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Here are some ideas for designing NoMa's new park

The NoMa Parks Foundation just bought two acres on the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) for a new large park. There are great examples of how to use the space all over DC and beyond.


The site of NoMa's new park next to the MBT. Image by the author.

"People want an area for informal recreation and relaxation," said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), on the initial ideas for the park when it announced the $14 million deal earlier in January. "Something beautiful, something that really integrates with the Metropolitan Branch Trail."

There are many features that the NoMa Green, as it is tentatively called, could include. A connection between Q Street NE and the trail will almost certainly be a part of the park. Also, a flexible space like a lawn that could be used for a variety of needs, like the NoMa Summer Screen and various seasonal festivals, could fit elsewhere in the park.

NoMa BID plans to hold a community design forum with residents for the green after it hires a design team, said Jasper. This process could begin as soon as the second quarter of the year.

Canal Park in Navy Yard could inspire the NoMa Green

The five-acre Canal Park in Navy Yard offers some ideas for the NoMa Green. Opened in 2012, the space mixes programming, including a café, water feature, and seasonal ice skating rink, with a flexible lawn space that is used for various activities throughout the year.


An overview of Canal Park. Image by OLIN.

Hallie Boyce, a partner at OLIN landscape architects, says every section of Canal Park serves multiple purposes that, in many cases, are not exactly what the design team had in mind.

"The public will use a space as they deem appropriate," she says, recalling an image she saw of a kid using a sculpture as a seat to watch a movie in Canal Park. "On the one hand, you want enough programming to attract people long-term and on the other hand there is a need to have flexibility."


Canal Park's fountains and rain garden. Image by Payton Chung on Flickr.

OLIN led the design team of Canal Park, which is built on the site of a former Washington Canal. The studio has also been selected for the 11th Street Bridge Park and the redesign of Franklin Park in downtown.

There are lots of other options too

Canal Park is just one example NoMa can look to as it begins the process of designing its new green. DC is dotted with many small parks that, while often designed during an earlier period of landscape architecture, offer templates of what works and what does not.

Folger Park in Capitol Hill and Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights are two examples of good small parks in DC that Greater Greater Washington contributors suggest. The former includes ample lawns and an iconic drinking fountain and bench.

Meridian Hill Park, while larger than the NoMa space, includes a popular lawn atop the hill and a cascade fountain down the hillside to W Street NW.


The cascade fountain in Meridian Hill Park. Image by Washingtonydc on Flickr.

Boyce points to Teardrop Park and Wagner Park in New York City when asked what she thinks are good examples of well-designed small parks outside DC. The former, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is a 1.8-acre green space in lower Manhattan that includes a unique man-made rock outcropping and an open lawn nestled between residential high-rises.


Teardrop Park in New York. Image by Calvin C on Flickr.

"There's no solution you would slap down," says Boyce, emphasising the need to engage the community and take into account form, scale, and site when designing a park. "It's about context and engaging with the neighborhood and key stakeholders first to identify [what they want]."

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Public Spaces


NoMa is going to get the large park it needs

A two-acre plot of land next to the Metropolitan Branch Trail will one day be NoMa's largest park. That's great news for an area that plans to add another 7,000 residential units and numerous new shops and amenities over the next few years.


The plot NoMa bought from Pepco along the MBT. Photo by the author.

The NoMa Parks Foundation bought the land between the MBT and Harry Thomas Way, just before the new year. There's a Pepco substation that will remain at the southern end of the plot adjacent to New York Avenue.

The Foundation is temporarily calling the land the NoMa Green.


The plot. The straight line that runs diagonally through the right half of the picture is the MBT. Image from NoMa BID.

"People want an area for informal recreation and relaxation," says Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), which includes the parks foundation. "Something beautiful, something that really integrates with the Metropolitan Branch Trail."

The two-acre space is roughly comparable to Folger Park in Capitol Hill and slightly smaller than the 2.75-acre Canal Park in Navy Yard.

Designs for the space will take time. NoMa plans to hire a designer from among those who have "done the best work for these kinds of parks" and then hold a community design forum for the space before finalising any plans, says Jasper. This is unlikely to begin for at least three months, she adds.

Based on the speed of the underpass projects in NoMa, the first of which on M St NE was initially targeted for installation last fall, suggests a summer start for the NoMa Green design process.

NoMa has not finalised the design budget for the park since spending $14 million to buy the land from Pepco.

