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Public Spaces

Are public spaces really public when not everybody can use them?

All around DC there are structures designed for the public that aren't actually very pleasant or easy to use, like dog ears on ledges, third armrests through the middle of public benches, and ridges in common seating areas. These things are there for a reason, but do they actually limit people's ability to live in the environment around them?

All photos by the author.

In July, well-known radio producer Roman Mars invited authors Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic onto his podcast, 99% invisible. Savicic and Savic co-edited a book called Unpleasant Design, which looks at the idea that while some things are built with a purpose that might seem reasonable-- for example, third armrests on benches that keep people from sleeping on them and therefore giving more people space to sit-- accomplish a greater effect of shaping city environments and how citizens interact with them without those citizens' consent.

There are examples in cities across the world. For example, in Europe, some store owners deter teens from loitering out front by playing classical music or high-frequency sounds, or using pink lighting to make pimples on their face stand out (particularly cruel!).

Should our cities ban skateboarding? Should they ban homelessness?

In most instances, skateboarding is legal unless posted otherwise. But like many other cities, DC has incorporated "dog ears" to deter skaters from using public spaces. This is de facto prohibition, and even though it's subtle, it sends a clear message that skating is not particularly welcome.

Many people would argue that skateboarding is one of this country's longstanding forms of expressionit makes space more inviting, and it gives people a reason to come and sit and look. If you value skateboarding as a way of breathing life into a city, public design that bars people from doing it is problematic.

As you can see, this ledge restricts skating.

Beyond skateboarding, there are also designs that stop people from doing more basic, fundamental things. In fact, while DC is known for its expansive "public" spaces like the National Mall, Smithsonian Museums, and numerous parks and squares, some people might tell you that these places really aren't very public at all.

DC has a homeless crisis, with the homeless population having risen 30 percent in the last year. And while Mayor Muriel Bowser has stated that combating homelessness will be a staple of her tenure, those who are left out have to exist somewhere. More likely than not, the aforementioned public spaces make the most sense.

But check out these public benches and how they keep people—homeless or not&mdashl from comfortably and freely using them:

The two armrests on the end of the bench would only allow a very short person to lie down, but the third armrest through the middle makes it impossible for most.

The ridges on this one aren't conducive to lying down and it is curved.

Unpleasant design negates usable public space, which is the hallmark of a thriving city

To be fair, unpleasant design, as a whole, is well intentioned. The risk in any public space is that a few people acting out can make the space unusable to everybody.

When it comes to the dog ears on ledges, skateboarding can damage property and possibly put people in harm's way, and lying down uses up more park bench space so fewer people can sit. In those ways, unpleasant design can make public space more inviting.

But where is the line? Who decides what should be forbidden and what shouldn't? Why not tell someone that if they want to eat lunch, they need to go to a restaurant rather than sit and eat in the park? Or that if they want to read, they need to go to a library rather than sit and do it on a public bench?

Skateboarding is an art form and organic culture in its own right, and limiting skateboarders use of public space is counterintuitive to why public space exists—to bring people together and allow cultures to thrive.

And regarding the homeless, it is entirely unfair to restrict access to an individual who literally has nowhere else to go. It is especially unfair when design restricts access to the very harmless activity of lying down.

So at what point does restricting human activity take the "public" out of public space? I'd say that it's when something gets built into the environment; at that point, it becomes non-negotiable. Laws can restrict activities, but you can protest and repeal those.

We should be mindful of what we build, what effect it has, and on whom If you restrict people's ability to use public space too much, then nobody goes there at all. I would argue that if space is truly public, then people on skateboards or people without homes are as entitled to use it as anyone else.


Our endorsements for ANC in Ward 3

Separated from most of the city by Rock Creek Park, Ward 3 is the western corner of the District. Known for both its beautiful neighborhoods and wealthy enclaves, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions here have seen lots of bitter arguments over new development and change. Many Ward 3 candidates responded to our survey, and we chose four to endorse.

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 3, we chose four candidates to endorse. You can read their positions for yourself here, along with responses of many unopposed candidates.

Cleveland Park. Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

In ANC 3C, we endorse Emma Hersh, Chaz Rotenberg, and Bob Ward

The National Zoo, the Naval Observatory, the National Cathedral; all of these are inside the boundaries of ANC 3C. Three major thoroughfares—Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Wisconsin Avenues—cut through this ANC, and it includes the neighborhoods of Cleveland Park, Woodley Park, and a portion of Cathedral Heights.

