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National links: The robots can't see the road!

When robots are driving cars, faded line markings become bigger problems than usual. Also, Phoenix gets a bad rap among urbanists but maybe we should consider it differently, and airports can be pretty miserable places to be in. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Ali Eminov on Flickr.

Robocars are befuddled: As roads age, their lane markings fade and signs become harder to read. Most humans can adjust alright, but nationwide, roads in disrepair are confusing self-driving cars. (Reuters)

Phoenix is just misunderstood: Phoenix gets a bad rap among urbanists because it's not very dense and virtually everyone there drives. But is that what it deserves? It's true that Phoenix, and similar places like Houston and Las Vegas, have sprawling designs. But maybe we should evaluate them based on how effective today's decision makers are while working within those parameters. (Urban Edge)

Airport agony Do designs for airports accommodate passengers? The New York Times' Chris Holbrook argues that changes in building priorities, from security concerns to more specialists who need to sign off on small details, has made airports feel more like prisons than places of comfort and service. (New York Times)

The US is lagging behind: When compared to airports in Seoul or trains in Switzerland, America's infrastructure falls short. Possible explanations include that we're dependent on cars, that the private sector abandoned mass transit, that we won't pay for maintenence, and that more people are focused on their own success but not that of society at large. (The Conversation US)

Housing hyperbole: Joel Kotkin is one of urban thinking's most outspoken contrarians, and a review from the California Planning and Development Report says his recent book is so off-base that it's questionable whether he has ever actually met a planner. Just because a city is getting denser doesn't mean it will get as dense as humanly possible, and just because a lot young and wealthy people live in cities doesn't mean there's a "war against suburbia." (CPDR)

Quote of the Day

"As we've grown in recent decades in our knowledge of urban economies, street-level planning, city design, the value of diversity, government finance and management, we've lost an essential leadership skill—the craft of city politics." Otis White, a renowned writer on government and cities, on why planners should think like politicians.

Development


Tenleytown won't get 50 units of housing and a park

50-100 people won't be able to live in Tenleytown, and a major intersection won't get a pocket park and become more walkable. That's because DC's Office of Planning and some local leaders got anxious about a mixed-use building from Georgetown Day School that's shorter than another one across the street.


Rendering of the proposed residential buildings along Wisconsin Avenue. All images from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

GDS proposes a transformative project for Tenleytown

In June 2014, after three unsucessful attempts to redevelop a Safeway grocery store at 42nd and Davenport Streets NW, the neighboring Georgetown Day School (GDS) bought the Safeway property, a WMATA chiller plant, and a car dealership across 42nd on Wisconsin Avenue.

Despite initial fears that this would mean no chance to add retail, build much-needed apartments, and link Tenleytown and Friendship Heights, after 20 months of public meetings, GDS proposed a design that would consolidate the school and build two mixed-use buildings on the dealership property.


Plan of the GDS proposal at Wisconsin Avenue's elevation.

Since the low-rise school was much lower density than zoning would allow, GDS wanted to use a process called a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to shift density from the school, closer to single-family homes, and over to the dealership site on Wisconsin Avenue.

The project would have added 270-290 housing units, 22-29 of which would have been permanently affordable. Plus, it offered 38,500 square feet of retail, a pocket park at Elliott Street, a spectacular public staircase, and a 42nd Street redesigned with state-of-the-art traffic calming features.


Traffic calming on 42nd Street. The school is at the left and the mixed-use buildings at right.

The only complication: The zoning would have to be changed from a lower-density commercial zone, C-2-A, to a slightly denser one, C-2-B. The same change was successfully made across the street in 1999, for a project called Tenley Hill. That project's penthouse is actually 7'6" higher than these buildings would have been.

You can read the full PUD submission and an amendment.

The project gets positive reviews but some "height-itis"

Reactions to the project among community members were mostly positive, but two groups of neighbors expressed concern about the scale of the project, "Neighbors of GDS" and the "Wisconsin Avenue Gateway Group," whose leaders live in the Tenley Hill building. Supporting GDS's project were the longstanding smart growth group Ward 3 Vision and a new group called "Revive 3E," which formed to specifically focus on what members felt was obstruction in the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 3E.

The ANC repeatedly expressed support for upzoning of the site, but dithered over whether the package of amenities and mitigation was adequate, demanding an detailed Transportation Management Plan, including a request that no new vehicle trips arrive at the site. The ANC's chair, Jon Bender, openly questioned whether alternative arrangements could fit more residential uses onto the school site.

The big sticking point, however, was the height of the buildings. The zoning change would have let both buildings rise 80 feet from Wisconsin Avenue. Because 42nd Street is down a steep hill, one would have been 86'3" on 42nd Street and the other maxed out at 97'4" adjacent to GDS's high school building.


Height of the school (left), north residential building (center), and across Wisconsin (right).

Office of Planning blocks the project

This week, there was a new surprise: DC's Office of Planning also took issue with the height.

