Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Public Involvement

Transit


How do you get people excited about Bus Rapid Transit? Bring a bus to the county fair

Bus Rapid Transit has become an increasingly popular concept for communities in the DC area, but to see it in action, you'd have to travel to Cleveland or Los Angeles. This week, you can get a glimpse of our possible future at the Montgomery County fair in Gaithersburg.


Photo by betterDCregion on Flickr.

Communities for Transit, a local nonprofit that promotes Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan, set up a brand-new bus to display outside the gates of the fair, which began last Saturday and runs through this Saturday, August 16. Visitors can learn about the county's concept for an 80-mile system of bus lanes on major streets like Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, and Columbia Pike, and tour the bus, which will eventually make its way to Denver.

At a press conference yesterday, county councilmembers and County Executive Ike Leggett said they hope to ride BRT here within four years. Getting there will require more detailed studies, which are currently underway, and securing a funding source.


Fairgoers check out the bus while CFT's Scott Williamson explains how it works. Photo by the author.

While the BRT plan faced intense opposition from wealthier neighborhoods like Chevy Chase West and Woodmoor, those at the fair were more receptive, asking Communities for Transit staff and volunteers when it was going to happen. Parents searched a route map to find the closest stop to their jobs, while their kids hopped into the bus driver's seat and pretended to drive.

Most people don't participate in traditional community meetings, meaning a vocal minority can dominate the conversation. That's why there's a bus parked outside the county fair: it brings people into the conversation who otherwise wouldn't get engaged, revealing that public support is actually greater than we thought. And the display vehicle, with its big windows, cushioned seats, and overpowering new smell, may have changed any negative impressions some visitors may have had about riding the bus.

Hopefully, Montgomery County officials will encourage people to ride the Metroway BRT line that will open in Arlington and Alexandria in two weeks. It'll be the region's first chance to actually ride BRT in person, and a prime opportunity to build support and allay some residents' concerns.

Until then, you can see the Bus Rapid Transit vehicle for yourself from 12 pm to 8 pm every day this week through this Saturday at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fairgrounds, located at 16 Chestnut Street in Gaithersburg.

History


The DC zoning update has already had triple the public input as the enormous 1958 zoning code. Enough is enough.

Last week, Mayor Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until at least this fall before considering the proposed DC zoning update. This comes after nearly seven years of deliberation and resident input, and will now mean an entire year after a full draft was released for public review.


Photo by Live Life Happy on Flickr.

Public involvement is a critical part of good planning, but on this project, city officials have established what must be a new record for public consultation. Already, there has been enormously more public input than when the original zoning code was passed in 1958.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth is urging residents to tell Mayor Gray that further delay in creating a more walkable and inclusive city is simply not acceptable.

As of earlier this year, there have been:

  • 81 public work group meetings on 20 topic areas in 2008-2009, with a total of 1,000 participants
  • 42 open task force meetings by a representative task force of 25 residents
  • 59 public hearings and meetings by the Zoning Commission on specific topics starting in 2009
  • 8 meetings in each ward in December 2012 and January 2013 to discuss the zoning revision
  • Over 100 ANC, community group, and special interest group meetings with the DC Office of Planning.
Miles away from the 1958 zoning code

Meanwhile, back in 1956-1958, there were no more than 25 public hearings. 20 of those were clustered in two 10-day breaks for public input.

The zoning codes were developed by a private consultant; the public had its input; and then a three-man group called the Zoning Advisory Council made significant alternations.

The Zoning Advisory Council was group of three "experienced" individuals, representing the National Capital Planning Commission, the Zoning Commission, and the District Commissioner. They advised the Zoning Commission when big changes came up. The Zoning Commission had to consider each of their views.

The current zoning update began with public and open working groups on each topic. The previous one began with a contract, in November 1954. At the time, there was no Office of Planning. The National Capital Planning Commission did most of the work. Zoning was the job of the Zoning Commission, which comprised the three District Commissioners, as well as a representative from the Architect of the Capitol and the National Park Service.

Two of the District Commissioners were civilians appointed by Congress. The third, and by far the dominant, was an ex-officio representative of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Engineer Commissioner was effectively the city manager.

