Posts about Planning
Yesterday, Mayor Gray released an economic development strategy for DC, to create 100,000 jobs over the next 5 years and beyond. The mayor deserves kudos for a strong and thoughtful report.
The administration partnered with DC's strong academic sector on the plan. Instead of paying millions of dollars to consultants, they reached out to the business schools of Georgetown, George Washington, American, and Howard Universities.
That paid off with report that doesn't simply rehash the same old ideas that one might have found equally in a 1965 plan for suburban Atlanta. For example, it says that in interviews with area businesses, it's clear that the future of the District is in walkable, transit-oriented commercial and office areas.
On retail, for example, the report says that "Most interviewees stated that the District has great potential to become a model for the future: a vibrant and walkable city. The majority said traffic congestion will become less relevant to the retail sector in the future." (page 78)
This is a refreshing change from the tired trope from the economic development transition team, which we still hear today from some business groups, who say that one of the most important steps they want DC to take is to time all of the traffic lights to make streets high-speed for cars into the District in the morning and out at night.
Plan is sector-specific
Some jurisdictions try to build jobs by indiscriminately throwing money at any company in any sector that is willing to come into town for a tax break. It's far more effective to develop clusters of related companies. That makes the city a generally attractive place for someone in that field, and the strong supply of labor in the field then attracts employers in a mutually-reinforcing cycle.
This plan seriously analyses key clusters that DC can reasonably hope to developed: technology, hospitality and retail, professional services and government contracting, real estate and construction, higher education, and health care. It lays out strategies for each that consider the particular needs of that sector. We commended Gray's emphasis on sector-specific economic development in an article earlier this year.
For example, this plan envisions a world-class medical center at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, which is right next to a cluster of hospitals. The job growth in health care and higher education has exceeded all other sectors in DC in the past decade.
Here are some of the many recommendations which jumped out:
Build a tech hub at Saint Elizabeths. The plan calls for creating a technology center at the Saint Elizabet's campus. It also recommends finding ways to offer tech startups lower-cost office space and connecting tech entrepreneurs with established leaders in their sector. These are all recommendations from the letter from tech executives, which we organized with InTheCapital.
Strategically relax height restrictions. While Mayor Gray emphasized at today's press conference that he's not counting on any changes to federal law, the plan contemplates raising height limits near the Anacostia River. This is similar to Paris's approach to their height limit, and is a good compromise between the economic value of more growth and federal aesthetic concerns.
Change zoning to allow retail in more areas. Commercial space in most parts of the District is very limited. This makes retail space more expensive and contributes to "retail leakage" to the suburbs, which is where many residents leave the District to spend their shopping dollars.
The plan calls for expanding the supply of low-cost retail space while respecting residential impacts and allowing residents to walk for as many of their shopping needs as possible. In particular, it suggests making retail more continuous along commercial corridors. When there are gaps of residential zoning, especially at prominent corners, it stops many shoppers from continuing along the street.
Promote hospitality and tourism. The proposal for the hospitality sector is particularly thoughtful and detailed. The plan envisions "delivering the highest standards in hospitality and service," creating a Hospitality Program at DC Community College, setting up a culinary incubator, and expanding tourism. These will all grow service sector jobs, and good service sector jobs are one of the best paths to the middle class in today's economy.
On the other hand, a few elements of the plan miss the mark or could go farther.
No new workforce development initiatives. Who will fill these 100,000 new jobs? Only 27% of DC jobs go to by DC residents, so adding more jobs won't address the unemployment rate east of the Anacostia river, which is one of the plan's stated goals. There isn't much in the way of new workforce programs beyond the administration's existing initiatives, One City One Hire and the Workforce Intermediary.
The only new initiative in the plan is to post new university and health care jobs on the DOES web site. What the District needs to do is use data-driven methods to steer the $100 million that DC spends on job training where it will do the most good, at training providers that produce validated results.
Tech tax incentives still lack focus. The report continues to promote Gray's plan for broad tax breaks for tech investment. An incentive for new angel investors in technology is a good idea, but any tax break needs to specifically target the District's goals of building a strong base of tech firms that actually create new technology and workers with software development and other skills.
DMPED could work with all stakeholders to properly design this tax break, but instead is choosing to shut out discussions of how to best tailor it. On LivingSocial's $32 million tax break, DMPED and LivingSocial mutually agreed not to negotiate on any terms ahead of time, the Washington City Paper learned.