Connectivity will be part of the new park

The MBT will be the primary access route to the NoMa Green, says Jasper. Some of the improvements outlined in the BID's MBT Safety and Access Study, including a Q Street connection, will likely be included in the project, she continues.

The Q Street connection involves extending the street from its current terminus Harry Thomas Way across the green to the MBT.


The Q St connection. Image from NoMa's MBT Safety and Access Study.

Long-term NoMa envisions activating the underpass at New York Ave like what is planned for the L Street and M Street underpasses and connecting the trail to Union Market and eventually Ivy City.


An idea for a softened curve in the MBT at R Street. Image from NoMa's MBT Safety and Access Study.

'The most important thing we'll do'

The NoMa Green is big. It guarantees that the neighborhood, which is slated to become the densest in Washington DC when it is built out, and those around it, including Eckington and Bloomingdale, will have green space.

"It's huge for the neighborhood," says Jasper. "To be able to have two acres for the people of the neighborhood to use and play on — it's probably the most important thing we'll do."

With the purchase of the plot from Pepco and the deal for a lot at 3rd Street and L Street NE in October, NoMa will shift gears into a design and construction phase, after years of studies and conceptual plans, over the next few years.

Jasper anticipates the first parks—not including the L Street and M Street underpasses that she anticipates will be done later this year—will begin opening over the next couple of years.

The parks cannot come soon enough. NoMa estimates that 36,000 people live within a two sqaure mile radius of 1st Street and M Street and 1st and K Street NE—an area that stretches north to Rhode Island Avenue, south to Union Station, east to 10th Street NE and west to 6th Street NW—and anticipates another 7,000 residential units to open in its more immediate environs by 2018.

"What you're going to have here… you're going to get parks, shopping, retail and restaurants—it's going to be quite an amazing place," says Jasper.

Correction: The original version of this article said the plot extends north to R Street NE when it does not. In addition, it misstated the number of people living within a two-square mile radius of NoMa at 67,000. The correct number is 36,000.

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Public Spaces


The National Zoo will be open for 1,000 fewer hours in 2016

Starting in 2016, the National Zoo's grounds will be open for three fewer hours per day. Beyond not having as many chances to see the animals, the change means people who use the Zoo to walk and exercise early in the morning or late in the afternoon won't be able to anymore.


Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Year-round, the Zoo will open two hours later and close one hour earlier than it does now. That means it will open at 8 am instead of 6, and close at 5 pm in winter and 7 pm the rest of the year rather than the current 6 pm in winter and 8 pm otherwise. The later opening will allow the animal house buildings to open at 9 am, one hour earlier each day than they are now.

The changed hours are the equivalent of the Zoo shutting its doors 7.5 days a month compared to the current winter schedule.

There's more to the Zoo than animals in buildings. When it's open, residents walk through the grounds for fitness or relaxation before and after work or school. The Zoo grounds provide a direct east-west connection, especially for pedestrians. Also, a section of the Rock Creek Trail runs though the Zoo.

In an email to members earlier this month, the Zoo cited visitor and animal safety as the primary reason for this change, particularly when it gets dark on shorter fall and winter days. Not having the public on the grounds will also allow Zoo staff and vendors "to move freely around the park during early morning hours."

What's unclear, however, is the degree to which new safety measures are actually needed.

The Zoo is great in the early morning and late afternoon

Congress chartered the Zoo for "the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people," and some of its wonderful sights and sounds only happen outside during early morning hours. Visitors can watch the Zoo staff introduce new orangutans to the overhead "O Line" when there aren't many people around, or hear sea lions bark or lions roar.

Nearby resident and Zoo member, Sheila Harrington, describes the value for her family of accessing the grounds prior to the Zoo's planned 8 am opening.

I've been walking in the Zoo early in the morning, before starting work, often 2-3 times a week (unless it's freezing or pouring), for decades. My husband used to visit the gibbons with each of our babies in a Snugli, and bonded with the mother gibbons similarly burdened. When the children were in strollers they rode along on my walks—up and down those hills pushing a stroller is a great workout. It's quiet, mostly without vehicles, and the animals are lively and fascinating. Sometimes I stop to sketch. The Zoo staff are usually working on some interesting tasks. Opening at 8 am would be too late because I need to get to work!

The Zoo is a useful travel route across Rock Creek

The paths and roads that the Zoo maintains also fulfill transportation needs, intended or not. The Zoo's 163 acres are directly adjacent to Rock Creek Park, an area with somewhat limited routes through the parkland.

