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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/3

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?

Bicycling


M Street cycle track keeps improving, draws church anger

Last night, DDOT representatives held a short presentation on the latest design for the M Street cycle track. They have improved the design further since we last saw it. Meanwhile, angry opponents of the cycle track, including members of a nearby church which may lose some on-street parking, dominated the question and answer period.


Photos by the author showing DDOT materials.

During the presentation, DDOT tried to explain the reasoning for the cycle track, how it would work and how it would benefit people. Jim Sebastian, Mike Goodno and Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe showed preliminary data from the ongoing L Street study that showed that over the last 6 months since the cycle-track was installed, biking on L Street was up 41% (560 cyclists during the 8 hours of rush hour, up from 396).

Over the same period bicycle and pedestrian crashes on L Street were both down a trivial amount. Meanwhile, travel time by car had increased by only 1 minute across the length of the cycletrack in the morning and by no measurable amount in the afternoon commute (using data after construction on Connecticut Avenue was complete).

They also discussed results of the completed 15th Street cycle-track showing that biking increased and that while crashes rose too, it was not by as much as biking.

Experience with L Street helps improve M Street design

They talked about lessons they learned on L street and how that influenced design on M. For example, the cycle-track will be narrower, with parking and loading zones adjacent to it. They'll put in more flexposts. And they're using a new "Yield to Bikes" sign.

Parking and loading would change very little. To deal with what lost parking there would be, they plan to take back some unused diplomatic parking spaces and replace some missing parking meters, as well as add better signage.

The schedule is to continue evaluating L Street until August and then install the tracks before the end of the summer. That process would take 3 weeks and be done in phases.

Other design features include the cycle-track diversion onto Rhode Island Avenue that may have a concrete barrier to protect cyclists from traffic.

Left turning cyclists can stop in queue areas within intersections to make a two-light turn.

The drawings included other design changes like a raised cycle track at a bus stop where the track passes behind the stop.

Angry audience comments almost derail the meeting

Before DDOT could discuss these things, the meeting got very heated. At one point, Zimbabwe threatened to end the meeting if people continued to be disrespectful with one another.

It started with a woman who asked why DDOT was going ahead with the M Street lane if the L street study wasn't complete. M Street, she was told, is a complement to L, so any study of L is incomplete without M. Originally they were to be built simultaneously.

But she was clearly opposed to the project regardless, she said with exasperation that "L didn't work," claiming that no one ever used it (despite the presentation she just saw showing that there were several hundred users each rush hour) and that traffic was a disaster. Why were we spending money on bike lanes when libraries are closing? She called the design confusing and asked who this lane is for.

But that was just the appetizer. Many members and leaders of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church were there and they were not happy about the cycle track or the way DDOT had informed them about it.

"When slaves built our church, they were not thinking about bike lanes," is how the first comment started.

There were many criticisms, some of them contradictory. No one rides on M Street. Senior citizens won't be able to cross the street to get to church because cyclists never yield to pedestrians (only a problem if people actually do bike on M). Senior citizens rely on the church for transportation. Other M Street businesses are not pleased either. The bike lane on the north side will block funeral access. "What percentage of taxpayer money is going to this?"

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. Speakers proceeded to throw the "done deal" comment, which wasn't his wording, back at him several times. But he stuck to his guns. When asked if the debate was over, he said "for this street, yes." 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.

But the biggest issues were that the church would lose its angled parking on Sundays (which took them 3 years to get) and that no one talked to them about it until the day before.

A pastor for the church talked about the church's 175 year history, 87 of those years at this location. She noted that this church is tied to the struggles of the African-American people, so to not hear about something like this until after it was a "done deal" is very disturbing and insulting. The church had been offered $1 million to move out of the city in the past, but they had made a commitment to stay. Many of their members had moved to the counties but still made an effort to come to church here. "Is DC becoming a church-unfriendly place?" she asked.

On the first issue, DDOT created several alternatives for Sundays that would still allow 30-50 parking spaces, even one with angled parking and several that allowed parking in the cycletrack (which would shift in between two lanes of car parking) and promised to work on it with the church.