Today there are a couple of headline-grabbing issues involving this area. One is the proposed homeless shelter in Ward 3. There has been tremendous debate about this shelter's location since Mayor Bowser announced her plan to close the DC General shelter earlier this year and replace it with new ones in all eight wards. A group of residents close to where Ward 3's is supposed to go up have filed a lawsuit to try and halt construction.

Another contentious topic is the redevelopment of the Wardman Park Hotel, a large site that could be home to many DC residents if redeveloped into housing, but which has met a lot of neighborhood resistance and now has an uncertain future.

Finally, we asked all candidates about their priorities for the ongoing Comprehensive Plan amendment process, and how they envisioned their neighborhood accommodating more housing for incoming residents.

Perhaps because of the many hot-button issues in and around this ANC, there are a lot of contested races here. In the race for 3C05, the district at the northern border of the ANC, we endorse Emma Hersh.

Hersh's incredibly detailed responses showed a strong support for both bus and bike improvements in the area, and while she expressed concerns about the location selection process of the Ward 3 shelter, ultimately she "would be able to support the shelter" and hopes that the community "would welcome and embrace our new neighbors."

Hersh also says she is in favor of something different happening at the Wardman Park Hotel site, and that "[i]n its present state, the 16-acre [site] is doing far less to contribute to Woodley Park and the surrounding communities than it could." Her aspirations for the site are in tune with her three goals for the Comprehensive Plan amendment process: more "affordable housing, transit-oriented development, and an increase in local services and amenities." Hersh thinks all can be done in a way that "balances the importance of protecting and preserving our historic architecture and landmarks with the pursuit of opportunities to increase residential and commercial density."

Opponent and incumbent Margaret SIegel did not send in very thorough responses, and has different positions on a number of issues. She believes that the proposal at Wardman Park was "radically out of scale with [the] neighborhood," and did not offer a clear stance on the homeless shelter. We see Hersh as the clear choice for this district.

The National Cathedral. Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Along the opposite border of the ANC lies 3C08, which includes the embassy-filled area surrounding Massachusetts Avenue and the Naval Observatory. Chaz Rotenberg was our clear choice for this race.

Rotenberg is unabashedly and "strongly in favor of the proposed homeless shelter at 3320 Idaho Avenue" and proclaims that this "is the neighborhood issue I care most about." Rotenberg also supports the development of more housing along Wisconsin Avenue, noting that "[h]ousing density has been disproportionately increasing at a lower rate in Ward 3 compared to other Wards," and was cautiously in favor of the proposed Wardman Park project, saying that he wanted a large proportion of the 1,500 units to be made into affordable housing.

Rotenberg is running against Malia Brink, who was less enthusiastic about building more housing along transit corridors. She is also still hesitant about the homeless shelter, having testified against the first location. We hope neighbors vote for Rotenberg.

Finally, the last contested race in ANC 3C is 3C09, where Bob Ward is running against long-time incumbent Nancy MacWood. Based on their responses to our survey, we support Bob Ward here.

Ward says he is "running to offer a different point of view than the one that prevails on ANC3C today." This includes being a strong supporter of additional housing along both Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues. He says the "Wardman Park project is one of the more exciting prospects for the area to add residential density in close proximity to transit in ANC3C," is adamant that the "nightmare that is DC General should be closed," and supports the current proposed shelter site, though he admits it seems to be the result of a "hastily-cut deal."

Ward also gives specific recommendations for pedestrian and bike improvements and says one of his goals "is to make parking irrelevant for intra-neighborhood shopping," increasing connectivity and access to make it easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to move around. Sounds good to us.

American University. Photo by Raul Pacheco-Vega on Flickr.

In ANC 3D, we endorse Troy Kravitz

Encompassing the neighborhoods between 42nd Street and the Potomac River, ANC 3D is the westernmost section of the District. Spring Valley, Palisades, Foxhall Crescent, and the American University are all a part of this ANC.

Relationships between this commission and American University have not always been great, so we asked candidates how they hoped to work alongside the institution. Transportation along Massachusetts Avenue and the pending Comprehensive Plan update are also of importance here.