Having no planning staff of its own, the Zoning Commission issued a contract in November 1954 for Harold Lewis, a well-respected engineer and urban planner. His father, Nelson Lewis, was a founder of American planning.

Lewis presented his plans over ten summer weeknights, June 18th-29th, 1956. Crowds packed into the stuffy auditoriums of schools and the Wilson building to voice their opinions on Lewis' proposal. Lewis or one of his assistants began each event with a defense of the assumptions that underlay the report.

The public addressed Lewis' plan with a barrage of testy testimony. Unlike the current process, the 1956 commission didn't break up the meeting by topic. This was the first time anyone had seen the proposal.

The zoning change significantly altered the zoning map. Lewis also wanted to force nonconforming structures and uses to close down entirely. And the code dramatically downzoned much of the city.

The 2008-2014 zoning update does not touch this level of controversy. The map does not change, and no areas get upzoned or downzoned. Policy changes, such as the controversial ones around parking, corner stores, and basement and garage apartments, are tiny compared to the changes of 1958.

Lewis took some of the public comments into consideration. He delivered his final report, known as the Lewis Report, on November 9th. A 7-month comment period then began, and ended with 10 days of hearings at the Wilson Building, May 27th-June 6th.

If the summer meetings were hot, this was volcanic. But it ended with the Zoning Advisory Council taking the comments behind closed doors. They issued a report on July 12, 1957. Other than details, the law went into effect on May 12th, 1958. With some alterations, what was set down then is still law.

Little changes shouldn't make it hard to solve big problems

It's not that the 1958 process was better. Far from it; the openness of the current process should be praised. And it's always worth examining how a public process could be more open. However, it's not clear how new rounds of testimony increase participation by underrepresented groups.

More time will just allow vocal residents to rehash the same disputes again. All to defend regulations that, no matter how comfortable they may have become, are based on discredited and outdated theory.

Comprehensively updating our zoning code for the first time since 1958 will help to make housing more affordable, by giving builders more flexible options in construction and easing the rules that allow homeowners to create an accessory apartment.

In a city with housing costs that are rapidly spiraling out of control, we can't afford to waste any more time with unjustified delays. Let the Zoning Commission begin deliberating! Send a message to Mayor Gray that DC residents are ready NOW for a new, modern, and more understandable zoning code.

Zoning


DC's 40-year out of date zoning code will get at least 6 months more stale

A team of professionals looking at DC's zoning concluded that the 1958 code was hopelessly outdated, and found an urgent need for a new code. That report was in 1973. Four decades later, the code will continue getting older, as Mayor Vincent Gray asked the DC Zoning Commission to wait until September before deliberating on the proposed zoning update.


Photo by Neal Sanche on Flickr.

After over five years of public hearings and meetings to write a new code, the DC Office of Planning submitted it to the Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say over zoning in DC, last year.

There have been seven months of hearings already, with exhaustive chances for everyone to learn about the code and speak their minds. But Gray now wants changes, including ones that will add housing and help people age in place, to wait even longer.

The commission "set down" the code for public comment and hearings on September 9th, 2013. There were public hearings in November, but when some residents said they hadn't had enough time to read the new code, the commission added another set of hearings in January and February. There are two more hearings, for Wards 7 and 8 on April 21 and citywide on April 24, to give people yet another chance to speak.

But this week, the Gray administration decided to ask for even more delay, and the Zoning Commission extended the deadline to September 15, over a year after they set down the proposals.

The delay was almost another year longer than that. Gray wrote September 15, 2015 in a letter, but the zoning commissioners decided to assume he meant September 15, 2014.

Some commissioners argued that the process had gone on long enough, while others welcomed even more time. Rob Miller, a Gray appointee to the board, said, "Going through this process for seven years, what's another six months?" By that token, what's another seven years? The code has sorely needed revision for over 40 years.

Major problems with the zoning code were evident in 1970

In a July 1970 report, planning consultant Barton-Aschman Associates looked back at the code from the far side of highway protests, racial tension, riots, environmentalism, urban renewal, and the Metro system.

