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Ask DC's planners to address rising housing costs!

DC's Office of Planning will be updating the city's Comprehensive Plan, and wants to hear from you about what needs to change. Can you attend one of eight meetings over the next few weeks?

The "Comp Plan" is the high-level document governing the city's growth and change. It includes chapters on housing, the environment, waste infrastructure, schools, and more. The most specific parts of the plan dictate how much can be built, and where; zoning and development decisions are supposed to be based on the Comp Plan, and a recent court case gave the plan, specifically one map inside it, even more teeth.

This makes the update critical if we want to be able to keep adding enough housing to meet demand, focusing new growth near Metro stations and high-frequency buses, and encouraging walkable urbanism. OP planners need to hear from you to prioritize these needs as they consider amendments.

Every five years, the government updates the plan. This year, changes will be relatively modest, focusing on ways the assumptions or predictions in the 2006 plan have fallen out of step with reality. A group of GGWash staff and readers have been reading the plan and noticed some ways the plan has gotten out of date:

Some people will be attending these meetings to ask for even more obstacles against new people moving into neighborhoods. It's important for the planners to hear residents ask for improvements in the Comp Plan that truly fulfill its stated objective of "a growing and inclusive city."

We need the Comp Plan to ensure there is housing for people at all income levels and enough so prices don't spiral out of control (any more than they already have), and for all neighborhoods to be part of the solution rather than a competition for each neighborhood to wall itself off and push change to someone else's street.

There are eight meetings, one per ward (though OP uses "planning areas" which don't change every ten years). Each meeting will feature a presentation by planners about the Comp Plan, an open house where people can talk with planners, and then an "open mic" for feedback.

The meetings are:

  • Wednesday, October 19, 6-8:30 pm in Columbia Heights
  • Saturday, October 22, 9-11:30 am in Anacostia
  • Tuesday, October 25, 6-8:30 pm in Tenleytown
  • Thursday, October 27, 6-8:30 pm on Minnesota Avenue
  • Tuesday, November 1, 6-8:30 pm in West End/Foggy Bottom
  • Thursday, November 3, 6-8:30 pm in Southwest Waterfront
  • Monday, November 14, 6-8:30 pm in Brookland
See the specific locations and other details here. If you can't attend, you can also give your thoughts at this online survey.

Either way, sign up using the form below to get further updates from Greater Greater Washington about ways to make a difference on this Comp Plan process.


Adams Morgan could get more housing and preserve its plaza, too. But it probably won't.

Some Adams Morgan leaders have said "no" once again to a proposal to replace an ugly 1970s bank building at the corner of 18th and Columbia. Redevelopment would destroy what's now a plaza, but does it have to? If neighbors got over some "height-itis," maybe not.

April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

For most of this year, controversy has swirled around proposals from PN Hoffman to redevelop what's now a two-story SunTrust bank building dating to 1973 and a brick plaza. Hoffman's initial proposal left a much smaller (but more attractively landscaped) plaza at the corner. Opposition was immediate, and took two forms.

Some people, like the "Save Our Plaza" group, focused most on the plaza itself. The place has some history involving the neighborhood's past efforts to push for fair lending to low-income homebuyers from the Perpetual Federal Savings bank, which used to use the building. Others simply feel that an open gathering space at Adams Morgan's central corner is a worthwhile part of the urban environment.

The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Others, like Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A zoning committee chair JonMarc Buffa, focus opposition mostly on the size of the proposed building. Much of the 18th Street strip is three stories high, while this building would have been six or seven to the cornice line (plus a set back penthouse).

There are buildings of similar height in the immediate area, but many people including HPRB member, architect, and stalwart opponent of height (except on his own buildings) Graham Davidson said it was too tall and too massive.

September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

Many others, like the commenters on this Borderstan article, argue that Adams Morgan could benefit from more residents (helping neighborhood retail besides bars and late-night pizza places thrive), that DC needs housing, and besides, this is private property.

Open space isn't a bad thing, but neither are buildings. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

How about a plaza AND new housing?

While this is indeed private property (though the city's historic preservation process has wide latitude to control what's built), there's some merit to the argument that in a well-planned Adams Morgan, it would still be good to have a plaza here.

My neighborhood has a large circular park right at the Metro station. Even though it takes a lot of land away from being used for needed housing, it's a terrific amenity and I wouldn't want it developed.

However, that doesn't mean I want to keep people out of the neighborhood, either. I support building more housing on other sites and would support taller buildings around the circle where they are low.

What is the priority for Adams Morgan residents? If the plaza is the most important thing, they could propose that instead of shrinking the building, PN Hoffman makes it even taller, but in exchange leaves more of the site open. Or want to minimize height? Then the plaza, which is not public land, probably has to go.

Site plan showing the current building.