The mayor wants to pass a tax break for tech investors, which the Council removed from a recent bill. DMPED refused to negotiate with opponents on that bill as well. That left the tax break's primary Council advocate, David Catania, bewildered that there was no discussion of a smaller reduction, which he would have gladly agreed to.
If DMPED can seriously think about what it needs to achieve and tailor the break to those goals with a spirit of collaboration, instead of letting tech executives and investors design their own tax cuts, it should be able to devise something that can win broad support.
Hospitality job growth significantly underestimated. Hospitality jobs are the 2nd fastest growing job segment in the District, having grown at a 28% clip and added 14,200 new jobs in the past 10 years. But they are only a small fragment of the 100,000 new jobs projected in the plan, which forecasts only an 8% growth in hospitality jobs from 2008 to 2018.
That disconnect resulted from the misuse of DOES labor market data by the report's authors, according to DOES Chief Economist Dr James Moore. The labor market data and projections used by the report's authors are not meant for economic development analysis, as they fail to factor many drivers of job growth and thus understate job growth.
This plan includes some of the best initiatives for improving hospitality jobs and workforce readiness in the nation, but it must be grounded in accurate data on job growth in the sector and its sub-sectors.
There's much more in the 116-page document. It shows that, as with the sustainability strategy, one legacy of the Gray administration will be a set of excellent plans that can guide the District through the rest of his mayoralty and beyond.
Is it in the federal government's interest to prevent tall buildings barely visible on the horizon from the monumental core of Washington? Or near a river? Or dictate the widths of sidewalks?
At its November 1, members of the National Capital Planning Commission engaged in this longstanding debate. This time, the subject came up around a new Urban Design Element to the Federal Comprehensive Plan.
The District of Columbia has a Comprehensive Plan which includes two halves: the Federal Elements, covering federal buildings and property and issues that affect the federal government's interest, and the District Elements, which address local neighborhoods and other issues under DC control.
The National Capital Planning Commission took its current form when DC got home rule. Before that, the federal government controlled all planning and zoning functions. Much of that transitioned to the DC Office of Planning and Zoning Commission, but Congress wanted NCPC to look out for the federal government's needs.
The question which comes up in meeting after meeting, project after project, is what exactly constitutes the "federal interest." How much of the form of the District should the federal government, and NCPC, dictate? Is everything you can see from any federal building the federal interest, or just policies which actually could impede the working of the federal government in the capital?
Federal facility policies push good design
Clearly, the design of federal buildings is under NCPC's purview, and here they push federal agencies to do much better than they often have. The proposed Comprehensive Plan chapter calls for the "highest quality" of design and construction," with sustainable buildings that integrate well into the surrounding urban fabric, sometimes standing out with an iconic design but sometimes just blending in.
NCPC pushes agencies to include ground-floor "retail and/or cultural resources" in their buildings. The General Services Administration plans this for their headquarters modernization, but many agencies are more fearful that it could represent a security risk, or are reluctant to pay for extra design features that protect the building against any kind of explosion in the public areas.
Other policies push for campuses to allow people on foot or bicycle to travel through, rather than walling off large areas, and to connect to surrounding streets. They prioritize public seating and art in the public space, and urge agencies to keep security features or loading docks as unobtrusive as possible.
At the NCPC meeting, Harriet Tregoning, who represents the Mayor on the commission, said, "This is a huge service ... in terms of providing very explicit guidance to federal agencies in terms of what's being sought and how it integrates with the rest of the city."
"Character of the Capital" policies reach far outside the federal realm
The other (first) section, entitled "Character of the Capital," speak more about the degree the city should feel like a city, even in areas far from federal properties. This section talks about maintaining a "horizontal skyline character," keeping public buildings visible from the waterfront, and maintaining views along major street rights-of-way (read: no pesky wires).
There are also some really important policies here, such as to "promote and maintain Pennsylvania Avenue ... as a multi-modal street bordered by an actively programmed, lively, pedestrian-oriented public realm." That's a goal which perhaps needs more of the "promote" and less of the "maintain" as it has a ways to go, especially to be "actively programmed." Also very important is the policy to re-establish "original L'Enfant Plan rights-of-way wherever possible."