Finally, there has been a longstanding debate about the redevelopment of the Spring Valley Shopping center, where at one point a group of neighbors fought for and won a historic designation for the site's parking lot, effectively hampering development there.

There is one race we'd like to highlight in this area: 3D02, the neighborhoods directly surrounding American University's campus. Here we enthusiastically support Troy Kravitz over incumbent Tom Smith.

Kravitz fended off a long legal challenge by Smith in order to run for this seat, the first time a challenger has appeared in many years. Kravitz has long "publicly supported thoughtful regeneration at the Spring Valley Shopping Center," and also considers the planned Superfresh development nearby as an opportunity with "the potential to re-activate a largely moribund commercial district while imposing few hardships upon the nearest neighbors." He is eager to improve relations with the ANC and American University, and has specific recommendations for improving public transit along Massachusetts Avenue.

What is most important here is that a strong challenger to Tom Smith is an opportunity, as Kravitz puts it, to end the ANC's "pattern of obstruction at every turn." Contributors to Greater Greater Washington have written for years about Tom Smith and his many attempts to block challengers, as well as his consistent history of opposing and slowing down many changes to the area.

If you're a resident in 3D02, make this election count and vote for Kravitz.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

In other ANCs, there are no contested races or we make no endorsements

In the other Ward 3 commissions (3B, 3E, & 3F), all the candidates are running unopposed. As per our endorsement process outlined here, we didn't offer endorsements in uncontested races, though you can certainly read full candidate responses to our questionnaire here and learn more about your representatives and issues in the neighborhoods.

As for ANC 3G, we encourage residents and readers to look carefully at the the candidate responses we received, though we decided not to offer our endorsements to any candidates there.

Want to read the responses of all of the Ward 3 ANC candidates who responded to our questionnaire and judge for yourself? Check out the full PDF for Ward 3. 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.


Upper Northwest hits peak NIMBY about a homeless shelter

Fifty short-term apartments for homeless residents are likely coming to Idaho Avenue in upper Northwest DC. At a community meeting last night, some residents showed just how much they think the poorest people in DC need to stay far away from their exclusive enclaves.

Helder Gil posted this flyer on Twitter, which people anonymously circulated at a community meeting Thursday night on a proposed homeless shelter next to the police station on Idaho Avenue, between Cleveland Park and Cathedral Heights.

It includes the astoundingly offensive phrase, "Homeless lives matter; the lives of community homeowners matter too."

What's being proposed

Mayor Muriel Bowser set a very laudable goal of spreading out homeless shelters across all eight wards of DC. It's not best for homeless residents to all be concentrated in one small area, and puts the burden entirely on one neighborhood.

Most people expected people in some wealthy neighborhoods to fight the idea of any homeless people coming to their communities. But the flaws in how the Bowser administration executed on this plan, with seemingly too-high payments to property owners, some of whom were campaign donors, overshadowed any such debate.

Recently, the DC Council revised the plan to place all shelters on public property or land the District could acquire. In Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, the new site is the parking lot of the police station on Idaho Avenue. And now that the legitimate problems with the plan are past, some are indeed attacking the very idea that upper Northwest has to play any part in solving the need for homeless housing.

Many of the usual arguments against any project have come out in full force: the zoning doesn't match; our schools can't afford it; what about neighborhood security; this will add to traffic and harm my property values.

Misconceptions abound

The anonymous flyer says, "We fundamentally oppose the Mayor's plan of equal distribution of homeless population—to build a shelter in each ward regardless of land availability and economic soundness." (The land seems to be quite available, actually, and economically, DC has to spend nothing to buy a parking lot it already owns.)

The letter, and people at the meeting, alleged that a shelter would harm property values. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson disputed that:

"There are plenty [of] empty public buildings in the city which can be renovated and used as shelters," the letter also says. First off, not really; second, this really is pretty much empty public land. What they mean is, "there are plenty of public buildings in someone else's neighborhood."

Talking about how the statements are wrong on their face is beside the point. The statements are morally wrong. Many people of DC's fancier neighborhoods, even ones who identify as Democrats ("liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets") believe all of the city's need for housing, whether for homeless residents, the working poor, young college grads, or anyone else, should be solved somewhere else where "there's plenty of empty land."