They didn't like what they saw. Despite some patches after Home Rule, the language was outdated and the code had major flaws. The study said,

A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.
Studies for the original code by its principal author, Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed people continued to have large families and drove everywhere, and that no historic neighborhoods would be preserved. The 1970 report criticized these assumptions as already out of date.

The 1958 code also did not plan for a city with Metro, with the lower dependence on driving and greater densities that made possible. The 1970 report argued,

Perhaps the Metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
In 1976, 18 years after the zoning code was written, a panel of citizen representatives agreed that a zoning code which separated residential from commercial uses was harming the city:
The rigid separation of uses contemplated by our existing zoning is no longer desirable in many instances, and indeed, the separation of residential and commercial uses contributes positively to the increasing deadening of Downtown after dark.
The Special Citizens Advisory Committee on Urban Renewal included the 1958 code as part of the policies of an unrepresentative government that had decimated the city with slum clearance and highway construction. In the same period, the city made some additions to the planning laws, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and the Planned Unit Development process.

Downtown got new zoning in 1991 and amendments in 2000, and DC has added overlay districts to tweak zoning in many residential neighborhoods, but for most of the city, the zoning remains substantially the same as in the 1968 plan, and many of its problems were never solved.

For decades, people have said the zoning code is out of date. The earliest response to the highway riots questioned the zoning produced at that time. Then, one of the first actions of an independent DC was to question the land use regulation that was tied up with urban renewal. They patched the regulations up, but didn't reconstructed them in a way that improved stability and quality of life over the long term.

Some people say that changes to the zoning code will only worsen existing problems. But many of those problems exist because of the way the zoning is written now. Perhaps the city has become comfortable with the problems it's known about for 40 years. The risk of short-term pain is not a good enough reason to delay a much-needed update any more.

Events


Events roundup: All together now

Add your voice to the public involvement process, learn about the history of a DC landmark, and meet fellow transit supporters in Montgomery County at events around the region.


Photo by Megara Tegal on Flickr.

Whose voices do planners hear?: Social media and evolving technologies have allowed a more diverse set of voices to weigh in on the planning process than ever before, but informal comments online often aren't formally recognized by planning agencies. How can planners bridge this communication gap?

The National Capital Planning Commission will host a panel discussion on this issue on Wednesday, April 9, 7-8:30 pm. NCPC's William Herbig will moderate a conversation with David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington, Cheryl Cort from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards from Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood. The free event is at NCPC's offices, 401 9th Street, NW, Suite 500. RSVP here.

After the jump: learn about the history of the Washington Coliseum, attend a community drop-in workshop about the Maryland Avenue SW transportation study, and attend a happy hour for rapid transit in Montgomery County.

The forgotten landmark: The Washington Coliseum, formerly Uline Arena, is now used as a parking facility, but once hosted the Beatles' first concert in America. To learn more about the facility's fascinating history, join the District Public Library for the last spring edition of its Know Your Neighborhood series as it presents a screening and panel discussion of filmmaker Jason Hornick's documentary "The Washington Coliseum: The Forgotten Landmark." The screening takes place this Tuesday, April 8, 6:30 pm at the Northeast Branch Library, 330 7th St. NE.

Maryland Ave SW drop-in workshop: DC's Maryland Avenue SW Small Area Plan hopes to knit back together the L'Enfant street grid in the Southwest Federal Center area. The plan calls for building a new Maryland Avenue atop the railroad tracks, between 7th and 12th Streets SW, which will link to existing roads, create new public spaces, and provide new walking, biking, and driving routes.

Following the study, the District Department of Transportation started its own analysis about whether it's possible to build Maryland Avenue and delve into more technical detail. DDOT officials are going to be outside the L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station at 7th & Maryland Avenue SW on Friday, April 11, from 11-1 and again from 4-6 to talk to people about their findings. The rain location is the Marketing Center at L'Enfant Plaza (next to Sandella's).

Happy hour for rapid transit in Montgomery: Interested in seeing Rapid Transit in Montgomery County? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit at a happy hour next week, on Tuesday, April 15, 6 pm, to hear the latest news about Rapid Transit, how you can get involved, and to connect with fellow allies, volunteers, and supporters.

The event is at the Communities for Transit office, 8630 Fenton Street, Suite 500, in Silver Spring. The event is free but please register here.