But one section jumps out as of potential concern, which reads:
8. Maintain the prominence of the topographic bowl formed by lowland and rim features of the L'Enfant City and environs by controlling the urban and natural skylines in the Anacostia, Florida Avenue, and Arlington County portions of the bowl as follows:Is it really a fundamental piece of the federal interest to keep from having to look at buildings farther away in the distance? Mayoral appointee Rob Miller asked at the meeting about the fact that Arlington has plenty of quite tall buildings between the "topographic bowl" and the monumental core, and some commissioners noted that they had tried to stop some of that; NCPC even asked the FAA to block the first tall buildings in Rosslyn.
a. Preserve as much as possible the green setting of the Anacostia hills and integrate building masses with, and subordinate to, the natural topography.
b. Maintain the Florida Avenue escarpment's natural definition of the L'Enfant Plan boundaries by retaining developments that are fitted to the landforms and by promoting low-rise development that can be distinguished from the greater height of the L'Enfant City's core areas.
c. Within the western portion of the bowl, retain a horizontal skyline by relating building heights to the natural slope and rim areas of Arlington Ridge as viewed from the Capitol, the Mall, and other riverside outlooks.
Many people do feel that having low buildings even downtown is a really special part of the District's character. Others argue that it just fosters a city filled with boxy-looking buildings, and that tall buildings with appropriate setbacks can maintain light and air, and create beauty, even more than the current boxes do while also bringing more economic activity.
When it comes to the federal height limit and the downtown core, whatever you believe about urban design, it's clear that the federal government has a role to play in this discussion. When it comes to buildings that don't violate federal law out on the slopes surrounding the L'Enfant City, NCPC planners and commissioners might have opinions, but it's not clear this is an appropriate realm for federal officials to meddle.
Tregoning said that some of the principles "seem to be a stake in the ground when it comes to dictating how private development occurs in the city, including "things that limit height outside of the L'Enfant City."
She pointed to a provision that says that buildings near the shoreline should not block views of , suggesting that a policy which could control "building height in proximity to the shoreline in all waters throughout our region ... is a local determination and not the federal interest."
The issue of the federal interest came to a head when Bradley Provancha, the commissioner representing the Department of Defense, suggested that the on-street parking on M Street in Georgetown prevents wider sidewalks, and perhaps things like sidewalk widths should be part of the urban design element.
This is an example of what we don't want this urban design element to authorize, for NCPC to be weighing in about how we manage traffic and travel in Georgetown. Part of the difficulty for us [NCPC] is trying to determine what is the federal interest. That's our charge as the Commission, not what would be nice, or enhancing to the city or helpful to the city. This document is still imperfect in terms of how it divines that line and needs a little work.Provancha, mostly jokingly, suggested the federal government "put a large federal building in Georgetown, and then we would have an anchor and a legitimate interest in that portion." On the video, you can hear someone quipping, "Federalize Georgetown!"
This points out exactly the challenge and the problem. Provancha is there to represent the Department of Defense. Sometimes planning choices affect national security and sometimes they affect DoD in particular. But by dint of having this post on NCPC, he wants to comment on sidewalk width, and while he's right that wider sidewalks are really important, it's not a federal matter, nor should NCPC be eager to find a way to make it a federal matter.
Our hybrid system of federal and local control will always yield fault lines at the boundaries of the federal interest and the local interest. NCPC's planners and commissioners need to keep in mind their mission to safeguard the federal interest while also remembering that Congress explicitly chose to give local voters control of most aspects of the government, including planning and a 3/5 majority on the zoning board for non-federal issues. That makes it important to discuss the appropriate boundary of the federal interest and to then respect that line.
How can DC keep its character in the face of rapid development? What urban planning processes and policies should we adopt to protect this growth as well as our city's character? How can citizens make their voices heard but not drown out others in the meantime? Last night, a group of DC citizens tried to answer these questions.
At last night's Citizen Planner Forum, held at the District Architecture Center, speakers and attendees grappled with issues ranging from transit density, renter and homeowner affordability, neighborhood engagement, the power of developers, and DC's racial and economic dynamics.
Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning, told the crowd that these issues have a new urgency in the face of DC's accelerated growth. She said that the pace of growth has picked up over the last decade, particularly the last 4 years, with an average of 1,100 people moving into the city every month. These additions bring pressure to change and adapt, and how we react to that pressure will shape our city for decades.
Carolyn Sponza, chair of the American Institute of Architects' advocacy committee, also addressed this issue. In 4 recent focus groups, AIA and the Office of Planning found that residents wanted to be more engaged in urban planning and policies, but weren't sure how. Participants didn't know how development happened, or they didn't know the best way to get involved with their local agency or ANC.