On the second issue, Jim Sebastian apologized and noted that he had met with church staff at the church in 2011. At least one person accused him of lying. Sebastian said he could pull the phone and email logs if needed. He also noted that they had started this process in 2009 with public meetings, and that DDOT staff have met with ANC's, BIDs, groups and individuals. He said they tried to reach the church, a comment that brought scoffs from the church's members.

I'll add that anyone on M Street who didn't know about this has not been paying attention. While I don't expect anyone to have read the 2005 Bicycle Master Plan, the addition of a cycle track on M Street has been reported in the Washington Post many times. In fact it's been mentioned in numerous news outlets on many many occasions over many years. DDOT has had meetings and press releases. It's not been kept a secret. That no one in the church had ever heard about it until this week seems incredible.

Zimbabwe tried to address all the concerns. The M Street lane would have better signage. DC does not intend to be church-unfriendly. There is no "rush" to complete this, but DDOT wants to make people safe now, not later. They're willing to work with the church to resolve its issues.

He could have mentioned that in many cases funding for bike lanes can't be moved over to libraries.

When one woman talked about how important biking was for our future, someone asked her "Do you expect senior citizens to bike." "Yes," I thought, "many already do now." In fact many senior citizens in the church had prefaced their comments with "I'm a cyclist."

Another speaker, opposed to the bike lane, asked "Who wants this?" and many hands shot up followed by applause.

"We're not taking a vote here or pitting one side against another," Zimbabwe said.

A restaurant/bar owner on M Street said that the street is already girdlocked (despite DDOT data presented earlier saying otherwise) and that eliminating a traffic lane was going to be a disaster for drivers and for his business. "I did find one friend who rides a bike and he says he'll never use it," he added, while noting that gridlock causes pollution and that snow removal is a problem as well. "Every merchant on M Street is concerned and in disbelief about this."

Zimbabwe pointed out that this is to get new riders to use bikes. Many tried to point to data in NYC showing that cycle tracks are good for business. One person thanked DDOT for putting the cycle track on L and opening her eyes to all the great businesses there.

A Georgetown ANC member took the opportunity to berate DDOT for not doing something about all the unsafe cyclists disregarding traffic laws. "It's a miracle that no one has been hurt," he noted, without realizing he was contradicting his whole position.

Finally, someone asked, "can't bike lanes go in AND angled parking be kept? Why does it have to be either/or?"

Zimbabwe promised to find a way to address the parking needs of church goers.

And they do have a plan for that. Below you can see Sunday parking on the bike lane as one alternative.

Public Spaces


Then & now: Welcome to MLK Jr. Memorial Library

"Please empty your pockets and put all of your electronic devices on the bin," DC Library Police officers used to tell every patron entering the revolving doors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The days of passing through a metal detector at the city's central library are long gone.


Photos by the author.

Under the tenure of Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, the library has modernized the 1st floor's Great Hall (originally Peterson Hall) and is creating a "Digital Commons Technology Space."

The library police also have a new perch that resembles a judge's bench. The desk follows the same 1970's style as the original circulation desk, just around the corner.

"Welcome to MLK Library. May I help you?" is now the refrain greeting patrons at the library.

How time flies.

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Transit


Circulator will go to Mall, bus priority gets funding

The DC Circulator bus will add service to the National Mall by 2015, and Mayor Gray has added funding to the budget to improve bus service elsewhere in the city, Mayor Gray and Councilmember Mary Cheh just announced in a press release.


Photo by JLaw45 on Flickr.

The Circulator service would not be the same as the old loop around Constitution and Independence Avenues, which DC discontinued in 2011. That line ran without any cooperation from the National Park Service (NPS), which wouldn't even mention it on signs, claiming that their concession contract with the Tourmobile prohibited even telling people about other, cheaper forms of transportation.

When NPS terminated the Tourmobile contract and updated its concession agreements to be more flexible, officials began working with DC to prepare for Circulators that could offer transportation within NPS land and to and from adjacent neighborhoods.