To do a Planned Unit Development, a property owner first applies to the Office of Planning, which then recommends, or doesn't recommend, DC's Zoning Commission "set it down" for a hearing. As GDS's head wrote in a letter to the Northwest Current, OP expressed opposition to setting down the current proposal.

Why the Office of Planning opposed the project is not public knowledge. Once a project is set down, the Zoning Commission schedules a hearing and OP, as well as other city agencies, file public reports with their comments. But because of OP's opposition, the school withdrew this version of its plans.

Some housing and the park are gone

GDS now wants to go forward with fewer floor on the southern building and two fewer on the northern one. It's not even the first height reduction. Critics of the project had asked for a 65-foot nominal height and GDS compromised from the original height, cutting two stories off last fall. Now, the building will be as short as critics requested.

Because of the loss of revenue from three floors, GDS can't afford some of the big-ticket benefits that brought in community support: the pocket park at the north end, the special public space finishes, and the traffic calming measures on 42nd Street.

It's still a fine project, but had the first submitted design been accepted, it would have made Tenleytown one of the most complete urban designs in the city, crossing the work and play of multiple generations of Washingtonians in a single space.

More importantly, this second reduction means a loss of another 50 potential apartments. On a micro-level, that's unfortunate in an area that has a large student population but few small apartments, leading many students to live in group houses that could otherwise hold families with kids. It also reduced the density that can support small businesses and restaurants. On a macro scale it's just another opportunity increase the aggregate amount of housing in the city, lost to the tastes of a vocal minority.

Sure it's only 50 here, but 50 at the next one, and so on, contributing to a deficit across the city. If the 2006 Comprehensive Plan is what's keeping this site from an appropriate level of density, then it's failing. If OP is talking of the need to build shelter for a growing city and reduce automobile use, but disqualifies GDS' modest mixed used density, then the talk of two biggest issues the city faces is just a gesture devoid of substance.

Development


How smart urban planning gave Medellín a facelift

A generation ago, Medellín, Colombia was one of most violent cities in the world. Now, it's a true gem for urban planners. I was born in Medellín, was raised in Montgomery County and then moved back, and I recently returned to the DC area. The pictures from my last visit home help show how Medellín has changed since I first lived there.


Medellín's tram line in the San Antonio sector of downtown. All photos by the author.

Most of the positive attention that has gone Medellín's way in recent years has stemmed from the impact generated by Social Urbanism, a concept where the people living in Medellín, a city of extreme inequality, gained a heightened sense of inclusion and engagement through high-profile infrastructure and transportation projects.

Efforts to use urban planning to create social inclusion and engagement led to Medellín's Metro system (it's Colombia's only city with an urban train system), the Metrocable gondolas, library parks and sports infrastructure in some of the city's most forgotten neighborhoods, and other social programs, such as universal head-start programs.


Walking path below the Metro line in the Estadio neighborhood.

I recently travelled back to Medellín for a few days, where I snapped a few pictures of new developments in transportation and urban planning that made me proud of my city and my people.


Between the pool and the soccer stadium at the Atanasio Girardot sports complex.

Medellín has rail, a streetcar, buses, and a gondola

Medellín has a public Metro system that's made up of two train lines that run perpendicular to one another, along the central parts of the Aburra valley. The Metro is fed by a BRT system, a network of small bus routes, and MetroCable, the renown gondola system that has two lines that shoot up into the mountain sides of the valley and serve some of the most impoverished neighborhoods of the city. One of the gondolas even extends out of the valley to connect with one of the regional parks, which is outside of city limits.

I should mention that the biggest mode of transportation for Medellín's working class continues to be the private bus system, which the city government is currently phasing out to make way for the publicly-managed and environmentally-friendlier network of Metro buses, trains, and gondolas.


Image from MapaMetro.


Another Medellin sunset waiting for the Metro on the B line.


Rush hour on the Metro.

Medellín also just opened a new electric tram, a revival of the one that ran in Medellín during the 20s and 30s. Once cars became popular near the middle of the century, interest in maintaining the tram waned. But the new tram is giving parts of downtown a Medellín a facelift, cutting commute times for many residents in the eastern part of the city.


Old-school vs. new-school: Tram models from 1920s and today.

The tram opened at the end of 2015 to a lot of fanfare, and while it was not quite operating at full capacity while I was there, as of mid-March it was running during the whole day. Here's the downtown station, which also was not finished during my visit:

The gondolas connect the Metro's B line to social housing projects which have been built on a massive scale in the outskirts of town. These projects have been a source of controversy due to the quality of construction and the way which people have been relocated from other risk zones in the city into these buildings.


Vallejuelos Metrocable station in western Medellín.

Medellín also has a free public bike share program, which has been approved for massive expansion in the city's most recent master plan.

This bike station serves sports facilities in Belen, a large neighborhood in western Medellín. It is a 15 minute ride away from the closest Metro station but only one block away from the closest station in the MetroPlus, a BRT-system that aims to fill the Metro's service gaps around the city.