I'd go with more height and more plaza space if possible. Tall buildings at prominent corners are actually a defining feature of DC (to the extent any DC building is "tall") and other cities. This marquee corner would be a great spot for something really dramatic that could anchor and characterize Adams Morgan. All of the proposals were architecturally conservative, and have gotten even more so in subsequent revisions. This is why DC has a reputation for boring architecture.

The best vehicle for such an arrangement would be what's called a Planned Unit Development. It's a more involved process that gives a developer more zoning latitude in exchange for benefits to a community. Hoffman hadn't been pursuing a PUD, perhaps hoping for a quicker turnaround in the process, but if neighbors agreed to support something with more density and more plaza space, it would reduce the uncertainty of doing a PUD and open up possibilities for a better project.

I don't want to represent that something is possible that might not be: I haven't talked to PN Hoffman about this possibility. Making a building taller adds construction cost; I'm not privy to the dynamics of their deal to control the land. But in most projects, there is some opportunity for give and take if neighbors really were willing to prioritize asking for one thing and being more flexible on another.

Not a lot of activity. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And let's not kid ourselves—this plaza is nothing special. It's hosted a farmer's market, but Hoffman has said they'd work to relocate it to another large expanse of sidewalk right across the intersection. For most people walking through Adams Morgan, this spot is just the ugly dead zone in between the interesting commercial strips in various directions.

A smaller but well-designed plaza could be more useful. A larger AND well-designed one could be even better, and potentially even feasible if height weren't such a bugaboo.

Unfortunately, area activists don't seem likely to suggest a taller building and a better plaza. Instead, the Save Our Plaza people seem almost as angry about the number of feet proposed for the building; their petition actually mentions the height first, before the plaza.

A more detailed plan could help

The DC Office of Planning created a vision plan for the neighborhood last year, and it in fact cites the plaza as something to hopefully preserve. But there was no official policy change to protect it, nor did that plan consider offsetting zoning changes to add more housing elsewhere in the neighborhood. The plan had good uncontroversial ideas (better wayfinding, more green roofs, public art) but doesn't actually determine where new housing can go.

The zoning for this site allows a building atop the plaza. Historic preservation is almost wholly discretionary and the preservation board doesn't publish detailed written decisions, making it impossible to know what is and isn't acceptable.

If DC's practice was to devise more concrete plans, we could imagine having a clear vision that lays out how much housing DC needs, what proportion of that would be fair to allocate to Adams Morgan, and a strategy for where to put it and where not to. The zoning could then match this vision instead of bearing at best a passing resemblance.

Instead, it seems that the only thing that would satisfy Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C is virtually no change at all. That's not reasonable; the city is growing, and so should Adams Morgan's core. But neighborhood leaders can think through how they'd best accommodate that change, and the government could help. And maybe this site could still have a better building and a plaza at the same time.


Scarred by urban renewal, Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood gets a second chance

Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood has a rich history, but urban renewal nearly destroyed it. With the Purple Line coming, this historically-black community could get a second chance, but not everybody looks forward to it.

Urban renewal nearly destroyed Lyttonsville in the 1970s. Photo by Alan Bowser.

Located west of the Red Line tracks from downtown Silver Spring, Lyttonsville is one of Montgomery County's oldest neighborhoods, founded in 1853 by freed slave Samuel Lytton. The area could soon be home to a Purple Line station if the light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton opens as scheduled in 2022.

Over the past two years, Montgomery County planners crafted a vision for a small town center around the future Lyttonsville station, bringing affordable housing and retail options the community lacks. Some residents are deeply skeptical of what's called the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, though it could restore the town center Lyttonsville lost long ago.

A rough history

During the early 20th century, a thriving main street developed along Brookville Road, including schools, churches, and a cemetery. As surrounding areas became suburban neighborhoods exclusively for white residents, the black Lyttonsville community lacked public services like running water and paved roads. For decades, its only connection to Silver Spring was a wooden, one-lane bridge that remains today.

In the 1970s, the county seized much of the area, destroying Lyttonsville's main street and replacing much of it with an industrial park, a Ride On bus lot, and storage for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Many of the older homes were replaced with large garden apartment complexes.

This wooden bridge was once the only way in and out of Lyttonsville. Photo by the author.

Today, Lyttonsville is a racially diverse community, and sought-after for its location between Silver Spring and Bethesda and being in the vaunted Bethesda-Chevy Chase school catchment. But one out of ten residents lives in poverty, compared to 6.9% of residents countywide. Lyttonsville is hard to access by any form of transportation, isolating its residents from nearby jobs.

Some residents claim the county's plan will continue a legacy of destructive planning decisions. They're worried about traffic and density, about getting redistricted out of the B-CC cluster, and that the area's affordable apartments could get replaced with luxury housing. Others are wary of the Purple Line after fighting off plans to locate a storage yard in the neighborhood.