The focus groups also found a hunger for stronger connections between neighborhoods because "sometimes best practices don't quite make it across ward boundaries" as well as a desire to improve DC's public spaces by making them more inviting and usable.
The event's panel echoed these concerns. The panelists, including residents from Friendship Heights, downtown, Hillcrest, and Anacostia, discussed how useful the ANC system is (or isn't) when it comes to promoting citizen engagement, and whether citizens who live very close to a proposed development have too much say over the project's outcome compared to those who live farther away but who also have an interest in the development.
A key theme of the night was citizen engagement, specifically how to engage the "silent majority" of citizens thought to be in favor of development but who don't get involved. As panelist Veronica Davis, a Hillcrest resident and founder of Black Women Bike, put it, "When people like something, they don't say anything."
Sometimes objections have nothing to do with the development itself, but fears of the development's impact on the neighborhood. Panelist Charles Wilson, an Anacostia resident, spoke about his experiences with neighbors who were worried that new development would lead to increasing home values which would drive them out of the area.
As with any DC discussion of urban planning these days, the phrase "dog parks and bike lanes" came up. Davis said that this phrase, as well as the phrase "long-time resident," were part of a code for race that allowed residents to "talk over one another." Members of the audience expressed their agreement; another panelist, Sue Hemberger of Friendship Heights, adding that local politicians frequently stoke this division to score easy points.
While no conclusions were reached at this event, it demonstrated that there's a vibrant community interested in these issues. The next step is making sure everyone is given the opportunity to be heard. One way to do that could be through web tools the forum showcased. Popularise allows people to comment and vote on how to develop a building or space, while its counterpart Fundrise enables people to directly invest in a local property.
DC's unprecedented growth presents challenges, but also enormous opportunities. The question is: what are we going to do with them? How can DC grow without losing its character?
What do you get if a planner writes the first part of a plan, and then a highway engineer writes the second part without bothering to read the first? You get something that looks like the preliminary draft of the Greenbelt Metro/193 Sector Plan.
Whether the two parts have disparate authors who consulted or not, the result is a contradictory plan. The plan, from the Prince George's County planning department, sets out some very progressive goals, including building walkable, mixed-use nodes in several locations. But the transportation recommendations then defeat the plan's own aims.
At the public meetings, planners talked about using road diets to reduce the barrier effect of some high-traffic arteries. Instead of employing that useful tool, the draft plan does the opposite, and recommends widening several roads in a way that will deepen the problem in the area.
One of the targets for redevelopment in this area is the Greenbelt Metro station site. Currently a sea of almost 4,000 parking spaces, it's a prime site for transit-oriented, mixed-use development. The transit hub is home not only to the Metro, but also to MARC trains and several bus lines. The plan also leaves open the possibility for the site to develop for a GSA tenant like the FBI.
The plan also targets Beltway Plaza and the Greenway Shopping Center for redevelopment. Both of these auto-oriented retail centers are along Greenbelt Road, a major suburban arterial corridor. This wide roadway forms a barrier separating neighborhoods.
The plan notes that major roadways like Greenbelt Road have created "significant barriers to connectivity and pedestrian and bicycle safety, effectively separating the sector plan area into isolated sections." Greenbelt has been split into several pods over the years by freeways like the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and Kenilworth Avenue, and citizens spoke out about the divisions these roadways have created.
"The sector plan area is characterized by major highway intersections and freeway interchanges that directly and negatively impact pedestrian and bicycle mobility and access."The plan proposes to transform the area to "maximize pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, mobility, and safety." It calls for completing a continuous network of sidewalks, bikeways, and trails; for reconfiguring Greenbelt Road to include dedicated bike facilities and wide sidewalks; for coordinating transit services to increase ridership; and to enhance safety for all users.
All of those improvements are terrific ideas, and they've been needed for years. Unfortunately, it sounds like the plan isn't really serious about these improvements.
Plan counteracts its own solutions
Seeming to have forgotten about all the problems created by bigger and wider roads, the plan calls for widening several arteries in the sector plan area. Most notably, the plan calls for adding a lane in each direction to Greenbelt Road in front of Beltway Plaza and Greenway Center. It supports widening Kenilworth Avenue and the Capital Beltway. The county also proposes widening a 2-lane section of Hanover Parkway to 4 lanes.
The plan still includes a proposal to spend several million dollars reconfiguring the Greenbelt Road/Kenilworth Avenue interchange into a "diverging diamond," which will be even less friendly for non-motorized users.