Government


Proposed project stirs debate

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

A new controversial project has drawn vigorous support from some residents but strong opposition from others. Proponents insist that it will enhance the community, while those against see it as yet another example of change in an already changing neighborhood. Both sides agree that the change that will greatly impact the quality of life, for better or worse.


Yes/no image from Shutterstock.

Several local leaders and neighborhood activists insist that the project is an important way to help the community adapt to the 21st century and accommodate new ways of doing things that many residents want. They also argue that this is only a minor adjustment to previous plans.

Opponents disagree, insisting that the project does not fit into the character of the existing neighborhood and will ultimately render it unrecognizable from its current state. Both sides have marshaled data (and, more importantly, anecdotes) to support their vision for changing things or keeping them exactly the same.

Some community meetings have become intense affairs of shouting, foot-stomping and finger-pointing and the rhetoric on the neighborhood listserv has become increasingly vitriolic. The most passionate supporters and opponents insist that they love the neighborhood so much that they will move away if the wrong outcome comes to pass.

"I just moved here, and I would not have done so had I known that this project could have even been proposed," said one opponent. "I can't believe that no one consulted me to let me know ahead of time that such a change was even possible," said another. "I have kids. What about them?" she continued.

"I have lived in this neighborhood for a long time and I can't recall a time that our community was this divided," said a resident who supports the project. "This is yet another example of how the side I disagree with on this issue continues to put their own interests over mine."

Several residents have argued that this change will push elderly people out of their homes, while others insist it is necessary to ensure they can continue to live in their homes. The needs of poor residents have frequently come up, as affluent proponents say this change will help the less fortunate while wealthy opponents are certain it will harm the poor.

The fierce debate over the project has even garnered attention from the local media. After the last community meeting, one reporter filed a memorable story, "Community Members Square Off Over Controversial Project." Several notable local newspaper columnists have written that this project is a prime example of the tensions over change in the region.

Both sides do agree that the current public process has not involved enough residents. Those who support the project and those who oppose it both believe that certain voices in the community have spoken up at public meetings out of proportion to their numbers, while a "silent majority" of other residents who agree with their side of the issue have not yet been heard. Local elected officials have generally agreed that the government agency or private organization promoting the project has not done enough to involve the community.

Tensions continue to run high, but a decision should be reached soon. Whether the community rallies behind the eventual outcome and the project is advanced or rejected, or whether the project moves forward or stalls and the rift carries on for years to come, remains to be seen.

Events


Events roundup: Spring has sprung

This week, celebrate spring by helping clean up the Anacostia River and learning about trees in urban environments. You can also talk about bicycling in Montgomery County, bus technology, and safer streets in DC.


Photo by The City Project on Flickr.

Clean up the Anacostia: On Saturday, April 5, the Anacostia Watershed Society is organizing clean-up events in DC, Montgomery, and Prince George's. Organizers will talk to volunteers about the river and its watershed, and then volunteers will help remove trash from neighborhoods, streams, and the river.

The cleanup activities run from 9 am to noon at 20 sites Volunteers of all ages are welcome. You can register here. At noon, join other volunteers at RFK Stadium for free food, drink, music, and speakers for a post-cleanup celebration.

Montgomery County bicycle summit: Discuss the future of biking in Montgomery County at a bicycle summit on Saturday, April 5. The summit includes a family bike ride, presentations from local bike groups and the Montgomery County DOT, and a panel discussion. It will be at the Jane Lawton Recreation Center (4301 Willow Lane) in Chevy Chase from 9:15 am to noon.

Bus hack night: On Thursday, April 3, find out if data visualizations can make buses sexy (hint: ART and WMATA think so). Speakers from WMATA, ART, and Conveyal, a consulting group, will talk about ways to use data from bus GPS devices to improve service. ART and WMATA have provided data to discuss at this event.

The discussion will run from 6:00 to 8:30 pm at the Mobility Lab, 1501 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1100, Arlington. You can RSVP here.