When the Zoo closes its grounds in the evening, there are two big negative impacts to transportation. First, four Zoo entrance gates close across walking paths and roads that normally allow direct east-west (or west-east) routes into and through the Zoo for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers (yellow marks on the map below). Second, two gates close at the two ends of the north-south Rock Creek Trail within Zoo boundaries (green marks).


The yellow dots are entrances to east-west paths that cut through the Zoo, and the green dots are entrances to those that run north-south. Base image from Google Maps, with labels from the author.

Whether the four Zoo entrance gates are open affects anyone who wants to travel across the Zoo and Rock Creek at this point. Pedestrians can walk just 0.8 miles to get from the Harvard Street NW bridge through the Zoo to Connecticut Avenue NW. But the walk doubles to 1.5-1.6 miles when the Zoo is closed when they have to walk around to Porter Street NW or Calvert Street NW. The distance similarly doubles for cyclists and drivers when they have to use Calvert or Porter instead of North Road.

When the two trail gates close, pedestrians and cyclists instead need to traverse the Beach Drive tunnel on a narrow sidewalk. (This area will be widened in late 2016 and early 2017 by planned NPS construction.) DDOT, NPS and the Zoo explored closing Rock Creek Trail at night during the Rock Creek Park Multi-Use Trail Environmental Assessment. Trail users want to see it open 24/7, but Zoo insists this is infeasible "in order to maintain ... accreditation by the American Zoological and Aquarium Association (AZA)."


The November Project DC, a "just show up" fitness group, did its Friday
6:30 am exercises on the Zoo grounds. Photo by tusabeslo on Flickr.

Safety issues? What safety issues?

Zoo users are both surprised and disappointed by the change to fewer open hours. They're also still unsure of what, exactly, the safety issue is because the Zoo did not release the crime or safety data used to support its decision or identify any potential alternatives.

Media coverage on crime at or near the National Zoo has focused on incidents that occurred on three separate Easter Monday events at the Zoo. A shooting in 2000, stabbing in 2011 and shooting in 2014 all occurred in late afternoon between 4 and 6 pm. These events were unfortunate, but they were isolated, and they happened in late April when even the new Zoo hours would mean it'd be open until 7.

Zoo management has historically been great about keeping up a dialog with members, visitors and nearby neighborhoods on an array of issues. But the Zoo hasn't shared any details with the public regarding this decision. Even the announcement only went to members by email and on the public website, not appearing on any of the Zoo's active social media accounts.

Warren Gorlick, a nearby resident, said he wants to know the exact safety concerns that warrant the hours changes.

There is not much we know, however, because the [letter] ... was carefully worded to provide almost no details as to the underlying rationale. It simply mentioned "safety" issues repeatedly, without stating what they were or whether the zoo had considered methods other than restricting public access to the zoo. We have to wonder what is causing this sudden concern about "safety" right now that would result in such a major cutback in public access to this space.
Can Zoo users prompt a change of course?

Zoo users want to understand whether closing the Zoo is the best solution to keep visitors, staff and animals safe, but the Zoo's email is correct in saying the change will "frustrate" some patrons. The closure of Zoo grounds three hours a day represents a significant change in public access to the animals and walking trails. The plan to add one hour of animal house access during hours when the grounds were open anyway doesn't outweigh the overall reduction to grounds access.

What remains to be seen is whether the Zoo will share details behind the safety concerns. There may be other options through sponsorships to support hiring more security staff, partnerships with other law enforcement agencies or even establishing community watch groups. Without more information, we only see the locked gates in the name of keeping visitors safely on the outside.


Photo by Tim Herrick on Flickr.

The Woodley Park Community Association will host Dennis Kelly, the Zoo's director, at its upcoming meeting for a discussion of the Zoo operating hours changes. The meeting is open to the public and will be held on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 7:30 pm at Stanford University in the Washington Building (2661 Connecticut Ave NW).

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Public Spaces


Ice cream: your doctor may hate it, but your city loves it

Sunday is National Ice Cream Day, which is great for fans of cold desserts. But it's even better for urban places, because ice cream is a great tool for placemaking.


Moorenko's Ice Cream in Silver Spring. All photos by the author unless noted.

One of the best ways to create a busy, active sidewalk or plaza is by putting food there. Especially ice cream (or gelato, frozen custard, frozen yogurt, and so on). Why? People of all ages can enjoy it, and it's generally cheap enough that most people can afford to eat it.