It's especially ironic that these elements are in the plan, since at the community meetings planners talked about the exact opposite: road diets.
And in this case, road diets are probably warranted. A traffic study conducted as part of the planning process found that none of the roadways in the sector plan area was failing. Neither were any of the intersections.
So, despite a lack of congestion; despite talk of road diets; despite wanting to increase walking and bicycling; despite all of that, the plan still calls for widening roads.
It's almost as if, having decried the unintended consequences of the transportation policies of 1975, the plan says: there's nothing wrong with solving those problems with the same solutions.
Widenings confound positive changes
Word cloud showing community desires. Image from the plan.
A walkable node at Beltway Plaza is all well and good. But how well will it be connected to Berwyn Heights on the south if it's separated by a 10-lane road? Putting bike lanes on Greenbelt Road sounds nice. But how safe will it be to bike alongside 10 lanes of traffic? Completing the sidewalk network is long overdue. But how pleasant will it be to walk alongside one of the widest arterials in the region?
Speeding trips through Greenbelt will also encourage more suburbanization in the less-developed sections of the county. That will take office and retail demand away from the parts of the county where the infrastructure already exists to serve it.
No, the plan will not enable the future it envisions, because it still clings to the infrastructure changes that created the divided, pedestrian-hostile environment it seeks to fix.
It's not too late for Prince George's to build the foundation for a more walkable and sustainable Greenbelt. But the Planning Board and County Council need to urge changes to the plan. Without the uncalled-for widening of the roadways in the area, the plan has a chance of creating the mixed-use nodes and increasing walking, biking, and transit use in the planning area.
The Prince George's County Planning Board and County Council will be holding a joint session public hearing at 7 pm Tuesday in Upper Marlboro. If you're a resident of Prince George's, write the Council or come to testify. Tell them that positive change requires taking a different approach than ones past.
In the real world: Zoning update hearing, citizen planners, Dupont/Logan bike safety, parking, and gentrification
Now that the summer is over, DC agencies and legislators are kicking it into gear, and there are a lot of important events coming up.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is holding a hearing on the zoning update, and the Office of Planning has a forum about citizens can engage in planning. There's a meeting on Dupont and Logan bike safety, a star-studded panel on gentrification, and two parking think tanks, and more.
Tomorrow, the Dupont and Logan ANCs are having a meeting "for residents, business owners, and organizations to discuss bicycle safety issues in the community," including new infrastructure, laws like those against sidewalk cycling, and any ideas residents have. It's in the ballroom of the Chastleton, 16th and R, from 7-9.
Also tomorrow is a Humanitini panel on gentrification. Washington City Paper editor Mike Madden is moderating the panel, which includes Rauzia Ally and Maria Casarella, two architects who serve on the Historic Preservation Review Board; Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Business Journal; and former Mayor "that's an old movie" Tony Williams. Sign up to attend here.
Next week are 2 of DDOT's Parking Think Tanks, Wednesday evening 10/3 at the West End Library (large conference room) and Thursday 10/4 at Wilson High School (cafeteria). Both are 6:30-8:30. If you can't make one of them, don't forget to fill out the online survey, which asks about both car and bicycle parking issues.
Also next Thursday, October 4, the Office of Planning is having a Citizen Planner Forum to talk about how planning projects can engage more residents. They held 4 focus groups with residents about ways planning processes can work better, and will talk about the results, new tools to involve the public and more. The event is 6:30 to 8 at the District Architecture Center, 421 7th Street, NW.
Finally, there's a pretty important hearing for those of you who can make a 1 pm DC Council hearing on a Friday. Zoning update opponents convinced former Chairman Kwame Brown to hold an oversight hearing on the zoning update, even though the topic already came up during the annual oversight hearings for the Office of Planning each of the last 4 years. Phil Mendelson kept it on the agenda when he became chairman. It was originally supposed to be today, but since it's Yom Kippur, they moved it to Friday, October 5.
Zoning update head opponent Linda Schmitt sent a predictably provocational and misinforming email, claiming that a process over 4 years with hundreds of community meetings (and more to come) is about "high-handed decisions by city officials ... who make every effort to play "hide the ball," deflecting questions, maligning civic advice and avoiding
stating their intentions." To sign up to testify, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, address, and phone number.
Harold Foster, a fixture in Washington planning, died on September 4 following complications from hip replacement surgery. He was 62.
Foster worked for the Prince George's planning department for the last 18 years. Before that, he worked in transit planning for the DC government for more than 20 years. He was involved in promoting a streetcar vision for the District all the way back in 1988.