EnCicla station at Belen's sports complex.

Sports and arts have helped shape a new city


Panoramic view of the pools at the Atanasio Girardot sports complex.

When I'm in Medellín, I spend a lot of time in sports facilities around the city. I see sports as having done an extraordinary amount of good for the city's youth. INDER, the city's sports and recreation department has engaged youth in some of Medellín's most remote areas.

In 2010, Medellín hosted the South American games which overhauled some of the most dated facilities in the city, including most of the city's official venues for soccer, track and field, swimming, baseball, softball, all types of skating, chess, tennis, and others.

Below is Medellín's "coliseum" as seen from the Estadio Metro station. Within the green domes you can find different arenas that host basketball, volleyball, futsal, gymnastics, martial arts, and Olympic weight training among others.


View of the sports complex from the Estadio station.

The soccer fields pictured below are just some of many of the city's main sports complex, which hosts local, national, and international competitions in several sports (including ultimate Frisbee!)

The sports complex has been remodeled to include larger stands, a roof and offices on the upper level.

It's also increasingly common to see pockets of urban space that have received the touch of local artistic talent. Many see painting murals as an alternative to violence and criminal activities for the city's youth.

Street art is not only prevalent but high-quality murals are actively promoted by many city programs.


Development


Arlington's Lee Highway will transform into an urban main street, if vision becomes reality

Community leaders in north Arlington are hoping to achieve a new vision for Lee Highway. If vision becomes reality, significant stretches of the largest commercial highway between I-66 and the Potomac River will become a walkable urban main street.


An illustrative concept for part of Lee Highway. Image from Arlington County.

Lee Highway is the main commercial road through north Arlington. Unlike other parts of Arlington, it's still mostly a car-oriented, suburban-style place. But it's so close to the region's core that development pressure is mounting, and rather than let that happen haphazardly, the community wants a plan.

That makes a lot of sense, so the community worked with an internationally recognized consultant team led by Dover Kohl and Partners to provide their perspective on what the vision for Lee Highway should be. They quickly discovered that most Lee Highway residents seem to want the kind of walkable, urban amenities that much of the rest of Arlington enjoys.

Now the draft vision is online, and it clearly reflects that theme. If the vision becomes reality, Lee Highway will see a string of neighborhood centers between Rosslyn and East Falls Church, along with new transportation options, better public spaces, and more.

What's in the vision

A series of unique neighborhoods will emerge where there are large commercial nodes today. Rather than an extended strip of retail land as exists today, Lee Highway will become a collection of distinct, walkable, mixed use neighborhood centers, surrounding the corners where other major roads intersect Lee Highway.

Each new node will have a carefully planned, unique scale and character. Some will be small village centers, others will be comparatively dense.


Proposed nodes showing higher and lower densities. Image from Arlington.

The biggest neighborhood centers would be where Lee Highway crosses Spout Run Parkway, and at Glebe Road.

The vision assumes bus and bike improvements along Lee Highway, potentially including bus lanes, but it doesn't include bigger transit investments like a new Metro line.

Thus, even the densest proposed neighborhood centers are less intense than what surrounds Arlington's Metro stations.

The popular Lee Heights shopping center in Waverly Hills is one place there's a hint of walkability already. This vision would preserve the best parts of the existing shopping center and add development nearby to make it a strong center.


Illustrative concept for Lee Heights shopping center, before and after. Image from Arlington.

Overall, the vision hopes to transform Lee Highway into more than just a through road, into a place for people and community.

It will preserve and create more affordable housing, help protect existing businesses, and provide new community gathering spaces, complete streets, and better streetscapes. There will be new parks and open spaces, and low-cost, temporary pop up parks and parklets.

Currently Arlington has a lot of high-rise apartments and detached single-family homes, but not much in the middle. The Lee Highway vision will focus on adding more of those "missing middle" housing types. Rowhouses, stacked flats, and small-scale apartment buildings will dot the corridor and bring new life to areas that are now strictly commercial.

Organizational efforts such as a unified network of Lee Highway businesses will foster the health of existing local businesses, while welcoming the new shops gravitating to the new neighborhood centers.


Affordable housing will increase. Image from Arlington.

What happens next

You can view the full draft vision online, and provide comments up until March 31.

After that, community groups will look over the comments and make changes this spring, then the Arlington County Board will review it in May.

But even then, this community-based vision is aspirational. It won't have the force of Arlington County law behind it, at least not yet. Nor are the proposals in the vision ready for construction. For now, it's food for thought to stir the imagination, and provide the framework for more formal county plans and studies that will come later.

Development


This map shows a very different East Capitol Street

In the 1940s, there was a proposal to make East Capitol Street into a wide, monumental avenue. This map shows what it would look like, and provides some other glimpses into what DC was like at the time.