Florida Ave transit study: DDOT is holding a public meeting on Wednesday, April 2 to discuss the Florida Avenue Multimodal Transportation Study. This study is evaluating traffic safety, streetscape enhancements, and operational improvements for the section of Florida Ave NE from New York Ave to H Street and Benning Road and surrounding roads.

Tony Goodman has written about the options DDOT will present at the meeting, which will take place at the Two Rivers Public Charter Middle School (1234 4th Street NE) from 7:00 to 9:00 pm.

Learn about urban arboreta: Nate Heavers, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Virginia Tech, and Ray Mims, of the US Botanic Garden and Sustainable Sites Initiative, will give a presentation on the history of planting trees in public spaces in DC and Alexandria.

After the talk there will be a Q&A session and a reception. This free event takes place on Tuesday, April 1 from 7:00 to 9:30 pm at 1021 Prince Street in Alexandria. You can RSVP by emailing udseminar@vt.edu.

Who hears opinions on public projects?: Many of you share your thoughts on public projects on social media, but that doesn't mean agencies making decisions see it. The National Capital Planning Commission is having a panel discussion about how public agencies handle official versus unofficial feedback and resident input that comes in using newer technology.

NCPC's William Herbig will moderate a conversation with Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert, Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards from Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood. The event is Wednesday, April 9, 7:00-8:30 pm at NCPC, 401 9th St NW, Suite 500.

Government


In the planning process, social media talk is often cheap

People who testify at long public hearings or write letters aren't the only ones with opinions about important planning issues. A lot of conversation happens online, on Twitter and blogs, but commissions that make decisions often don't see or consider this kind of public opinion. How can the old, formal processes mesh with new ways of communicating?

Last summer, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning analyzed the District's height limits in a report requested by Congress. Residents joined in a spirited conversation, not only about the shape and form of the nation's capital, but also about the future of our city.

District residents, local stakeholders, and citizens across the nation voiced strong opinions on both sides of the issue. I was responsible for designing NCPC's process for engaging with residents and stakeholders, and reviewing their feedback. I found a big divide between those who participated online versus in person.

Those who attended public meetings, submitted letters, or delivered testimony generally opposed changes to the federal law. Meanwhile, those who spoke up on social media like Twitter and blogs such as this one were more open to exploring opportunities for strategic changes.

However, at the end of the day, only comments we received through the NCPC website or in person at hearings could shape our work as planners and be passed along to members of the Commission to inform their decisions. The people who spoke up online, other than through the project's website, weren't part of the formal process and didn't get the same weight.

Feedback on building height is just one example of how new methods of communication are revolutionizing how people engage with plans and projects. How can planners better respond to and incorporate all the public's opinions? What we can do to make it easier for you to get your opinions in the places where it will count?

Discuss this online or in person on April 9


Image from NCPC.
We will discuss this issue further at a panel on April 9, "Talk vs. Action: Making Your Opinion Count" at NCPC's offices, 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500. I will moderate a discussion about how new forms of communication and public engagement are trans­forming the public process and decision-making.

Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert is on the panel, as are Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards of Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood.

We will talk about questions like:

  • How can public agencies and other organizations reach out to bridge the communication gap?
  • Should online commenters be encouraged to use traditional, tested approaches?
  • Should organizations formally consider feedback presented through informal channels?
  • Are there new or better ways to foster conversations amongst these different audiences?
I want this program to reflect you. Send in your thoughts, opinions, and questions by posting them to the comment section below. I will keep an eye on this post and incorporate what you have to say into the program. Also, you can tweet your thoughts to me @NCPCgov, using hashtag #SpeakerSeries.

And, I hope that you will show up to the program. The NCPC Speaker Series is free and open to the public - just let us know you are coming with an RSVP.

We have also created a short promo video:

Events


Events roundup: Be there or be square

This week, think about the future of a plaza in Arlington and the urban landscape through photos and film at events around the region.


Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

Re-imagine Arlington's Courthouse area: Envision Courthouse Square is a community effort to plan the future of Arlington County's civic center including a vibrant public space.

Join fellow residents at a community kick-off planning meeting and visioning session this Wednesday, March 26, 7-9 pm at Key Elementary School, 2300 Key Boulevard.

After the jump: See slides about H Street's past, watch films about the environment in our region, wish Metro a happy birthday, and attend a panel about whether government agencies listen to what you have to say online.