Multiple sources have said that the District expects to get much of the operating funding for the Circulator from the National Park Service and/or Mall visitors. A Circulator on the Mall primarily benefits tourists, though with easy transportation to and from nearby neighborhoods, it could also help encourage tourists to spend some money at local shops and restaurants.

That funding might come from Circulator fares, parking meters on the Mall (where on-street spaces are now free and thus usually nearly impossible to get), or other sources. Specific details are not yet public and, based on the press release, may not be yet worked out between DC and NPS.


Circulator Phase 1 expansion. Image from the Circulator plan.

This is the diagram of proposed Circulator routes from a recent plan from DC Surface Transit, the public-private partnership that runs the Circulator. According to the press release, funds in the coming fiscal year will fund planning the actual routes, which might or might not be the same as some of these.

New fund supports bus priority around the city

In addition, Gray has added a $750,000 annual capital fund to support projects that improve bus service and reduce delays. This could presumably fund dedicated bus lanes, queue jumpers, signal priority, off-board fare payment or other projects that make buses a quicker and more appealing way to travel.

DC won a TIGER grant way back in 2010 to improve buses on several corridors, but 3 years later we've seen few if any changes. According to an email forward to me from DDOT, they are planning to use the money to optimize traffic signals downtown and install backup traffic signal power.

The TIGER money will also fund 120 real-time digital displays in some bus stops, "some minor bus stop improvements on 16th Street, Wisconsin Avenue, and Georgia Avenue," and "some bus stop safety features" on H Street and Benning Road, the email says. For a grant which was supposed to fund "shovel-ready" stimulus projects in the immediate term, though, it's taken quite a long time.

Finally, DDOT is working on a short bus lane on Georgia Avenue between Florida Avenue and Barry Place, a spot where buses get significantly stuck in traffic.

There is also an ongoing WMATA study looking at potential bus lanes on H and I Streets in the area north of and around the White House. This would be a more complex project, but it's important for DC to take some big steps that speed up buses significantly, in addition to small and easier steps like new signals.

Neighborhoods still benefit from performance parking

Another new fund creates a pool of money for neighborhood improvements in areas that adopt performance parking. The original performance parking law dedicated some of the extra money to neighborhood-specific projects, and around the ballpark, it has already funded new trash cans, benches, bike racks, and signs for a historic heritage trail.

Gray's budget eliminated the dedicated funding, but to make up for the loss, this new fund will let neighborhoods with performance parking still have some say in local fixes. This fund will have $589,000 for the rest of this current fiscal year and $750,000 a year in future years.

Government


Mobile GIS could help track little problems around DC

Downtown DC Business Improvement District employees use a hand-held geographic information system (GIS) to track public space problems like broken fire hydrants. Could this technology also help DC government employees, like trash collectors?


BID GIS app. Photo from ESRI.

ESRI, the company that makes the most commonly-used GIS software in the United States, has a quarterly newsletter called ArcNews. The spring issue has a story about a custom program that BID employees use to report issues with the trash cans, park benches, bus shelters, and other public assets in the BID.

The program sounds like a more sophisticated version of the SeeClickFix application that is re-skinned and rebranded as the DC311 app. The 311 app is buggy and could use work to make it more useful, but it's limited in scope and meant for the public to simply report issues, not address the process from start to finish. The application for the BID employees appears to do just that.

I've often watched DC Department of Public Works (DPW) employees in the morning picking up trash in the alley. There are two guys riding on the back of the truck and one driver. Once in the alley, the two employees who jump off the back of the truck methodically empty the supercans into the truck, while the driver slowly trundles the truck down the alley.

What if the driver had a dash-mounted tablet with a program similar to the one the BID workers have? Perhaps he could quickly note things like illegally dumped furniture, potholes, or broken supercan lids.

With a program like the one the BID has, these DPW employees could be an early-warning system for the department, hitting a button to record the location of any of these issues that DPW would have to deal with. It seems like this could be an efficient way to asses problems that the department would need to deal with anyway. The increased workload could be connected to a bonus system of sorts. Drivers that find the most legitimate problems that need to be addressed could receive a commensurate pay increase.

In addition, perhaps some of the features in this program could filter down to the DC311 app in a future update.

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