Charlotte Coffield, who grew up in Lyttonsville during segregation and whose sister Gwendolyn fought to bring services to the area (the local community center is named for her), has emerged as one of the biggest critics. "All [Purple Line] stations do not need to be town centers," she wrote in a letter to the county planning board. "The proposed density would destroy the stable character and balance of our ethnically diverse neighborhood." Last week, the Lyttonsville Community Civic Association, where she is president, voted to accept no more than 400 new homes in the area.

New development in Lyttonsville

Bethesda-based developer EYA, which is currently building townhomes next to the future Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line station, has an alternate proposal for Lyttonsville that could address residents' concerns. The biggest land parcels in the area are owned by several different property owners, including multiple government agencies, each with their own plans. Some want to build lots of new homes, while WSSC has a large site that they intend to leave alone.

EYA's vision for Lyttonsville.

EYA has reached out to several landowners about coordinating, allowing development on a combined 33-acre site to happen together. First, they would partner with WSSC to build several hundred affordable apartments and townhomes on their property. Residents of existing apartments could move there first without getting displaced. Then, EYA would partner with the two non-profits who own the affordable apartments to redevelop them with market-rate townhomes. The county would restrict building heights to 70 feet.

Next to the Lyttonsville station itself, EYA envisions a plaza surrounded by market-rate apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space (about half the size of a Giant supermarket), and a small business incubator modeled on Baltimore's Open Works that would offer job training to local residents.

Public art would promote the area's history, while Rosemary Hills Park would get a small addition. Local streets where drivers speed today would get traffic calming and new pedestrian and bicycle connections.

The $500 million proposal addresses most of the neighbors' concerns. EYA seeks to build 1200 new homes on the land, compared to the nearly 1700 the county would allow there. (What Montgomery County wants to allow in Lyttonsville is still less dense than plans for other Purple Line stations, including Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake.) One-third of the new homes would be set aside for low-income households, and every existing affordable apartment would be replaced.

Lyttonsville's future Purple Line station. Image from MTA.

"The county can leave a legacy for how you can build Smart Growth," says Evan Goldman, VP of Land Acquisition and Development at EYA, stressing that the private development could help pay for the public amenities neighbors want. "There's only so much [public benefits] this can afford," he adds. "If you reduce the units so you can't pay for the benefits, the public benefits won't come."

Can the proposal actually work?

Residents I've spoken to like EYA's proposal, but are skeptical if it can happen. This project could have a transformative effect on Lyttonsville, but only if all of these partners agree to it. Recent experience in Shady Grove suggests finding new locations for the Ride On bus lot or WSSC's facility may be difficult.

"If EYA can execute its plan, there are more upsides," says resident Abe Saffer, "but since they don't have any letters of intent or partnerships firmly in place, I remain nervous."

The Montgomery County Council will hold two public hearings on the Lyttonsville Sector Plan next week in Rockville. Here's where you can sign up. If the plan is approved, the county would then have to approve EYA's proposal, which could then start construction in 2020 and take 10 to 15 years to get built.


How can we know if DC is building enough housing?

DC could reach almost a million people in 30 years. What does that mean for the amount of housing DC needs? Or the amount you might pay to rent or buy a place to live? Current population forecasts still don't answer a few key questions that have to be answered to plan for the future.

Photo by E. Krall on Flickr.

DC planners are starting work to amend the city's Comprehensive Plan. Among other things, the Comp Plan sets basic policies for how much new housing can be built. And a recent court case blocked new housing because a map in the Comp Plan didn't show it. That means it's very important to get the plan right.

Everyone needs to live somewhere, so a very logical first step to understanding the city's needs is forecasting how many people want to live there. That's not quite so simple, however.

Forecasting is complex

Many variables go into population forecasts. Regional data analysts disagree about many of them. Still, they've had some success. When the current Comp Plan was first written, a decade ago, it estimated the city's population in 2010 and 2015. It got the 2010 population bang on the nosealmost exactly 600,000. But for 2015, it's wasn't so accurate; the Comp Plan guessed growth would continue to 630,000, but DC actually grew much more, to about 672,000.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) puts out annual growth estimates for all of the jurisdictions in the Washington region. Here's how the Comp Plan's growth estimates track with COG's past and most recent estimates and with reality.

Actual population data from US Census and American Community Survey estimates. Projections from DC Office of Planning, DC CFO, and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The DC Chief Financial Officer also makes some forecasts. The last one tracks closely to COG's, but in 2013 the DC CFO thought growth was about to slow. It hasn't, at least not yet.

The current forecasts answer some questions, but not all

How does COG come up with its forecasts? It calls them "cooperative forecasts" because the first step is for each local jurisdiction to estimate its own growth. Then, COG planners tweak the numbers so the totals better match the overall regional jobs picture, trends about how many children people are having, and so forth.

Those individual jurisdictional estimates mostly come from looking at how much development is in the pipeline and how much room there is under current zoning. It makes some sense—someone is not going to move to DC unless they have a place to live. If 1,000 new housing units will be created and 90% of them will fill up in 2 years with an average of 1.5 people per unit (for example), that means 1,350 new residents.