Never mind that all of those other neighborhoods "over there" have people in them too, people who might be okay with some shelters or halfway housing or other social services but understandably don't want it all. Why should one part of the city get an opt out just because it's the richest part?

Not all residents of the area are hostile to the less fortunate:

Yes, to whoever said that, thank you.


DC's homeless shelter plan just got a makeover

In February, Mayor Bowser put forth a plan to replace DC General with seven smaller family shelters around the District. The DC Council just made some key changes: all of the sites will now be city-owned rather than leased, and a few will be in different locations than first planned.

Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

After Mayor Bowser released her plan, many raised concerns about its expensive leasing agreements with private developers and the suitability of some of the proposed sites. Yesterday, the DC Council unanimously approved a revised plan that targets those concerns. The changes are expected to save DC $165 million. Here they are:

The shelter locations in Wards 3, 5, and 6 will change

Three sites, in Wards 3, 5, and 6, will relocate to city-owned land.

Many criticized the original sites: the Ward 5 location, for example, was too close to a bus depot with bad air quality as well as a strip club, and the Ward 6 location was too close to a party venue.

All three locations would have required zoning variances or exceptions to become shelter sites, but that isn't the case with the new sites.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen both expressed support for the new sites. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who previously opposed the shelter plan, now supports a shelter at either of the two proposed sites for Ward 5. Councilmember Yvette Alexander, however, said she is worried that the changes to the locations will delay the closing of DC General.

The District plans to purchase land for sites in Wards 1 and 4

DC will work with property owners to purchase two of the proposed sites, in Wards 1 and 4. If that doesn't work, DC will acquire the properties through eminent domain.

To fund the purchases, the new plan is to use capital funding originally set aside for the renovation of Ward 4's Coolidge Senior High School. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd said using the school renovation funds places an unfair burden on Ward 4 residents. But Councilmember David Grosso, who is also the Education Committee chair, assured him that the school renovations would still happen on schedule; since the renovations are still in the planning stage, the school wouldn't have been able to use the funding this year anyway.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau added an amendment to the new plan that ensures the property owners of the Ward 1 site pay any back taxes they may owe to DC before the District purchases the property.

Mayor Bowser and Phil Mendelson aren't on the same page

Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May is worried that the new plan could overburden Ward 8 with more shelter units than other wards. She proposed an amendment that clarified the maximum number of units allowed at each site, but it failed after Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he felt the issue could be worked out among the council before the next vote without an amendment.

While many councilmembers praised Mayor Bowser for her initiative and courage on the original shelter plan, Council Chairman Mendelson accused the mayor's office of "obfuscation and misinformation" and a lack of collaboration with the council during this process. Later in the day, Mayor Bowser made it clear that her office and the council are still very far apart on the plan.

What happens next?

"We should all be getting ready to go to happy hour, because we got it done!," said Councilmember Vincent Orange. Not so fast, though. There are still a few more steps before this bill becomes a law.

The DC Council will hold another reading of the bill on May 31. If the council approves the bill then, it goes to the mayor for approval. If she vetoes it, nine councilmembers must support the bill for it to become law. It's possible that a few of the councilmembers with misgivings, many of whom are facing tough reelections, could be swayed by lobbying by Mayor Bowser or her allies to vote against the bill.


Where were critics of the homeless shelter deal on all the other, worse deals?

When DC mayor Muriel Bowser announced she'd close the DC General homeless shelter and replace it with smaller shelters in all of DC's wards, everyone knew there'd be pushback. Now it's ratcheted up in the form of a slick video. But the video makes a point that could equally apply to many other, less worthy actions too. So why now?

Not only does this video have fancy production values, the group behind it, the anonymous "DC Residents for Responsible Government," also paid for it to be a sponsored post on Facebook and run as an ad before YouTube videos, and possibly other places as well.

The video highlights the widely-reported facts that the replacement homeless shelters involve building on land which in many cases is owned by big donors to the Bowser campaign, and at seemingly unnecessarily high prices.

This isn't a non-issue, and the fact that the costs seem so high and the outcome so favorable to certain donors has clearly hamstrung this otherwise-worthy initiative. It's left many supportive activists frustrated. They'd absolutely expected well-heeled neighbors of many shelters to fight against the idea—the recent HBO minisieries Show Me a Hero depicted exactly how communities react to this kind of thing. But they didn't expect to have to defend such questionable economics, too.