Harold was one of the first planners I met after starting the blog. He asked some very insightful questions at a conference I attended. He maintained an email list to which he forwarded interesting articles (sometimes including ones from Greater Greater Washington), and often added some of his own perspective from decades of working on transportation policy in the Washington area.
He gave me an invaluable historical perspective on many issues, including streetcar debates, whether DC should take over local bus routes from WMATA, development at Walter Reed, and divisions among the way African-Americans in DC view the Washington Redskins given the team's history of racial discrimination. I'll miss being able to ask him for his views on important issues of the day.
Foster grew up in DC and attended Peabody Elementary, Paul Junior High, and Calvin Coolidge High School. He graduated summa cum laude from Syracuse University in 1973 and got his Masters in Urban Development from Cornell in 1975. He is survived by his wife, Teresita, his mother, Dorothy Foster, his sister, and an extended family in both the DC area and in his wife's home of Peru.
Eric Foster, Harold's boss at the Prince George's planning department since 1994, remarked at the memorial service:
I met Harold at his interview. It was supposed to be a 45 minute interview, and we ask each applicant the same questions. I don't remember if Harold's was 45 minutes, but it probably had the longest answers I can recall in my 26 years at Park and Planning.Cheryl Cort, Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, wrote:
Looking back, he had a lot to say and
— without either of us knowing it at the time — he was telling me all about Harold. Not just Harold the transportation planner, but Harold the community conscience, Harold the world citizen, Harold the public policy guy (notice I don't use the word "wonk") and finally, Harold the visionary.
That's because Harold put the whole package together. Sure, he was well read (it will be another week before we finish moving stuff out of his office). But his vision and public policy side was very much informed by Harold the community conscience and Harold the world citizen.
In coming to Prince George's County, Harold entered an environment of transition and aspirations. Here, in his later life, Harold saw that sometimes the transitions were not going in the direction of the aspirations. So, enter Harold the reality checker.
Now, we have our own language in the planning field. Today, we talk about transit-oriented development and walkability and mixed use and shared parking and sustainability.
— who was known to refer to himself as "Dorothy Foster's son" — the litmus test for all this good stuff was basically reduced to Mom's neighborhood. Can Mom go to the store, the bank, the movies, the salon, maybe even a job — all in the same neighborhood she lives in, for her lifetime? That was his vision for the community. His life's work was identifying and moving forward the thousand and one moving parts that make that vision work.
Dorothy, a mom never knows how far her influence will extend.
Harold had encyclopedic knowledge in our region's land use and transportation planning history. But what stood out beyond his vast knowledge and experience of years as a professional planner, was his passion. He was passionate about how all our plans and schemes would affect low income and working folk.Action Committee for Transit President Tina Slater said:
He cared deeply that our plans and policies considered, addressed and protected those who didn't have many advantages or privileges in this society. I will always think of Harold as I work to ensure that the policies and plans I hope to shape will mean that those with less will have more opportunity when I am done.
Harold was a fixture of the Transportation Planning Board's (TPB) Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC). His wisdom, insight, and sense of humor were appreciated by all. Always on top of transportation issues, CAC members could count on Harold to provide timely e-mails with links to informative articles, always prefaced with his wry and pithy wit! On complicated topics and discussion, the CAC could rely on Harold to provide a context and the history of a topicAny resident of DC or Prince George's County will feel the effects of his work when they ride a DC streetcar or the Maryland Purple Line in the future, or use today one of the bus services or pedestrian connections he helped push for. Thanks for your service, Harold.
— he served as the CAC's "institutional memory."
Last week, Amtrak unveiled a master plan for the future Union Station. Most press coverage immediately focused on the dollar figure in the plan, $7 billion, and even many transit advocates fretted that this cost sounded unrealistic. But we should not criticize Amtrak for suggesting a $7 billion plan. Instead, we need even more big plans to go along with this one.
That's because this plan isn't just for today, and isn't just for Amtrak. It's about what it will take to update a 100-year-old commuter and intercity rail bottleneck that we haven't invested in for generations. It even goes far beyond Union Station, and there need to be plans for all of it.
Plus, transportation planning is not about what we need today. States put things on the plan which have no money at all, but decades later, they get done. If we want a commuter and intercity rail system that can grow for the next 100 years, we need to plan investments 30 years hence, today.