That's a pretty good way to guess the population if you want to know what's most likely to happen under current policy. It helps with budgeting for the amount of trash pickup you'll need, say, or how many schools to build.

But if you use that number to set zoning policies, you'd be making a circular argument:

  • We think developers will build x housing units.
  • X housing units hold Y people.
  • Therefore, DC will grow by Y people.
  • We said DC will grow by Y people.
  • Y people fit in X units.
  • We're building X units.
  • Therefore, we're building enough units.

Photo by Tom Magliery on Flickr.

It doesn't work that way. Let's consider a hypothetical city that really doesn't want to grow much but has a booming job market. Call it Atherton.

Atherton has about 7,500 people and very little opportunity to add new housing under zoning. It's zoned for enough new development for 100 new people and that's it. If that policy continues, the new units for those 100 people will get built in the next five years, and then perhaps nothing for many years after that.

Atherton therefore estimates its population will be 7,600 in 2035. Is that right? Well, maybe. That doesn't mean that policy makes any sense if the surrounding area has demand for thousands of new jobs a year and prices in Atherton are going through the roof (as they are, because Atherton is real!)

DC isn't Atherton, and we shouldn't be—but needs more data to avoid it

DC is, of course, not trying to stop all growth, and its forecast predicts some substantial growth. But that forecast still primarily answers the question of what the population will be under current policies. It doesn't tell us a few key things we need to know:

  1. If we don't change current policies, will prices rise faster than people's incomes can keep up?
  2. If we did change policies, what would happen? Would more people move in?
  3. What policies should we pursue if we want both new residents and longtime ones to be able to live in DC, without too-fast price rises or displacement?
These are the questions that DC must explore for the Comprehensive Plan, because the Comp Plan is the ultimate font of the policies that create the pipeline that drives the population estimates.

There aren't official numbers on most of this yet, but I've talked to forecasters who are trying to figure it out. It's not easy. If more housing was getting built, some people would move to DC who otherwise would live in another county or region entirely. Some wouldn't be displaced who otherwise would be. On the other hand, some people might not like the changes and move out.

Will DC run out of room?

DC (and the whole Washington region) is highly desirable, and many people would like to live here but for high and rising housing prices. Others who have lived here for many years are finding themselves priced out through rising rents or taxes associated with swelling real estate appraisals.

There's a growing body of evidence that when cities don't build enough new housing to keep up with demand, that exacerbates the price rise. In DC, proposed new buildings constantly have floors and units slashed off or have strict limits on their size in the first place.

You don't have to believe that removing regulations will magically make housing suddenly affordable for all—I don't—to worry about all the people who can't live in the units that don't get built and the displacement it can cause elsewhere.

Beyond prices rising and displacement happening today, there's reason to worry it will get worse. DC does have a number of large undeveloped sites now, like Walter Reed, McMillan, St. Elizabeths, and Hill East, which can and hopefully will provide a large portion of DC's housing need for the next decade or so. But if demand to live in the city remains strong, these will fill with housing soon; what then?

An Office of Planning 2013 report warned that DC was approaching its maximum buildable limits. The city could run out of space for new housing between 2030 and 2040, the report said.

Graph from the DC Office of Planning's Height Master Plan report, 2013.

It would be helpful for OP to update this graph based on changes since then. The zoning update allowed people to rent out basements and garages ("accessory apartments") in some zones, which added some potential housing; at the same time, DC made zoning more restrictive in many row house areas and downzoned the Lanier Heights neighborhood, which might have moved the red dotted line down somewhat.

Where are the lines now? How has the city's growth tracked against the three scenarios in the above graph? Under various assumptions, how much time is left until the problem gets even worse than it is today?

DC needs an inclusive housing strategy

DC needs a Comprehensive Plan that ensures enough housing so that prices don't rise faster than they need to. Public policies must also ensure that new housing benefits a cross-section of income levels, from the very poor to the middle class and beyond, to prevent displacement and built a city welcoming to all—as Mayor Bowser likes to say, for those who have been here for five generations or five minutes.

To get the policies right requires good data. What do you see in the above analysis? Are there other data sets you think would be helpful? Are there other questions that an updated Comprehensive Plan should address?


National links: Ancient ruins that nobody visits

There are ancient ruins in the United States but people don't treat them as tourist destinations like they do ones in other countries. Also, not everyone gets to weigh in on how their city is planned, and Ford Motor Company is trying out a different transportation strategy. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.

Photo by John Fowler on Flickr.