From pleasure gardens to streetcars: Enjoy a photographic history lesson on DC's H St NE, along with a lecture from local historian Sarah Shoenfeld. Shoenfeld will "present a slide show depicting H Street's lively past, from its early development as a transportation link between DC and Maryland, to circus parades, Louie Kavakos's night club at 8th and H, and the original Granville Moore."

This event is part of the DC Public Library's Know Your Neighborhood series and will take place at the Northeast Library (330 7th St. NE) on Tuesday, March 25 at 6:30 pm.

"Our Cities, Our Planet": This year's Environmental Film Festival focuses on urban environments around the globe, including many in this region. The festival wraps up on March 30, but there are a few films still to see that are relevant to our region:

  • Reel Portraits: Jane Jacobs is a discussion with a filmmaker working on a project about Death and Life of Great American Cities author Jane Jacobs and her legacy on cities. March 26, 6:30 pm at the National Portrait Gallery.
  • Student Shorts including ones about the Potomac River, Anacostia River, and Chesapeake Bay. March 26, 7:00 pm at American University.
  • Farming for the Future: Enduring Traditions-Innovative Practices looks at how farmers, including 4 farms in Virginia, try to meet the demand for sustainable, locally grown food and remain profitable. March 29, 7:00 pm at American University.
  • Sanctuary shows how at-risk teens in DC and endangered eagles help each other through life's struggles. March 30, 12 pm at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Happy birthday, Metro!: Metro turns 38 this week. What better way to celebrate Metro's birthday than by telling your local politicians you support Metro Momentum, the long term plan for more capacity? Send an email now through the Coalition for Smarter Growth's online campaign.

Who listens to your opinion? A lot of people share opinions about public projects on blogs and social media, but what happens to all of that? Often, official government agencies accept official comments but don't see or factor in views posted in many other places. The National Capital Planning Commission is having a panel discussion about how public agency feedback systems and new online technology work together.

NCPC's William Herbig will moderate a conversation with Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert, Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood. The panel is Wednesday, April 9, 7-8:30 pm at NCPC, 401 9th St NW, Suite 500.

Pedestrians


Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes

Alexandria cyclists and city staff agree that King Street west of Old Town could use bike lanes. But after a public hearing November 25, the city's Traffic and Parking Board recommended not to build them in order to preserve 37 on-street parking spaces.


Bike supporters at the Traffic and Parking Board meeting. Photo by Jake Jakubek.

Bike lane proponents say it will improve safety and access to the King Street Metro station, while many nearby residents decry the loss of parking spaces that would have to be removed. Originally, city staff proposed eliminating 37 spaces, noting that only three spaces were used on average, and that all affected houses have off-street parking.

However, instead of evaluating a compromise proposal city staff presented that would only remove some 27 spaces and carefully considering public comments, board members were clearly dismissive of the plan and its supporters. James Durham, vice chair of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, called the hearing "a disgrace."

At the first public meeting on September 18, it was clear that almost everybody considers this street unsafe. Street parking goes unused because residents worry aggressive drivers will damage their parked cars.

After that meeting and an informal consultation with members of the traffic and parking board, city staff decided to work on a compromise proposal. Their reworked plan keeps 10 of the 37 spaces, while adding three spaces on adjacent streets.

At the November meeting, 38 people spoke in favor of the proposal, most of whom were local cyclists. Bike lane supporters included representatives of the city's Environmental Policy Commission and Parks and Recreation Commission, who both submitted letters, as well as the chairman of the Transportation Commission. A teacher at T.C. Williams High School spoke on behalf of his students, and a member of the Coalition for Smarter Growth spoke on behalf of that organization, which includes two King Street residents.

Meanwhile, 18 individuals spoke out against adding bike lanes, citing safety concerns and doubting the effectiveness of the proposal. Others mentioned the need to keep the usually empty parking available for visitors.

During the hearing, members of the traffic and parking board displayed almost no interest in the public comments, asking few questions. But in a question directed at Jerry King, chairman of the bicycle and pedestrian committee, one member characterized bike lane supporters as wanting bike lanes or nothing. In fact, no one at the hearing took such a position.