Most importantly, ice cream melts. You have to consume your ice cream soon after buying it, meaning that people tend to linger outside of ice cream shops.

Of course, ice cream doesn't automatically make a place great. But it definitely helps. Here are a few tips from great ice cream stores and great places around the DC area and beyond.


Getting some frozen yogurt at FrozenYo.

Provide outdoor seating.

"Make your own" frozen yogurt places are a dime a dozen these days. But you'll always see people hanging out in front of FrozenYo in Columbia Heights. It's because there are lots of places to sit outside with your frozen yogurt, from tables and chairs to ledges and even a grassy lawn.

Have big windows.

Like any good storefront, ice cream shops benefit from big windows, which break down the barrier between inside and out. People inside still feel a connection to the street, while people on the street can see what's going on inside. And if there's ice cream inside, people are likely to come in.


Paleteria Fernandez in Port Chester, New York. I really want to go here now. Photo by June Marle on Flickr.

Dolcezza Gelato, which has locations in Logan Circle, Bethesda, and elsewhere does an especially great job of this. Their spin-off location in Fairfax's Mosaic District, Mom & Pop, is basically a glass box in a plaza, which makes for great people-watching whether you're inside or out.

Have a walk-up window.

I scooped my way through college working at Gifford's Ice Cream, the now-defunct local chain that began in Silver Spring in 1938. Customers could either come in through the door or at a walk-up window on the sidewalk. As Dan Malouff notes, walk-up windows give people walking by something to look at while putting more "eyes on the street," which deters crime. They're also great for people with dogs or strollers or anything that might be difficult to carry inside.

Keep it local.

Local shops like Gifford's, Dolcezza, or Moorenko's seem to be one of the few places a teenager can still get a summer job, which is a big deal for placemaking. Knowing the kids behind the counter gives their friends, parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, and so on more reasons to visit, which builds community ties.

These rules work in suburban settings, too.

Creating street life can be challenging in suburban places where most people get around by car. But ice cream stands seem to be the exception.


Goodberry's in North Carolina. (Ask for the Carolina Concrete.

Goodberry's is a chain of frozen custard stands in Raleigh (and in Canberra, Australia) whose locations consist of walk-up windows in big parking lots. But there's also a little plaza closer to the street with some picnic tables. Even from a car, you can see the activity happening here, which draws people in.

Closer to home, Jimmie Cone in Damascus has a similar setup. As a result, fans call it "the closest you could get to having a local pub setting" in an otherwise dry town.

Together, these things can help to make a great place where people want to gather and have a good time. Ice cream isn't a necessity, but to mix food metaphors, you might call it the cherry on top. What's your favorite ice cream and placemaking experience?

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Public Spaces


A private school's plan could totally revamp public space in Tenleytown

A private school in Tenleytown has big plans for its property. The scheme could kick off revitalization of Wisconsin Avenue north of that area's Metro stop.


Plan of the Georgetown Day School's proposal at Wisconsin Avenue's elevation. Click to enlarge. Image from GDS/Esocoff & Associates.

In 2013, the Georgetown Day School surprised everyone by announcing that it had purchased two major sites adjacent to its 42nd Street NW upper school: a suburban Safeway store and a triangular parcel that currently hosts a car dealership.

The Safeway had been the site of three hotly-debated redevelopment proposals. The Martens car dealership lots, too were candidates for a large residential development. Many neighbors worried that if GDS built a large, closed-off campus, it would squash efforts to make Wisconsin Avenue a walkable corridor with neighborhood-serving retail.


The area around Georgetown Day School. Base image from Google Maps.

Instead, the school may end up creating the most vibrant streets in Tenleytown. What the school has revealed could be the seed of a more diverse, livelier neighborhood.

The proposal has a lot going for it: it's an ideal use of the District's planned unit development system (PUD), it's got a strong architectural voice leading the way, and it has the beginnings of excellent urban design.

School and city meet at 42nd Street

GDS's upper school will remain where it is, south of Davenport Street and west of 42nd. The middle and lower schools will move into a large three-story building, topped with an athletic field. They will share the building with facilities for athletics, the arts, and the whole school community.


Plan of the GDS proposal at 42nd Street elevation. Click to enlarge. Image from GDS/Esocoff & Associates.