1941 NCPC Plan for East Capitol Street. Image from Library of Congress.

I spotted the map in a recent Washington Post story about cartographer Pat Easton painting it on his dining room wall via a projector. I took one glance and saw how different the DC it depicts is from how DC looks today.

Today, East Capitol Street is a typical Capitol Hill street: It isn't very wide, and most of the buildings along the street are small. The map shows an East Capitol that looks like the National Mall continuing east past the Capitol building and stretching to the Anacostia River.

It turns out the map was drawn up by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission (NCPC) in 1941. It details proposals that would have incorporated much of the land between Constitution Avenue NE and Independence Avenue SE into new space for federal and District government buildings. The Library of Congress has a copy of the map on their website, where you can zoom in and see many of the details.

One of the most notable things is how many of the (now historic) buildings along East Capitol Street today would have been razed to make room for wider streets and office buildings. The corners of Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill would have been rounded off to make the space shaped more like an oval, and Independence and Constitution Avenues would have been widened to include some freeway-like sections along with tunnels underneath the Capitol Building itself. That would have meant that the roads stayed very wide for their entire length across the city.

Had all of this this happened, East Capitol would probably look similar to today's Independence Avenue SW near the USDA Complex.


East Capitol Street (top) today compared with Independence Avenue SW (bottom). Images from Google Streetview.

The map has lots of signs of the times

Other details I notice are that there is a stadium near where RFK stadium sits today, along with other athletic facilities, including tennis courts and an indoor swimming pool.

There's also no bridge across the Anacostia River. Instead, Consitution and Independence Avenues both veer off the map, traveling along the Anacostia's western shore. That's obviously different from today, as we now have the Whitney Young Memorial Bridge.

It also looks like there where plans for a new railroad bridge and tunnel that would cross the Anacostia closer to today's RFK site and, presumably, link up with the current right of way near L'Enfant Plaza.

And of course, since this map was drawn in 1941, there are no interstate highways cutting through the southwest and southeast quadrants of the city, and Constitution Avenue dead ends at the Potomac rather than leading to today's Roosevelt Bridge.

What do you notice in the map? What do you think of some of these ideas? Let us know in the comments.

Roads


Use this map to share your ideas for better east-west travel across DC

Is it frustrating to try to travel from Columbia Heights to Brookland on foot, bike, bus, or car? The District Department of Transportation is studying ways to make it easier to travel east-west in this area, and a new interactive map lets you point out problems.


Map by DDOT. map. Click for an interactive version.

This WikiMap is part of DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study, the goal of which is to improve all modes of travel between 16th Street NW and South Dakota Avenue NE. It lets users identify problems with and suggest solutions for
walking, riding a bike, driving, transit, public space, parking, and intersections, and is a user-friendly way to participate in DDOT's search for long-term solutions.

People who frequently commute by foot, bike, bus, car, or other means through the corridor have firsthand knowledge on the area's congestion, safety, and streetscape issues. They're also likely to have ideas on how these issues can be addressed to improve transportation mobility and mitigate impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Beyond the crowdsourced map, DDOT recently kicked off the first in a series of public meetings for the project aimed at gathering feedback.


A map of the study area.

The interactive map will be available on DDOT's website (just click the first image in this post) for several months.

Development


It's now harder to add more housing near Adams Morgan

The Lanier Heights neighborhood has a mix of apartment buildings, row houses divided into multiple units, and single-family row houses. A group of residents want to to prohibit all but the last category, and their proposal took a significant step forward in December. But other neighbors have been mobilizing to stop it.


Photo by John Leszczynski on Flickr.

Lanier Heights is either in or just north of Adams Morgan, depending how you define neighborhood boundaries. It's the area behind the Adams Morgan Safeway, between Columbia Road and Mount Pleasant.

The area's zoning, R-5-B, makes it legal to put as many units in a building as the property owner would like. It's the same zoning as the rest of Greater Adams Morgan, most of Dupont Circle, and the blocks of Columbia Heights between 16th and 14th to the east.

But a spate of projects converting row houses into multi-unit buildings, often with additions, has stirred some residents to ask for the neighborhood to instead get the R-4 category, which applies to Mount Pleasant and the parts of Columbia Heights and Logan Circle east of 14th. R-4 only allows one or two units in most buildings.


Residential zoning in Lanier Heights (red oval) and surrounding areas. Blue is R-5-B, purple is R-4. Image by the author from DC zoning base map. Click for full version.

The request has been percolating since 2012, but the DC Zoning Commission recently "set down" the case for hearings. Under the commission's rules, this also meant that the stricter zoning came into effect immediately, at least temporarily, meaning the down-zoning has already happened on a provisional basis.

What are the arguments for and against the proposal?

Advocates for the change say that when a property owner converts a row house into a building with multiple units, they often add on top or in back of the house, cutting down on light to adjacent homes. The changes increase the demand for parking spaces, noise, and garbage.

Also, some proponents argue that the city needs family-sized housing, that most new larger buildings mainly comrprise studios and one- and two-bedroom units, and that row houses are a resource for larger housing that shouldn't be lost.