Still, this won't be the first time DC spends more than might be necessary on an economic development deal. Yet people only will spend the money to create a glossy animated video when we're talking about a deal that also challenges exclusivity in some parts of the city. DC Jobs with Justice pointed this out in a series of tweets:

(If you want to learn more about some of these controversies, we have numerous articles on the Wizards arena in Ward 8, including an op-ed by Elissa Silverman; the LivingSocial tax break from 2012; and RFK Stadium many many times.)

This debate is reminiscent of ones in the world of transit as well. Many people rightly point out that transit projects are often more expensive than elsewhere in the world. It's right to ask how they can be built more cheaply. That said, road projects are also comparably expensive. If people ignore transit's cost, then we won't get much transit. But if pundits only talk about transit projects' cost and not road projects too, they're putting transit at an even greater disadvantage.

DC needs to be fiscally responsible in all its economic development deals. But closing DC General and putting shelters all across the city is also an important goal. Let's hope the anonymous people opposing the shelters do a snazzy video if DC tries to give a sweetheart deal for a new football stadium which will only move a team a couple of miles. Chances are they won't.


At a hearing on DC General, opposition runs the gamut from rational to prejudicial

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has a plan to close DC General and put smaller homeless shelters in all eight wards of the city. There's a lot of opposition, ranging from concerns about shelters going up in dangerous places to positions that seem more about keeping poor minorities out of certain parts of the city.

Photo by Kai Hendry on Flickr.

Everyone agrees that the decrepit DC General Family Shelter needs to go; it's notorious for being a place where families and children share space with mold, mice, raccoons, and bats, along with geysering water mains and collapsing, leaky ceilings.

Bowser's plan is to distribute the 250 beds at DC General across sites across the city, each holding a maximum of 50 people. Over 150 citizens, non-profit leaders, and activists packed the Wilson Building for the DC Council's Thursday, March 17th hearing on the shelter plan. There were over 90 public testimonies over 13 hours, a level of engagement that underscores how much emotion and outrage there is on the matter.

At this point, there are two clear camps: Those who have enough concerns about Bowser's plan that they don't think it should move forward, and those who acknowledge it to be imperfect but who think it should.

The plan doesn't have to be perfect, say supporters

Among the supporters was a group organized by the Washington Interfaith Network, including pastors, citizens from across many wards, and former residents of DC General themselves.

"If everyone nitpicks this proposal," said a former DC General resident, "I am concerned that this plan will fall apart, and DC General Family Shelter will still be standing with families living in horrible conditions."

Councilmember Jack Evans shared the same sentiment in his opening remarks, saying "What I don't want to leave here with, what I don't want to happen today, is that we end up doing nothing. And that is a real possibility."

Opponents present factual and "veiled" arguments

Some people, however, aren't sold on the plan. A number of attendees followed a formula that's familiar for development projects of all kinds, raising concerns about mismanaged taxpayer money, a lack of transparency in the process, and worries about the buildings' designs.

One key argument against it comes from Ward 5, where the current proposal location is in an industrial area, surrounded by a bus depot, strip clubs, and no easy-to-access public transit. Residents, advocacy groups, and Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie all seriously questioned placing 50 some families in such a place.

Other arguments also have some legitimacy. Some of the units are surprisingly expensive, and many of the developers getting contracts are largely known Bowser backers.

But at the hearing, some of these concerns seemed closer to having roots in excluding "other" people from living in certain neighborhoods. Many people started statements with something like, "I am not against homeless people moving into my neighborhood, but...," which Councilmember Elissa Silverman referred to as "veiled challenges."

Other opponents left less up for interpretation: "The same problems that are at DC General are going to be moved across the street [from us]," said one witness.

Inside DC General. Photo from Homeless Children's Playtime Project.

In April, the DC Council will vote on how to move forward.

The issue of how to replace DC General has brought about themes and arguments that commonly surface any time a new development with new housing becomes a possibility for a DC neighborhood. Sifting through moral cover and deflections, as well as veiled attempts to keep "those" people out, is all too familiar territory. Those of us working to reshape a city that historically has warehoused people in overcrowded shelters and on blighted, ignored blocks should take note, and prepare for future hearings.

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