BeyondDC.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


NCPC will likely recommend tweaking DC height limit

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) study considering whether or not to raise DC's height limit is unlikely to recommend major skyline-altering changes. But it will suggest tweaking the rules to add more flexibility, and leaves open the possibility of taller buildings outside downtown.


Downtown DC. Photo by the author.

In his report to NCPC, executive director Marcel Acosta will recommend against raising the height limit significantly downtown, but will suggest changing the rules regarding rooftop penthouses.

The rules currently allow unoccupied mechanical-only penthouses to breach the height limit by a few feet in certain situations. Acosta will propose allowing active human use of those spaces.

Acosta will also recommend that NCPC further consider raising the height limit for areas outside downtown, where the impact on the monumental core would be negligible. That might allow places like Anacostia or Tenleytown to develop along more similar lines to Arlington and Bethesda.

The NCPC will vote on an official recommendation in November, after hearing Acosta's report and gathering public feedback. Following that, Congress will have the power to either pass a bill making changes, or retain the status quo.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Four suggestions for a new Franklin Square

DC and the National Park Service are partnering to redesign Franklin Square, the largest of the parks lining K Street in downtown DC. As they draw up plans, here are 4 ideas that will help transform Franklin from one of DC's most underused parks into one of America's best public spaces.


Franklin Square today. Photo by the author.

Work with the city's edges

Most of downtown DC's existing squares pay little attention to what's around them. They're laid out symmetrically, with paths emanating outward from a central statue through grass and trees to the street. Each side is close to identical, regardless of what's across the street. That works well for small spaces like Dupont Circle or McPherson Square, but not for larger ones like Franklin Square.

Larger squares need multiple sub-areas, each with distinct attributes that reflect what's around them. Franklin Square is big enough that it shouldn't be symmetrical. The more active 14th Street side should be more welcoming to large numbers of people, and should have more hardscaping and mixed-use. Conversely, the less active 13th Street side should be quieter and more park like.

Embrace transit

One big reason the 14th Street side is more active is the entrance to McPherson Square Metro station at 14th and I Streets. That's a big opportunity. Rather than treating that as just another corner, no different from the other 3, the new design for Franklin Square should focus acutely on the Metro station. That corner should be the most intense part of the park, and should function as its unofficial center.

New York's Union Square is a great example of what that might look like, with its hardscaped plaza surrounding a subway entrance, and quieter park area behind.

But the Metro station isn't the only big transit component to Franklin Square. It's also a major transfer point for several of DC's busiest bus routes. The southern edge of Franklin Square, along I Street, is essentially one long transit station, serving hundreds if not thousands of passengers per day.

But Franklin Square's current layout treats I Street the same as all the others. Landscaping curves away from the sidewalk, and benches face inwards towards the center of the park. As a result, every day tons of bus passengers stand in the grass facing I Street, while most of the benches sit empty, facing the wrong way. Except the grass is actually dirt, because too many people stand in it for grass to grow.

By ignoring bus passengers, Franklin Square's current layout makes it a worse park, and a worse transit stop. Embracing I Street with better transit amenities would make the whole park better for everyone.

And don't forget that the northern edge, along K Street, will eventually have streetcar service.

More stuff is better, but make it visible

Franklin Square's existing layout should teach us one thing, at least: That it's not always enough to simply plop some green space in the center of the city and hope for the best. If designers phone it in and just build a big grass lawn, the result won't be any better than what's there now.

The best parks are surrounded by extremely busy sidewalks, from which pedestrians naturally spill over and hang out. Except for the corner with the Metro station, Franklin Square is surrounded by moderately busy sidewalks, but not extremely busy ones. That means the park needs amenities to draw people.

Interactive features like movable seating, splash fountains, and vendor kiosks are all great ways to add vitality to parks, and should be considered in Franklin Square.

The existing fountain at Franklin Square fails to draw many users because it's nothing but a squat ledge set in a sunken plaza. It's impossible to see until you're right on top of it. If designers want people along the park's edges to enter and move towards the middle, there need to be highly-visible, interesting-looking things in the middle. That means they need to be taller than 2 feet.

Finally, the park does need a large central landmark. It may make sense to put such a thing at the southwest corner near McPherson Metro rather than the center, but regardless of its location within Franklin Square, there should be some single defining icon, to act as gathering place and landmark. A more grand fountain, or an archway, or a clock tower, or something.

Consider what's missing from downtown

Since Franklin Square is so much larger than McPherson or Farragut, it can fit things the others can't. It's worth asking what amenities are missing from downtown DC that
Franklin Square might accommodate. Downtown doesn't have any ponds, like Boston's Public Garden. Nor does downtown DC have a concert shell. Surely there are others.

Franklin Square won't be able to fit every possible idea, and some that it can fit may not be the best uses for Franklin's particular needs anyway. But redesigning such an important square isn't an opportunity that comes along every day, so while we have this chance it's worth exploring all the options.

The National Park Service will hold a public meeting to discuss the redesign on the evening of October 2, at the Sheraton at 1201 K Street, NW. Come with ideas!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


M Street cycletrack loses a block

The planned M Street protected bike lane, often called a cycletrack, will now be an almost-cycletrack: under the latest plans, bicycle riders will be able to ride protected from adjacent traffic from Thomas Circle to Georgetown except on one block, between 15th and 16th Streets.


Looking down M from 15th. Photo from Google Maps.

Martin Di Caro reported that instead of a fully protected lane, there will just be one of the more common painted bike lanes on this block. This is the block that includes the Metropolitan AME church, whose members loudly protested a bike lane at meetings earlier this year, since it would reduce the amount of on-street parking for the church.