A rear addition to a row house on Lanier Place. Images from the rezoning application.

Other neighbors disagree. Unlike some recent zoning cases, there is an organized group opposing this change, called Neighbors Against Down-Zoning (and with the amusing acronym NADZ). Members of NADZ say they are themselves homeowners who want to protect property rights and want the ability to convert their own buildings one day, gaining financially and making it easier to remain in their houses as their needs for space decrease but financial needs, perhaps, increase.

A stricter zone doesn't fit all (or perhaps even most) existing buildings

A few things complicate the idea. For one, Lanier Heights is not entirely or predominantly row houses—there are a lot of apartment buildings there too. The neighbors applying for the zoning change have tried to draw the boundaries of the zone to exclude most of those, though this makes the rezoning apply to several small, discontinuous pieces of larger blocks—much smaller than almost all of DC's current zoning.


Image from the rezoning application.

Even so, the zone also wouldn't exclude every apartment building, according to the DC Office of Planning (OP)'s analysis of the zoning application, which doesn't take a position for or against the rezoning.

The current zone, R-5-B, also is more lenient than R-4 in many ways besides the number of units. Lots in R-5-B can be smaller or narrower than in R-4, while R-4 also requires a larger rear yard and (since a zoning change last year) limits the height of buildings more strictly. The OP report estimates that about 20-25% of the properties affected would exceed the maximum height under the R-4 rules. "Most," says the report, have sufficient area and width, while the report doesn't discuss the number with currently legal rear yards that would become illegal.

However, in another filing in the case, Ronald Baker of NADZ disputes that notion. He says that "Primarily due to issues of lot width, rear yard depth and building height, we believe that a majority of row houses do not conform to the standards of the new R-4 zone (even when only counting houses that have not been substantially altered from their original state)."

You can read the OP report, Baker's opposition, and other documents by going here and entering case number 15-09. The OP report is document #12 and Baker's rebuttal on this specific point is #13.

What will this do to overall housing supply?

A July 2014 article in the Washington City Paper summarized many of the concerns and arguments on this issue. Aaron Wiener wrote,

The appeal of the argument made by [proponents] is clear: Historic rowhouses are more attractive than converted apartment buildings, and no one wants a giant shadow cast on his or her backyard. The danger is what happens when this seductive logic is applied across the city. ...

The essence of the disagreement, for the sake of the city's wellbeing, is this: One side wants to preserve the character of Lanier Heights for its current residents; the other wants to make the neighborhood available to more people in the future. ... Greater density is needed in central neighborhood like Lanier Heights if we're to avoid taxing our roads and transit system with concentrated growth on the city's fringes.

The OP report references many provisions of DC's Comprehensive Plan. Many speak of the need to include more people: "By accommodating a larger number of jobs and residents, we can create the critical mass needed to support new services, sustain public transit, and improve regional environmental quality," (§217 7), and "Affordable renter- and owner-occupied housing production and preservation is central to the idea of growing more inclusively." (§ 218 3)

But at the same time, the plan also says things like, "In both residential and commercial settings, infill development must be sensitive to neighborhood context. High quality design standards should be required, the privacy of neighboring structures should be respected, and density and scale should reflect the desired character of the surrounding area." (§307 3)

Those who don't want to see much change in Lanier Heights could point to the many other R-4 neighborhoods, where new housing is much more difficult to add (and which OP made even more difficult with changes last year). Many neighborhoods have gotten an "opt-out" from adding new housing; should Lanier Heights too? But this opt-out has concentrated new housing in fewer new neighborhoods, and as more seek stricter protections, it will further constrain where DC can add the housing it needs.

Several people have said they are "not against development," like former ANC commissioner Elham Deborzorgi, who said "I'm all for higher density and I'm all for growth, but I'm not for growth in the wrong places, and I don't think row houses are the place for three, four, five units," according to and article in the Current, or resident Hilda Gore (document 15 in the case), who said "I am not opposed to growth" while supporting this downzoning.

But if not here, density and growth where? While there has been new housing in other parts of greater Adams Morgan, many other projects have also seen strident opposition, like at the Meridian Center on 16th Street. On the other hand, neighborhood commissioners favored new condos and retail in place of a gas station on Adams Mill Road in 2013.


2013 rendering of 1827 Adams Mill Road. Image from PGN Architects.

Are there alternatives?

Zoning is a very blunt instrument, as is clear from the debate over how a change from R-5-B to R-4 would render many existing buildings non-conforming. But right now, it's one of the few tools neighbors can even choose from. Another, a historic district, failed in 2008.

A down-zoning would simultaneously limit the number of people who can be in Lanier Heights, the sizes of buildings, and other types of changes property owners might want to make. But there may be ways to address some neighbor concerns without also slamming the door to new potential residents.