Make no little plans, because other transportation agencies are making big plans
The Washington region's transportation investment primarily revolves around the Constrained Long-Range Plan, or CLRP. The Transportation Planning Board, a commission of government officials from DC, Maryland, Virginia, many local cities and counties, WMATA and more, creates and approves this plan.
The current CLRP plans for spending $222.9 billion in capital and operating money over 30 years. That's the size of the region's transportation spending to keep roads and transit running and add new capacity on both. It includes the DC streetcar, 11th Street Bridge, Silver Line, Beltway HOT lanes, I-95 HOT lanes, Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, Columbia Pike Streetcar, widening I-66, widening I-270, and widening nearly every major road in Northern Virginia and many in Maryland. It's got a few bike and pedestrian projects, too.
In short, this plan contains almost everything the state and local governments currently want to do over the next 30 years. But a lot is not in the plan. There are no new Metro lines through the core. There are no dedicated bus lanes. There are a lot of road and rail and bus and pedestrian and bicycle projects that regional governments want to do, but had to cut because of that C in CLRP: constrained. The CLRP requires there to be some concept of where the funding will come from, like federal transportation dollars between 2025 and 2030 or something like that.
Make no little plans, because your problems are not little either
The CLRP also doesn't have projects to do something about one of the most severe transit bottlenecks in the region: trains in and out of the core. Right now, Amtrak and MARC trains from 3 lines have to all come together at the "K interlocking," the spot near K Street where all the tracks merge, and they also have to fight for space with VRE trains that go out to a storage yard in Ivy City.
Farther south, VRE and some Amtrak trains go through a tunnel to the L'Enfant Plaza area, where they merge with CSX tracks coming through Capitol Hill. 4 tracks, 2 from each, merge down to just 2 tracks over the Potomac's Long Bridge and out to Virginia. The L'Enfant VRE station is horribly undersized for its need, especially since, being near the intersection of 4 Metro lines, it is a better transfer point for many riders.
MARC, VRE, and Amtrak could all move far more people than they do today if they could load and unload more passengers at Union Station and L'Enfant Plaza, fit more trains in the area, and commuter railroads could run trains through from Maryland to Virginia and vice versa. They'll also need to fix bottlenecks elsewhere, like in Baltimore.
We've been gradually upgauging roadway capacity in the area for at least 60 years, but during most of that time we neglected 100-year-old rail infrastructure because transit was declining. Now it's growing quickly, and could grow even more if it had the room.
The platforms at Union Station are far too narrow compared to modern intercity and commuter rail stations, especially major terminals. The railroads can't load and unload trains from more than one side of a platform at once, and therefore Amtrak says they can't let anyone wait on the platform for trains before they are ready to board.
That means the too-small waiting areas become even more massively overcrowded. Other large train stations let people access the trains from more than one end.
Union Station is also more than just trains. It's got the Metro station with the most people coming in or out, even though only one line serves it. It's a major loading point for tour buses. Many intercity buses now stop there. Numerous local bus lines serve it, including 2 Circulators, and soon the streetcar will as well. It's a huge parking garage and a major mall.
Many people also got confused by thinking that this plan is an Amtrak plan. Amtrak was the lead agency, though they made a major tactical mistake by focusing the rollout around themselves and reinforcing the idea that it was an Amtrak plan. This is a master plan for a place that serves many, many modes and agencies.
Make no little plans when you really need an even bigger plan
A good master plan considers all of the needs for all of the modes and all of the agencies, then fits everything together like a massive puzzle. This plan not only includes a complete rebuild of the inadequate tracks and too-narrow platforms, but also a fixed K interlocking, 3 new concourses, underground parking (some of which we might be able to do without), a whole bus station, rebuilding the H Street bridge (something DC says needs to happen anyway), more space in the Metro station (another severe problem even today), more retail which brings in more money, supports for buildings atop the railyards, and more.
But this plan doesn't even cover everything. We also need an even bigger master master plan, that goes along with the Union Station plan, for the railway corridor from at least Springfield through to Baltimore. The master master plan should look at what it will take to integrate MARC and VRE into a commuter rail operation that runs through from one state to the other, if that turns out to be worth the cost.
This even more comprehensive plan should look at how to untangle passenger and freight on the Long Bridge, include the cost of a better 4-track L'Enfant station, improve connections to Metro at stations, and even new Metro lines to serve Union Station.
A potential future Metro system, if the commuter rails ran frequent service and served as "express" lines.