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe said that the detailed plans would be available soon, but I was able to independently get a copy of the latest proposal:

Bicycle planners were already willing to work creatively to accommodate the church's needs, such as with one possible proposal to allow parking in the cycletrack on Sundays. However, as David Cranor reported back in May,

When asked if this was a done deal, Zimbabwe said it was and it wasn't. That there was going to be a cycle track on M, but what it would look like was still negotiable. ... When asked if the 1500 block could be left out of the plans, he said that it would have too negative an impact on people trying to bike the road.
Having a simple painted bike lane on this block is not having a cycle track, and much closer to leaving the block out. It will indeed have a strongly negative impact on people trying to bike the road, especially since this is the first block riders on the 15th Street north-south cycletrack will encounter as they turn onto M.page/2

Roads


Focus transportation on downtown or neighborhoods?

Should the design of major roads and our big transit projects favor moving large numbers of people in and out of downtown? Or should DC focus on making streets feel more like neighborhood streets, and transportation investments that help people travel within and between neighborhoods?


Photo by Roger Wollstadt on Flickr.

This is the major tradeoff that residents considered in a series of public meetings that concluded last week for MoveDC, a project which aims to create a citywide transportation plan.

Planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) presented participants with 3 scenarios which keep things as they are, prioritize transportation to and from the downtown core, or focus on neighborhoods.

Scenarios set different priorities

All of the scenarios include finishing 22 miles of streetcars, the bridge megaprojects like the South Capitol Street racetrack, putting performance parking in busy commercial areas, expanding CaBi and bike trails and lanes, and more.

Stay the Course, the first scenario, sticks with these and keeps allocating resources and space to a balance of long-distance and short-distance travel.

Get To the Center focuses on the downtown areas, still the main engines of DC's economy. This option makes it easier to get to downtown by car and transit, such as by timing signals to maximize traffic flow to and from the core.

DC would invest in transit to and from Maryland and Virginia, like new Metro lines across the Potomac, or commuter rail capacity. Bike trails and cycle tracks that travel to or from downtown would get the highest priority.

Travel would not necessarily be free; this scenario includes a proposal for a congestion charge for private vehicle trips downtown to help pay for infrastructure that gets people downtown.

Connect the Neighborhoods instead focuses on helping people get around within and between neighborhoods. Most capital would go to facilities that help people cross geographic barriers like Rock Creek Park or the Anacostia River. Local streets would put walking, biking, and short-distance local traffic first, such as with medians that make it easier to cross.

New transit would also serve neighborhood needs more than commuters in and out of the city, such as the full proposed 37-mile streetcar system, or buses like the Circulator that connect "activity centers."

This scenario posits that DC needs to decentralize its jobs and retail. As the city grows, a single downtown can't serve all of the needs, and therefore this scenario assumes that more mixed-use zoning will let people work all over the city instead of all cramming the main downtown routes to jobs in the center, which is almost entirely built out.


Georgia Avenue. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

In reality, any actual plan will combine elements of all of these and not go 100% in the direction of core-oriented or neighborhood-oriented transportation. Still, it's a useful discussion, as it helps us think through our priorities. Financial constraints mean we can't build every transportation project anyone has suggested. How do we prioritize investments?

Plus, roadways have finite space. On 16th Street in Columbia Heights, for instance, there have been dueling proposals to build a median, which would make the road safer to cross, or a dedicated bus lane, which would help buses get through the area. Off-peak parking on major arterials creates significant congestion at the edges of rush hour. Bike lanes, dedicated transit lanes, and parking all vie for roadway space.

Land use matters, too

It's mostly outside DDOT's purview, but any discussion of downtown versus neighbor­hoods can't be complete without thinking about land use. Transportation is about getting people to places they need to be: housing, jobs, stores, schools, and so on.

Where will DC grow? Any proposal to grow anywhere meets with some opposition. Can the city develop a consensus to grow in particular places rather than others?

The city could grow mostly in the center. That would protect neighborhood character, something resident activists often speak about. On the other hand, it would probably not mean a lot more neighborhood retail. Most of all, though, there isn't actually much room to grow in the center without changes to the height limit.

Do we want to relax the height limit downtown and create a much busier and denser central business district? That land use scenario fits well with the Get To the Center transportation scenario.

Or, does DC want to decentralize? Put more growth around Metro stations, frequent bus lines, and future streetcar lines in all neighborhoods? That would bring more jobs, residents, and retail to many neighborhoods. However, it requires making sure there's room for this growth.

If every new building meets opposition and the Historic Preservation Review Board wants to shave a floor or two off every proposal in one of the myriad historic districts, neighborhoods won't be able to grow enough to decentralize the city.

But if we do want to help each neighborhood become more self-sufficient and reduce the need to travel long distances for basic necessities like groceries or recreation, the Connect the Neighborhoods scenario makes sense.

We have to do something

By 2040, projections say DC will around 800,000 residents one-third more than today. The region as a whole will add 2 million new residents, also about a third increase.


Projected population growth (left) and job growth (right). Images from DDOT.

The roads, rails, and bike paths will all need to accommodate more people safely, without relying on more physical space, and that's one of the central challenges this plan seeks to address. How will we move ourselves around, with a third more people everywhere?

The District is the 7th most walkable city, according to Walk Score, yet also has the most pedestrian fatalities per capita among major cities, and 46% of respondents in a 2009 DDOT survey complained that unsafe street crossings made it difficult from them to walk to places they want to go.

DDOT is committed to expanding transit, bicycling, and walking options. Mayor Gray's sustainability plan sets goals for 75% of trips to use these modes, which fit in more people per lane mile. At the same time, some people will continue to need to drive. Performance parking, car sharing, and possibly a future driverless car can reduce parking pressures as the number of people grows.

How should the District focus its transportation to meet the needs of the future? How should it balance getting people in and out of the core versus connecting neighborhoods? What do you think?

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