OP could pursue several avenues to identify even better policies than the down-zoning being discussed now or the broader R-4 change from last year. Some places to start might be:

Focus more on quality than density. One Comprehensive Plan provision quoted above calls for "high quality design standards," but neither R-5-B nor R-4 have anything to do with quality.

Wiener wrote,

In a sense, Lanier Heights' pop-ups are among the best examples of the right way to boost density. From the street, most range from nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive, at least compared with infamous pop-ups that have raised hackles in nearby neighborhoods, like the V Street NW middle finger or the Belmont Tower in Kalorama.
A change to R-4 would ban the most "nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive" additions as much as the most disruptive. Some of the testimony in the record in support of the change talks about shoddy construction that might not even comply with existing laws. There may be other ways to stop that besides a blanket ban.

Plan for the housing the area needs. The Comprehensive Plan simultaneously talks of adding housing while protecting neighborhood character. One way to square the two is to identify how much housing DC needs, divvy it up among parts of the city, and then lead more proactive efforts to figure out where it can go.

If the Adams Morgan ANC wants to support density in certain spots and limit in others, that's not outrageous. But the current case-by-case approach to zoning just looks at adding or removing allowable housing in one spot, not the larger need. A broader conversation could better balance neighbor desires with citywide interests.

Perhaps OP will think about these issues when it updates the Comprehensive Plan, a process that's slated to start this year. Meanwhile, the Zoning Commission will schedule hearings in the coming year on the specific zoning for Lanier Heights.

Correction: The original version of this article identified Elham Dehbozorgi as an ANC Commissioner, but she is no longer on the commission. Also, she asked that the article be adjusted to include more of her original quotation to provide more context; that has been added.

Development


Three big urban planning efforts that will transform Northern Virginia

As 2016 kicks into gear, big plans are in the works to remake Old Town North in Alexandria, Reston Town Center, and Arlington's Lee Highway. In each jurisdiction, there are equally big questions about where housing will fit into future development.


Photo by Rocky A on Flickr.

All three are happening within the framework of last year's local election campaigns, with lagging economies, rising housing costs, growing poverty in the suburbs, and the question of where our jobs will sleep at night. Will 2015's campaign rhetoric translate into places that are affordable, accessible, and walkable, with amenities that can be enjoyed by all in the community?

Alexandria

Alexandria's Old Town North (OTN) Small Area Plan will be an update to the original, which came out in 1992. The goals of the plan are to create a sense of place with innovative architecture, design, and open space, while respecting existing residential neighborhoods. The plan will maintain views of the river and ensure public access to water activities, and promote walkability and accessibility to open space.

Existing city plans, namely the 1974 master plan and the Plan for the Redevelopment of the Alexandria Waterfront, will inform specific recommendations for the new SAP.


Alexandria's Old Town waterfront. Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

Regarding housing, there are 340 committed, affordable public housing units owned by Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) in Old Town North. There are no market-affordable units nor are there any affordable rental set-aside units from market-rate developers located in this study area.

What to look for: How proactive will the city be in promoting more housing that's affordable and accessible? Which tools will it use to achieve the housing goals identified in the city's housing master plan? What role will density play? Will the OTN community support the redevelopment of Hopkins-Tancil Courts and the Administrative Office Building for ARHA into higher density, mixed income developments? What role will the campaign commitment of the new mayor to slow the pace of development play in the plans for OTN?

Arlington

Summary of what's actually happening in Arlington: Redevelopment is happening along Lee Highway, and the Lee Highway Briefing Book will examine existing conditions and policies that affect the corridor between Rosslyn and East Falls Church.

The purpose of the briefing book is for data collection and research only; no redevelopment is planned at this time, but the hope is to ensure that future growth will be guided by a comprehensive vision for the corridor. The study boundaries will include all land within a quarter mile north and south of Lee Highway.


Lee Highway and Spout Run Parkway. Photo from Arlington County.

Since 2012, a coalition of civic association leaders known as the Lee Highway Alliance (LHA) has been actively engaged in conducting educational forums and walking tours, the ultimate goal being to develop a community-based vision for the corridor. The result has been growing interest and involvement in the work of the LHA.

What to look for: How will the County's need for more housing that's affordable align with the visioning sessions led by the civic associations? As redevelopment occurs, will Arlington be successful in putting housing that's affordable in geographically diverse places? The newly adopted Affordable Housing Master Plan calls for the Lee Highway corridor to be one of those places. What are the challenges to providing additional housing posed by this narrowly defined commercial area abutting established single-family residential neighborhoods?

Fairfax

In Fairfax, Reston Town Center North will redevelop a 49-acre area of irregularly-shaped parcels north of Reston Town Center. The concept plan envisions creating eight block parcels with a grid of streets and a mix of uses "improving the current county services, integrating them into a new mixed-use community with housing, shops, restaurants, and a publicly-accessible central green open space."

This redevelopment takes advantage of a number of large employers and retail and restaurant opportunities located there, as well as proximity to the future Reston Town Center Metro station, creating additional opportunities to live/work/play in this popular and desirable location.