Then, that plan needs to go on the CLRP. Maybe that's a $25 billion plan. That could be 10% of the region's investment in the 30-year timeframe, but this is also even more significant to the federal government. This is the gateway to the nation's capital, a pair of stations by the United States Capitol and the densest cluster of federal offices, the way many visitors come to see our monuments and memorials.
Make no little plans when by the time they happen, big plans might be realistic
Sure, right now Congress seems entirely hostile both to having a great capital and to investing in infrastructure across the nation. But 30 years ago a lot was different, and by 30 years from now a lot will change again, for better or worse. The stimulus popped up very fast, and rewarded everyone who had "shovel-ready" projects. A lot could change one day, and maybe almost overnight.
Meanwhile, the railroads, Metro, and everyone else needs to price out these projects and get them onto the long-range plans. If they don't, someone else will put something on instead. It's not like the state DOTs will just put in a 5-, 10- or 25-billion dollar placeholder for "really important stuff we will figure out later."
No, they'll stuff the tail end of that pipeline full of just about everything anyone can come up with, and grab all of the future money. Even if most of that stuff is also worthy, and even if not everything from the Union Station plan gets built, the only way stuff like fixing the commuter railroads and Union Station overcrowding will ever get done is if someone puts it into the hopper along with everything else now.
We should cheer Amtrak, the commuter railroads, USRC, Akridge and everyone else for thinking big. We need similarly big plans for Metro, L'Enfant and the Long Bridge, and everything else. Then all transit supporters need to push Congress and the states to invest as they should, today and 30 years from now, and in the meantime, push to at least fund the highest priority pieces.
Yesterday, Dan Malouff wrote about the long-term planning from Gaithersburg versus Rockville. Gaithersburg planned ahead by about 10 years, while Rockville didn't, to its detriment. Dan wrote, "Proactively plan for what you want, or lose out to someone who did."
He could just as easily have been talking about Union Station or any other transit expansion plan. With this plan, what Union Station needs might or might not happen. But without it, it definitely won't.
Update: Another problem, which I meant to include but didn't get in, is that Amtrak only released a top-line cost number, without details about where the $7 billion comes from or how much each element contributes to the cost. Amtrak will need to be more forthcoming with details as it moves forward so that people can better understand the dollar figure and either understand why it is the size it is, or challenge assumptions that make it so large.
Rockville and Gaithersburg are nearly identical in many ways, and usually get along. But they aren't happy with each other right now, as they fight over who will annex a property located in the narrow swath of unincorporated land between them. This fight shows how long-term planning works and why it is important.
The crux of their disagreement is that Gaithersburg wants to annex a piece of land near the Rockville border that Rockville has never annexed itself, but to which Rockville thinks it is entitled. The land is south of Shady Grove Road, which many people think of as the unofficial boundary between the two cities.
But what people think of unofficially is not the law. There are actually laws on the books that govern how annexation works. When the dust settles, Gaithersburg is going to win this fight, because Gaithersburg has proactively thought about its long term planning needs, while Rockville has been strictly reactive.
The State of Maryland requires incorporated cities to adopt a future expansion plan, showing areas that each city may want to annex in the future. The entire point of this requirement is to give cities the opportunity to show where their "unofficial" boundaries are, so that everyone can plan accordingly.
And whether Rockville cares to admit it or not, they never made any kind of claim to the land in question until after Gaithersburg claimed it for itself, despite many opportunities to do so. If Rockville thought itself entitled to everything south of Shady Grove Road, then Rockville should have used the state's process to stake a legal claim.
The property in question is near the southeast corner of Shady Grove Road and Frederick Road:
The Gaithersburg plan was adopted in 2009, and clearly shows this property as part of Gaithersburg's claim area. It's possible Gaithersburg claimed the land even earlier, but at the very latest by 2009 they had declared their intention to the land. Meanwhile, Rockville's plan shows that they didn't start thinking about this property until 2010, and had even specifically excluded it from their expansion plan during their previous update in 2002.
If Rockville wanted this land, why didn't they claim it in 2002? Or even before? If they really thought of Shady Grove Road as the boundary with Gaithersburg, why not make it official during any of the many updates to their expansion plan over the decades? Why wait until after Gaithersburg claimed it to express any interest?
Rockville didn't plan for the long term, and Gaithersburg did, and so Gaithersburg is going to win. They are set to annex the property at tonight's City Council meeting, and Rockville is powerless to stop it.
This is a good lesson to everyone. Proactively plan for what you want, or lose out to someone who did.
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