When the leader of Tandem Tuesdays spoke of her weekly bike rides that pair cyclists with sight-impaired people on tandem bicycles, the traffic and parking board showed no interest in her community-building work or her safety concerns. Rather than ask Washington Area Bicyclist Association representative Gregory Billing about his organization's 3,500 participants and supporters in Alexandria, board members rudely asked if he was a city resident.

In the end, the traffic and parking board recommended that city staff implement pedestrian improvements but no bicycling improvements, retain all parking and come back later with a proposal that has "common ground" and "meat." But board members at no time acknowledged that the proposal was already a compromise.

The reality is that Alexandria is working to add transportation capacity by improving access to transit and by developing three new transit corridors. If successful, transit will enable many residents to bypass traffic and avoid the struggle of searching for parking on King Street and elsewhere.

Mayor Bill Euille, who was recently quoted in the press regarding Capital Bikeshare, said it best: "We don't want people driving their cars and parking, we want people to be using bicycles and walking."

However, achieving this vision is no easy task. At a time when City Hall is working to improve the public process through the What's Next Alexandria initiative, we need our boards to be relevant as well as responsive to residents and the vision of the city council. Based on the traffic and parking board's performance November 25, it's clear that board members are none of those things. Can our public decision-making process function when a few of the people leading that process do not act in good faith?

A version of this post appeared in the Alexandria Times.

Zoning


Zoning update opponents ask for yet more delay

Foes of DC's zoning update have the script down to a science. If the Office of Planning (OP) doesn't change its proposals to cater to their wishes, they shout that there hasn't been enough public input. If OP does give in, claim that the plans are "a moving target" and call for more input anyway.


Photo by russelljsmith on Flickr.

John Chelen, the Cleveland Park resident who set up a stacked committee of the Ward 3 Democrats to condemn the zoning update, sent a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and others asking for "a moratorium on the zoning re-write process."

Why? Because the proposals have been changing. I agree that's frustrating. The problem is that the changes entail OP caving to opposition from the very same groups that are upset they're changing. Chelen wrote:

During the last several months, several alternative sets of proposals have been released, often in a piece-meal fashion. Even now, proposed regulations are a 'moving target,' and additional changes to prior proposals have been promised. Such a helter-skelter manner of making such proposals imposes a hardship on our citizens.

With each new round of partial proposals by OP, our citizens must review these proposals and analyze their consequences, and try to find a way to submit their results to OP. OP has not devised a reasonable procedure to accept and respond to such submissions except through the limited meetings of the Zoning Task Force.

The public, especially notable citizens groups like the ones who have passed resolutions, do not have a way of engaging in this irregular process.

We would like you to directly intervene in OP's plans and make sure that OP will release a completely revised set of zoning regulations, "black letter law" as it's referred to in Federal practice, so that our citizens know exactly what's being proposed and how all sections interrelate.

After such a complete set of regulations is published, OP should hold additional public meetings to obtain comments and respond. Publication of a complete set of regulations and an opportunity for public comment should occur prior to any further transmittals to the Zoning Commission. To do otherwise would short-circuit an already inadequate process.

There was a finished proposal. It was at the end of 2011. OP brought the proposal to its task force, a group of citizens that included many opponents, as it prepared to start a series of public meetings.

OP had to show this to the task force because some time earlier, opponents had claimed there wasn't enough input, and asked for more task force meetings. So OP had to let the task force review it before releasing it to the public. However, opponents on the task force then responded by claiming that it was "secret" because OP hadn't had the public meetings yet. It was a classic Catch-22.

By the time this second wave of zoning debates came about, Travis Parker, who had led the process from its start in 2007, had moved to Colorado, and another member of the team, Michael Giulioni, had left to go to grad school. Responsibility for the update fell to Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser.

Facing fierce opposition, OP started backing off on some elements of the proposals. Planners limited corner stores to just actual corners, and accessory dwellings in garages to existing buildings that don't need much renovation. They acceded to Georgetown's desire to restrict accessory dwellings even more, and cut a rule to legalize "off-center" houses, where one side yard is bigger than required but the other is too small.