Rendering from Fairfax County.

County leaders are working with the community to refine objectives for the site. In addition to redeveloping the existing county facilities, other possible public uses could include transitional housing for people moving out of the homeless shelter that's there, additional affordable housing, an indoor recreation center or swimming pool, a performing arts center, and community meeting rooms.

Redevelopment plans will move forward in two phases. The first phase calls for the redevelopment of the 6.65 acres just south of Bowman Towne Drive where the library and shelter are currently located. These parcels, known as Blocks 7 and 8 (and which the county owns), are planned for mixed-use development that would include the proposed replacement library and shelter, as well as new affordable housing. The county will be seeking redevelopment partners for these block developments.

The county and Inova will jointly pursue rezoning of the remaining parcels, and then negotiate a full development agreement for swapping land at the conclusion of the rezoning, building the common infrastructure, and establishing easements. Future development of individual blocks would require separate, subsequent rezoning actions.

What to look for: Will the recent collapse of the Lake Anne redevelopment plan inform the county's thinking with regard to selecting a development partner? Will the county use this opportunity to address stated goals in the Housing Blueprint, especially regarding permanent supportive housing and housing for families at lower income levels?

A version of this post is also up on the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance's website.

Development


5 amazing cities from the Star Wars universe

Part of the appeal of the cultural juggernaut that is Star Wars has always been its fantastic settings, including its cities. As The Force Awakens arrives in theaters this week, here are the five most fascinating cities from the six previous live-action Star Wars movies.

5. Theed


Theed. Image from Star Wars.

The Phantom Menace may have been a disaster of a movie, but its setting at the height of the galaxy's pre-Empire luxury showed us a strong contender for the most beautiful city in the franchise. Theed is Queen Amidala's home, and capital of the planet Naboo.

Picturesque Naboo is the Neoclassical Europe of the Star Wars universe. Its ornate buildings and grand, monument-strewn avenues are an idealized version of the Baroque Mediterranean. There's no visible traffic or industry, besides one spaceport at the bottom of a waterfall. Theed's citizens appear to do nothing but shop and picnic.

It's the Garden of Eden of the Star Wars universe. Perfect and naive, and out of place once the galaxy descends into evil and civil war.

4. Mos Eisely


Mos Eisely. Image from Star Wars.

The complete opposite of Theed, Mos Eisely is a frontier settlement on a poor and dirty planet, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. If Theed is Habsburg Vienna, Mos Eisley is Dodge City. Its famous cantina nothing so much as a wild west saloon.

There's precious little art of culture in Mos Eisley. Its hardscrabble populous struggles to survive, and its streets are full of pack animals, cargo crates, and industrial equipment.

3. Gungan City


Gungan City. Image from Star Wars.

Return to Naboo for the secret underwater Gungan City. It's beautiful, but like all things Gungan, it makes little sense.

With a fairly small number of orbs that appear to be mostly empty air, Gungan City is clearly more of a village than a metropolis. Maybe the Gungans prefer isolation, or maybe they're too clumsy to live many side-by-side. Hopefully we're never forced to sit through more Gungan scenes, and therefore never find out.

One would think that if Gungans are such great swimmers that they're happy to build underwater cities, they'd spread their city vertically as much as sideways. Guess not.

2. Cloud City


Cloud City. Image from Star Wars.

High-concept sci-fi at its best, Cloud City is an atmosphere-mining colony on a gas giant planet with no solid surface.

Its workers harvest gases for use in Star Wars' futuristic technologies, and its government is more corporate CEO than democratic president.

Being an expensive floating factory, Cloud City's layout and infrastructure are necessarily vastly different from a cobbled-together frontier town like Mos Eisley. As a single, purpose-designed mega-structure, Cloud City needs nothing so messy as parking lots, and piecemeal expansions are strictly not happening.

And if you approach it without an invitation, cloud cars shoot at you. It's the ultimate gated community.

1. Coruscant


Coruscant. Image from Star Wars.

One city that covers a whole planet. Coruscant is either the ultimate in sprawl, or the ultimate in extreme urbanization. Given what we've seen on-screen, it seems to be the latter.

Like Washington, the capital of the Star Wars galaxy clearly has a height limit, with a canopy of blocky same-height buildings rolling over the landscape, and monuments like the Jedi Temple (above) dominating the skyline. But unlike DC, Coruscant's city planners allow frequent skyscrapers to pierce the blocky canopy.

Unlike other Star Wars cities, Coruscant features busy air-highways, crowded with flying transports. But there don't seem to be enough vehicles to move around a population as dense as Coruscant's must be. Surely the planet is a public transit paradise.


Coruscant's galactic capitol building, with air-highways. Image from Star Wars.

What will we see next?

If the past is any guide, The Force Awakens promises even more aliens and sci-fi landscapes. When I see it, I'll be hoping to see some fun cityscapes too. And, I admit, a few light-saber duels.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


What if we developed the space in front of Union Station?