Ancient ruins ignored: The US has a number of ancient cities, including Cahokia near St. Louis and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. But we don't visit the same way we do places like, say, Machu Picchu. Part of the reason may be that ancient ruins in the US don't exactly mesh with the narrative that this land was uninhibited, waiting for Westerners to simply come and put it to use. (Pricenomics)

Not so representative: Metropolitan planning agencies are notorious for overlooking the opinions of people who live in dense urban areas, especially people of color and women. According to researchers in Austin, Texas, while 63% of their regional population is white, white board members represent 90% of the technical advisory council and 85% of the transportation policy board of region's metropolitan planning organization. Women make up 33% and 30% of these same two boards even though they make up half of the total population. (Streetsblog USA)

Will Ford change urban transportation?: The Ford Motor company is making urban travel part of its business model. The company has bought Chariot, a transit-like company that shuttles people from home to work in large cities, and is paying to bring 7,000 bike share bikes to San Francisco by 2017 (there are 700 now). The company says its goal is to drive down the cost of mobility for everyone. (Medium)

Is "out" the only way forward?: Cities that spread outward have produced more housing than those which have curbed the sprawl, according to a Berkeley economist. More units in sprawling areas has meant lower prices, which means cities will face a hard decision going forward: contain development while production in the core lags and prices go up, or sprawl into the outer areas of the region, a solution that brings high transportation costs and environmental damage. (Wall Street Journal)

Crosswalk, redesigned: A series of crosswalks are being redesigned in San Francisco to promote safety, taking into account the fact that drivers hit three people each day. The idea is to make pedestrians easier to spot by using multiple zebra crossings and raised curbs, but also to make the crossings more park-like. (Curbed SF)

Our transportation habits are wasteful: When writing a book on garbage, Edward Humes noticed that we waste a lot of space and resources on transportation, so he wrote a new book called Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation. The fact that vehicles designed for five people ferry around one person, for example, led him to think the car is a social, economic, and health problem that needs to be solved. (New York Times)

Quote of the Day

"If you look at legal requirements on levels of nitrogen dioxide in particular, Oxford Street gets in the first week of January what it should in an entire year. That's one of the reason why there's an urgency to air quality plans."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who himself has adult onset asthma, discussing the air quality problems London faces thanks to endless streams of diesel buses. (CNN)


What do you think of these bike plans for Columbia Pike?

Columbia Pike is one of Arlington's least bike-friendly corridors—there aren't any bike lanes, traffic is heavy, and the bike boulevards on parallel streets are disjointed and disconnected. The good news it that there's a plan to make the Pike a better place to bike. The bad? It isn't exactly going to win any awards.

Riding a bike down Columbia Pike? Harrowing. Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

The transportation planning for Columbia Pike largely grew out of 2004's Columbia Pike Streetscape Task Force Report. This report set the ultimate vision for what each block of the Pike will look like in the future, once the corridor redevelops.

With that ultimate vision expected to take 30 years or more, Arlington is undertaking a short-term solution, the Columbia Pike Multimodal Project. This project includes plans to create a way to bike down Columbia Pike, or on 9th Street or 12th Street, which parallel the Pike.

The bike-related infrastructure that's planned for Columba Pike. Map by the author, base map from Google Maps.

Below are the details of the project's plans for bike infrastructure, from the western end of Columbia Pike to the east:

The west end sidepath

Starting in the west, at the Fairfax County line, Columbia Pike will get a 10-foot wide shared-use path on the north side. The path will stretch from the county line to the bridge over Four Mile Run just east of Arlington Mill Community Center.

This portion of the Pike Multimodal project is slated to being begin construction fairly soon. Fans of such a facility would likely describe it as a "trail," detractors would probably say it's "just a wide sidewalk." Having a curb to protect you from traffic is certainly a plus, but mixing with pedestrians is a negative, and having a bike route that runs in two directions cross driveways and side streets is certainly a safety concern.

The narrow sidewalk that currently runs across Four Mile Run Bridge. Photo by the author.

The Four Mile Run bridge is one of the gaps in planning for biking Columbia Pike. The 10-foot sidepath suddenly becomes a narrow and busy sidewalk that sits immediately adjacent to traffic. Right now, the only alternatives to biking in traffic over the bridge are sharing that sidewalk with pedestrians and other cyclists or detouring north past the community center, down into the stream valley via a number of switchbacks, across a fair weather ford over Four Mile Run, and then back up a steep hill to 9th Street.

Ideally, the county would either renovate the bridge to widen the sidewalk to 10 feet to match the sidepath to the west, or add a dedicated bicycle and pedestrian bridge either immediately to the north of the bridge, or further upstream to connect to 9th Street.

Fair weather crossing alternative to Four Mile Run Bridge. Photo by the author.

A bike boulevard for the central core

Moving east across the stream, the county's planned bike infrastructure transitions to a bike boulevard along 9th Street, which runs parallel to Columbia Pike. Bike boulevards are easy to bike on because while they're open to cars, they keep speeds and volumes low.

This quiet neighborhood street will get you approximately two blocks before arriving at the second potential gap in the planned bike network along Columbia Pike: crossing George Mason Drive. Most cyclists right now head another block to the north where they can safely cross George Mason Drive with a light at 8th Street.