Various councilmembers, at least including Muriel Bowser and Phil Mendelson, also asked for more delays. At this year's oversight hearings for the Office of Planning, Bowser asked OP to cut back some portions of the proposals, like corner stores, and OP has complied. (More on that soon.)

Unfortunately, that really did make the regulations a "moving target." In the more than a year since, OP has repeatedly weakened the proposals. There will be far fewer places people can rent out garages than before. Corner stores in residential neighborhoods have become even more difficult to set up. Plus, there is a long litany of smaller changes. It has indeed been confusing to track what is actually still in them and what has gotten lost along the way.

Worse yet, OP has told neighborhoods concerned about parking minimums around transit that the parking minimums won't even go away immediately after the code goes into effect. Instead, there will be a second "mapping" phase, where OP goes through some public process to determine where the transit corridors are even though it already has a map of them. That will give more chances for individual activists or councilmembers to push back against change in their neighborhoods and for OPperhaps under a different mayorto cave to some or many of these requests.

The Zoning Commission is the proper process

The most important point here is that there is a well-defined, thorough process for getting public input on a zoning proposal: the Zoning Commission's hearings. Most proposals first come to the public's attention when someone files a zoning petition with the commission.

They review it, "set it down" for hearings, hold often very extensive hearings, then have more meetings to deliberate. Under DC's Home Rule Act, they are the body with ultimate power over zoning, so it makes sense for the main hearings to happen in front of the Zoning Commission, not just in front of planners or councilmembers.

Most likely, the commission will want to have a very long, thorough process for hearing from the public on the zoning update. It could take them months, or more. That is where the public input should happen.

The Zoning Commission can change the proposals. It's fairly likely some members will try to "split the baby" and further attenuate any changes if there's a lot of opposition.

The problem for opponents is that once the Zoning Commission goes through this process and one wave of changes, they'll then pass something. Asking for another round of public hearings before the Zoning Commission even gets involved simply creates another opportunity for nothing to happen, or to further water down the proposals.

We should have been done by now

It's instructive to look back at the public process page on the original zoning update site. It first talks about the process OP underwent in 2008 and 2009, where a series of public working groups reviewed chapters of the code, and made recommendations. OP then created a set of broad policy recommendations, and submitted them to the Zoning Commission. The commission held hearings and voted up or down on each recommendation. That concluded in 2009.

The original process document says:

Upon completion of all 20 hearings, OP will take the language preliminarily approved by the Zoning Commission and work with the Office of Zoning to codify it into a final cohesive document. This document will then be subject to final review on this website and by the Zoning Commission prior to final approval.

The entire review and approval process is expected to take between two and three years.

There were originally only going to be 2 steps after those hearings: OP writes a final zoning code based on the ZC's guidance, then submits it to the ZC, which holds final hearings. We should have been done around 2010 or 2011.


Rough timeline of the original process. Image by the author.

Instead, opponents asked for OP to involve the task force more, which they did. Councilmembers wanted an additional public information meeting in each ward, which OP held this past December and January. Fine. Now it's long past time to get the text to the Zoning Commission.


Rough timeline of the actual and potential future process. Red bars are complete or almost complete, yellow are speculative. Image by the author.

OP had draft text last year. I read it and submitted hundreds of small suggestions. I also found some typos and errors. OP fixed the mistakes, incorporated a few suggestions, and disagreed with the rest. Having a "black letter" version of the code for people to react to does not mean that if there are any errors, you have to release another one, have more meetings, then another one, more meetings, and so forth.

OP had hundreds of public meetings, then zoning commission hearings, then task force meetings, then more public meetings, then more task force meetings, with many neighborhood meetings along the way. Enough is enough. We're at least 2 years beyond the original timeframe, with a draft that's now weaker than what the Zoning Commission already approved.

Mendelson has scheduled yet another oversight hearing, for July 2. We don't need more hearings. At the last one, Mendelson even said he thought this issue should just go to the Zoning Commission already. Hopefully he really meant it and will still push for that to happen.

OP has been showing the final chapters to that task force. Now, they need to submit them to the commission, and the commission needs to schedule its setdown and hearings as soon as possible. There's no reason for any more delay.

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