Columbus Circle, which sits in front of Union Station, is one of DC's most-traversed public spaces. It's up against some unique challenges to development because it's so close to the Capitol grounds, but with the right plan Columbus Circle could be DC's next great neighborhood.


Columbus Circle as it is today (left) and as it could be with the right plan (right). Image by the author unless otherwise noted.

Bordered by a sprawling Massachusetts Avenue lined with parking lots and open spaces, Columbus Circle functions primarily as a glorified traffic circle despite the beautiful views of the Capitol Dome directly to the south. Every day, thousands of commuters hurry across its treeless expanse relieved only by a few patches of grass and the historic Columbus fountain.


Columbus Circle and the surrounding neighborhood. Base image from Google Maps.

What would the city gain if the area between Union Station and the Capitol grounds were developed? I propose a new mixed use neighborhood centered around a public space for people to enjoy. This new neighborhood would add much needed housing near transit while also linking Downtown to Capitol Hill.

Columbus Circle was intended to be developed

In 1901, an effort to commemorate DC's 100-year birthday yielded the McMillan Commission, which produced a plan for future development in the District. Based on Pierre L'Enfant's original plan and the existing ideals of the City Beautiful Movement, the commissioners sought to "prepare for the city of Washington such a plan as shall enable future development to proceed along the lines originally planned—namely, the treatment of the city as a work of art…"


Image from the NCPC.

Union Station, designed by D.H. Burnham & Company in 1907, was designed to anchor a grand civic space in the manner intended by L'Enfant. Senator McMillan envisioned the train station and its surrounding buildings "be treated in a monumental manner, as they will become the vestibule of the city of Washington, and as they will be in close proximity to the Capitol itself..." Although the federal government purchased twelve blocks southwest of the station soon after the plan was unveiled, this vision was never completed.

Here's what Columbus Circle could look like

The rendered site plan below illustrates my proposal for a built-out Columbus Circle centered on the historic Columbus Fountain ensemble. While retaining the existing number of car and bike lanes, Massachusetts Avenue would receive a road diet, enabling the extension of the existing green spaces outward into more usable parcels.

The green spaces would be lined with trees and benches helping to break down the plaza's expanse into more humanely scaled and pedestrian friendly spaces similar to Dupont Circle.

My plan for Columbus Circle could preserve Historic Senate Park and its fountain while building up the northern and western edges with new government buildings (shown in red below). Designed by Bennett, Parsons, and Frost in 1929, Senate Park is framed to the south by the Capitol and to the east by the stately Cannon Office building. Preserving the park would ensure a secure perimeter around the Capitol grounds while creating a well defined park for the southern edge of this new neighborhood.

The McMillan commissioners were greatly influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, which espoused harmony in urban ensembles. For Columbus Circle they envisioned buildings of a uniform building height aligned with Union Station and in keeping with its monumental character. The neighboring eight-story office buildings in downtown's East End align with the top of Union Station's main façade. This plan would extend the existing eight story height to the new infill buildings (shown in orange above) around Columbus Circle.

Like the Navy Memorial's relationship with the National Archives Building, the two blocks directly opposite Union Station could pick up on the station's architectural language as illustrated above.

The sidewalk in front of the two blocks would be layered with a green buffer and outdoor dining spaces allowing pedestrians to circulate through a two story arcade similar to Union Station.

Columbus Circle's challenges

Despite the potential for a new neighborhood, this area presents many challenges, least of all regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles. Currently, the area below Columbus Circle is zoned as part of the National Mall and Capitol grounds, and as such would need to be re-zoned. Any plan would have to be done in consultation with the National Capitol Planning Commision, the Architect of the Capitol, the Commission of Fine Arts, the Historic Preservation Review Board, and the National Park Service.

As the guide for future development in DC, the National Capital Planning Commission just released the Federal Elements of the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital, which states that new urban design elements should "express the dignity befitting the national capital's image." The plan calls for creating "a sense of arrival to the nation's capital through prominent gateways."

Beyond the regulatory labyrinth and the need to maintain a secure perimeter around the Capitol grounds, the most difficult challenge is the subjective one: how best to build next to prominent historical landmarks.

Today it's common for infill buildings to contrast with their historical surroundings, to be "of our time." Rather than prioritize novelty, the commissioners sought "elements that give pleasure from generation to generation and from century to century." In fact, the plan's commissioners went on a seven week European tour to study "what arrangement of park area best adapts them to the uses of the people."

Washington DC's current renaissance is breathing new life into many once quiet neighborhoods. All over town developers are trying to keep up with the demand for walkable, transit oriented neighborhoods. This has prompted lively debates over how to best increase the housing supply and the subsequent impact this growth will have on the character of our city.

Pierre L'Enfant and the McMillan Commission left us a legacy that is still relevant today as we continue to grow. Columbus Circle offers an opportunity to add another vibrant neighborhood to downtown and finally have an appropriate entry to the capital of the free world.

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