The proposed 9th Street bike boulevard ends before George Mason Drive. Photo by the author.

While the additional two block detour is relatively negligible for someone on a long-distance ride, it could potentially double the length of a trip for anyone trying to go just a couple blocks. A better long-term solution would be a bridge across George Mason, from where it dead ends at Taylor Street to where it picks back up at Quincy Street.

9th Street before and after it reaches George Mason Drive. Image from Google Maps.

From Quincy, the 9th Street bike boulevard continues, to Glebe Road, where engineers evaluated the intersection for a HAWK signal to make crossing there easier and safer. Unfortunately, because the traffic control manual that Virginia's engineers defer to says a signal there isn't "warranted" because not enough people use the route, there won't be one.

View as a cyclist on 9th St Bike Blvd approaching Glebe. Photo by the author.

This is a common chicken-and-egg problem for bike and pedestrian crossings: Nobody crosses there because it's difficult and feels unsafe, and it's remaining difficult and unsafe because nobody crosses there. Common sense says that many cyclists and pedestrians are likely going out of there way to cross at Columbia Pike or at 8th 7th Street so that they can do so at a light, but would prefer to cross at 9th if a signal were there.

9th Street at Glebe (Route 120), and the detour at Ivy Street. Image from Google Maps.

East of Glebe, cyclists are directed to detour up to 7th Street for one block at Ivy Street because of a one block stretch of one-way street between Ivy and Irving Street. The county proposed making this stretch of road two-way as part of the initial bike boulevard roll-out, but ran into fierce neighborhood opposition.

Nearby residents were very concerned about opening the street up to two-way traffic around a narrow curve with bad sight-lines and contended that while the curb-to-curb width may appear to be wide enough, the mature oak trees that line the street mean that nobody is actually able to park adjacent to the curb which leaves less room for driving than you might think at first glance.

The 9th Street bike boulevard continues east to the intersection with Walter Reed Drive. Here, Arlington engineers decided the intersection needs a full traffic signal. It will be installed as part of the long-delayed Walter Reed Drive Complete Streets Project sometime in the next few years. That project will also rebuild the intersection into a more traditional and understandable layout.

A sidepath for the east end

At Wayne Street, the 9th Street Bike Boulevard ends and the planned bike facility transitions back to a 10-foot shared use path on Columba Pike. That path is planned to stretch all the way from Wayne Street, down the hill, underneath the Washington Boulevard bridge, back up the hill past the Sheraton and all the way down past the Air Force Memorial to at least Joyce Street and potentially all the way to the Pentagon.

A stretch of the 10-foot path already runs under the new Washington Boulevard bridge. The remainder of the sidepath will be built as part of future phases of the Columbia Pike Multimodal Project, but probably not until 2018 or 2019.

New 10' sidepath beneath Washington Blvd bridge. Photo from Google Streetview

Again, the choice of a sidepath here is less than ideal. The sidepath would cross a number of side streets and driveways, not to mention the off-ramps from the Washington Boulevard bridge. Cyclists going downhill will pick up a fair amount of speed, and drivers rarely expect high-speed cyclists on what looks like a sidewalk, especially when they are coming from the "wrong direction" (because the sidepath is on the north side of Columbia Pike, cyclists headed east would be on the left side of the street).

From the east end of Columbia Pike, cyclists could continue along to the Route 27 trail past the Pentagon Memorial, or head along the Joyce Street sidepath to the future protected bike lane on Army Navy Drive into Pentagon City. Plans for this end of Columba Pike are somewhat in flux because of the land swap that is still being negotiated between Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington County and VDOT.

The land swap would potentially re-align Columbia Pike and reconfigure the Columbia Pike / Route 27 interchange near the Pentagon, changing it from its current cloverleaf configuration into a more compact signalized setup.

What about 12th Street?

There is also a bicycle boulevard on 12th Street, but given that it's on the opposite side of Columbia Pike from the sidepaths, I've focused on 9th Street in the context of a cyclist trying to travel the full length of Columbia Pike. People are unlikely to want to cross Columbia Pike multiple times just to continue on their way.

Why bike boulevards and sidepaths? Why not bike lanes or protected bike lanes?

If this plans seems a bit old-fashioned, building parallel boulevards and sidepaths instead of protected bike lanes, remember that they all grew out of that 2004 Streetscape Task Force Report. The biggest driver however, is space: there isn't that much of it, and there are a lot of competing demands for it.

In many places, the space available across Columbia Pike from building to building is less than 80 feet. In some places, the land the county currently owns is as narrow as 60 feet.
In that space, the county has been trying to accommodate wide sidewalks with street trees for a pleasant pedestrian experience, 24,000 vehicles a day with heavy transit traffic, and safe accommodation for cyclists. They don't all fit, and what has been compromised the most is the bicycle facilities.

In this cross section of Columbia Pike, there are 56 feet just for cars. The remaining space has to juggle bike lanes, pedestrian space, and trees. Image from Arlington County.

Converting some or all of the bike facilities on Columbia Pike to bike lanes or protected bike lanes would require identifying significant width to be taken away from some other use on the Pike. Turning a standard five-foot sidewalk into a ten-foot shared use path requires five feet of space beyond a typical Arlington Cross-section. Standard bike lanes would require an additional five feet, buffered or protected bike lanes additional width equal to the width of the buffer or the protection.

Does that space come out of the sidewalk? The street trees? The left turn lanes? The travel lanes?

Arlington County is set to spend over $100 million rebuilding Columbia Pike, and yet the "Complete Streets" project will not result in a bike facility that runs the entire length of the corridor. Is that really a complete street? Columbia Pike is the most affordable area of Arlington, and would be the ideal place to have top-notch facilities for one of the most affordable means of transportation: the bicycle.

Right now that isn't going to happen. Should it?


What's wrong with this map of DC's social services?

This map shows where DC's halfway houses, drug treatment centers, and mental health facilities are. What's wrong with this picture?

Map from DC's Office of Planning.

In 2006, DC's Office of Planning published this map of group homes in the city,grouping them into five types: halfway homes and facilities for community residence, mental health, substance abuse and youth rehab.

The easiest, clearest takeaway: most of these places are east of Rock Creek Park. The map may be 10 years old, but that's just evidence that neighborhoods in that part of the District have historically opted out of helping to solve the city's broader problems.

We actually came across the map while reviewing DC's Comp Plan. Let's hope the re-write of the plan, which which the Office of Planning will start next year, results in maps that show more people doing their part to make this a better region for everyone.

Public Safety

How do our cities' decisions perpetuate racial bias? How do the choices we advocate for?

America's struggles with gun violence and police relations with communities of color have burst, again, into the headlines over the last few weeks. Our contributors and editors have some thoughts about these issues and how they relate to the decisions our cities make around housing, transportation, and much more.

Aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting. Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr.

Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These and so many more incidents have repeatedly underscored how our society still doesn't truly treat black Americans equally. Americans who don't experience this injustice personally have had their eyes opened. And then, the occasional person reacts with reprehensible violence against the police and drives further wedges between Americans (most recently in Baton Rouge, previously in Dallas).

Not every social problem is related to the way we build cities and better urban design can't single-handedly solve some of America's deepest social ills. Still, our society's struggles with racial bias, whether from police or others, actually is deeply connected with the way American cities work and the decisions their leaders make. Here are some of our contributors' thoughts.

Dan Reed said,

This is about who feels safe and who public spaces are created for. We haven't experienced the worst of this here, but we've had a tumultuous demographic shift in recent years. As a person of color who grew up here, I feel unwelcome sometimes in a place that was once familiar.

This isn't just about police brutality. It's about the pervasiveness of racial bias, however subtle or unintentional, that appears in all of the policy decisions we make in education, transportation, housing, health care, and so on. It's about making sure that everyone in our community the ability to live safe, dignified lives with access to the economic and social opportunities that many of us take for granted.

Gray Kimbrough discussed how public policy has explicitly created divisions:
The built environment has long been intertwined with racism in the US. Housing policy is a clear example, with the underlying racism ranging from completely blatant redlining or other policies that excluded non-whites (e.g. the postwar explosion in VA and FHA-backed loans).
And then there's infrastructure. Growing up in North Carolina, I noticed that things like sidewalks were much less likely to be provided in predominantly black parts of town. Transportation infrastructure and transit networks have often also been used to maintain the status quo rather than to mitigate the impact of institutional racism.

Limiting the housing options for people of color and underfunding infrastructure in those areas contribute directly to limiting opportunities for whole classes of people. As a side effect, racial segregation of housing limits people's experiences with members of other groups.

This tends not to be a problem for white people, who generally don't have to fear police officers unfamiliar with people like them acting in overly aggressive ways. It can absolutely have devastating effects for people of color when police officers are more likely to see them as criminals by default, at least in part because of a lack of basic interaction due to residential segregation.

Nick Keenan added some specific policy examples:
It ties into two things I've read about Ferguson [Missouri]. One is that people in Ferguson were reluctant to walk places, even short distances, because they were afraid of being hassled by the police if they did. The other is that the municipal budget in Ferguson was dependent upon fines and fees from motorists, and that a grievance of the residents was that you couldn't drive anywhere without risking getting pulled over and ticketed for a minor infraction.

Many experienced cyclists have stories of interactions with police officers where just the fact of operating a bicycle seemed to set the cops off. There was a blog post last summer that got a lot of coverage about how for many people riding a bicycle is the closest they will ever come to not having white privilege.

Tracy Hadden Loh added,
It's all about who has access to what planning processes - whose outcomes are measured, voices are heard, values represented, needs prioritized, etc. Planning is all about navigating tradeoffs to maximize access and efficiency of public goods in a world where most of the acreage/square footage is private. ...

We [all] have our own often unstated assumptions about *how* to achieve planning goals [and] I don't think [we] ask enough hard questions about who the winners and losers will be.

Let's try hard to think about who winners and losers will be as we discuss the many choices cities and counties in our region make. How do the events of the last few weeks, and few years, affect how you think about urban spaces and the issues we discuss?


33 pages after calling for a growing and inclusive city, DC's Comprehensive Plan muddies that vision

Greater Greater Washington readers are reading the DC Comprehensive Plan together. Each week we discuss a section online. We'll post a summary of each chapter and our participants' thoughts about the changes we want to see in the upcoming amendment process.

DC's 2005 Comprehensive Plan began with a strong and encouraging vision: building a growing and inclusive city. Just one chapter later, it lists a set of contradictory guiding principles that waffle between preserving the status quo and promoting inclusive growth. Oops.

Image by Debbie Ohi on Flickr.

A great vision gives great promise

DC's 2005 Comprehensive Plan accurately forecast DC's growth up to 2010, though the city has grown much faster than predicted since then.

The plan did not, however, fully anticipate the spiraling housing costs that are putting housing in DC out of reach for so many people. But it issued a strong guiding vision to grow inclusively. It's a vision statement worth repeating:

Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices—choices about where they live, how and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school.

Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices—regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age.

This vision was right for 2005, and it is definitely right for 2016, as we watch rents rise at twice the national average and many outside of the wealthier income brackets are feeling pressured to move out. Figuring out how to capture the benefits of this growth without excluding many is the challenge we'd hope this document would take on.

Don't judge a book by its cover; a vision gets lost

After making a lot of predictions about the future, the plan starts to get into principles for guiding DC's growth. It starts out well:

1. Change in the District of Columbia is both inevitable and desirable. The key is to
manage change in ways that protect the positive aspects of life in the city and reduce negatives such as poverty, crime, and homelessness.
But then, the plan seems to say that not everyone has to help make room for new neighbors or any other kind of change.
6. Redevelopment and infill opportunities along corridors and near transit stations will be an important component of reinvigorating and enhancing our neighborhoods. Development on such sites must not compromise the integrity of stable neighborhoods and must be designed to respect the broader community context.
Of course it's important to respect the neighborhoods and neighbors as they currently exist, but this statement is simply not bold enough to let the city be and remain inclusive.

The plan seems to acknowledge that every neighborhood has to be a part of the solution:

12. Each neighborhood is an integral part of a diverse larger community that contributes to the District's identity. Growing an inclusive city means that all neighborhoods should share in the overall social responsibilities of the community, including housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and accommodating the disabled.
But, then, not:
8. The residential character of neighborhoods must be protected, maintained and improved. Many District neighborhoods possess social, economic, historic, and physical qualities that make them unique and desirable places in which to live. These qualities can lead to development and redevelopment pressures that threaten the very qualities that make the neighborhoods attractive. These pressures must be controlled through zoning and other means to ensure that neighborhood character is preserved and enhanced.
Corey Holman noticed that many of these statements use "near antonyms," like "Maintaining and enhancing the mix of housing types" (Principle #3) or "ensure that neighborhood character is preserved and enhanced" (Principle #8). He wrote, "How can something be maintained or preserved while also being enhanced? It's that wishy-washy language that allows people to see what they want in this document, instead of laying out a clear vision.

"It's saying, 'we need growth in commercial corridors—but "stable" (which seems like code for "affluent single-family homeowner") neighborhoods should not be touched,'" said David Alpert. Or, "Growth should be inclusive, but don't worry, people in exclusive areas—we don't mean YOU have to be inclusive."

Corey Holman added, "To me, this is an example of 'I got mine, move the development elsewhere' that certainly shouldn't be considered a guiding principle of growth in the city."

DC's need to accommodate new residents applies to Chevy Chase, too. Photo by Dan Reed.

A timid Comp Plan is not going to work

The vision of an inclusive, growing DC is maybe even more needed today than in 2005. The status quo of today is not acceptable for many people who are being priced out of living in safe neighborhoods. We can't fix that with a bunch of weak or confusing "guiding principles" that just qualify and carve out broad exceptions to its compelling vision.

No, we shouldn't just build on every scrap of land available. No, we shouldn't just build 12 stories on top of every low-rise building. Green space matters. A diversity of housing types and neighborhoods matters.

But our city's Comprehensive Plan needs to provide solutions, not a list of non-committal statements that read in conflicting ways. It should push for the inclusive growth we need in no uncertain terms. And while each neighborhood should be a part of the discussion and have some voice in shaping how it grows, no neighborhood should get an unqualified opt out from growing and being inclusive.

Interested in helping us find ways to make this plan stronger? Join our online "book club" by filling out the form below. We cleared 110 members last week. Jump on in!

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