Next to its current underground gym, GDS will add an athletics building on lots that it purchased separately. The current plan replaces parking lots to the north of Davenport with a wide green buffer and either exercise courts or a learning garden. It will create a very nice campus for the school, especially if the design breaks up the large school building.

Across 42nd Street is where the neighborhood has a big opportunity. On the long, triangular dealership parcel, GDS will build two nine-story buildings, similar to the ones that line Connecticut Avenue. GDS is doing this to shore up its financial endowment, but the surrounding community will benefit from what's happening as well.

While nine stories still counts as low-rise, it's still higher than the parcel's current zoning will allow. GDS is using the Planned Unit Development process, which allows them to combine all of the development rights for the site. By building less than is ordinarily permitted on the school site, they can shift that density onto Wisconsin Avenue, the area's major corridor. This re-balancing of zoning to tailor a large project to its neighborhood is exactly what PUDs were created to do.


Section showing the buildings designed around grade change. (Courtesy GDS / Esocoff & Associates)

The narrow parcel sits where Wisconsin abruptly climbs a hill into Tenleytown. There is a nearly two-story grade difference from north to south and east to west. The plan handles this difference elegantly: small, neighborhood-style retail spaces face Wisconsin Avenue. A larger anchor store will sit under those shops, facing 42nd Street.

The two buildings will house around 350 apartments, including six built-in townhouses fronting 42nd street. Because of the grade change, residential lobbies will sit on the second floor on 42nd street. Like bay windows, they can be generous and private while facing a busy street. The lobbies both sit off of a short pedestrian street that fully separates the two buildings.


Plan of the Davenport Plaza and "Spanish Steps" (Courtesy GDS / Lemon|Brooke)

The public space is most important part

That gap between the buildings is why this project seems particularly promising to me. It connects the two existing segments of Davenport street with a small pedestrian-plaza and a dramatic flight of stairs. Davenport was never built here, but the result is a long block and a missing connection. Without the steps, the climb is just one long slog.

The new passage will make that length into two shorter, friendlier blocks, with a place to linger when going up and down the hills. And visitors at Fort Reno Park, DC's highest spot, will get a view of Virginia that's tightly framed from ground to sky.


One popular option for the corner lot is a skate park. Image from GDS/ Lemon|Brooke.

There are three other ways the project will shape public space. One is a small triangle parcel at Ellicott Street. This will be created by closing a slip lane between Wisconsin and 42nd Street. There, landscape architects Lemon|Brooke are considering a number of options for the space, including a small plaza, a playground, and a demonstration garden.

The plan also proposes reconfiguring 42nd Street as a friendly side street. The northern residential building will occupy a sliver of the right-of-way, and parking spots would yield space for bigger sidewalks. The new school building will supplant the bunker-like Safeway and WMATA chiller plant. The schools's main meeting space, dubbed the "Athenaeum," may open onto 42nd Street as well.


Massing perspective of 42nd Street. Image from GDS / Esocoff & Associates.

The final way the project will define public space is the tapered end of the north building. It's the only flatiron lot north of Cathedral Commons. By its sheer visibility, it would be a landmark on Wisconsin Avenue. If done right, its slender proportions could echo the towers that are Tenleytown's most famous features.

This project has an experienced architect

The aesthetics of such a large project are very important. Fortunately, GDS has a good architect partner in Esocoff and Associates. Esocoff designs in a refined postmodernist style. He's best known for five brightly colored, curved brick buildings built on Massachusetts Avenue in the last decade.

Esocoff has a big body of work beyond that, including the original GDS upper school on Davenport. Back in the late 80s, 42nd Street was basically a back alley. So, that building turns its back on the neighborhood. In an interview, he said it was now time to do the opposite: the whole precinct could be a vibrant anchor for the north end of Tenleytown.

In the 1970s, when Esocoff studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, his teachers obsessed over how buildings fit into the city. They imagined every part of a building as a fragment of something at the next larger scale. The biggest scale was a city.

He told me "the whole area should seems seamless, like it's inevitable," but that individual buildings "should feel as surprising as they are inevitable." I think it's possible to see that in the way Davenport Plaza splits off from Wisconsin Avenue in a big, broad arc.

He hasn't pinned down an aesthetic yet. He said it probably wouldn't look like Mass Ave. Instead, he pointed to Kalorama, where his office is currently working on the old Chinese embassy. It's an apt example. Like Tenleytown, Kalorama is very green and hilly. It's also much denser.

The community can be a partner in shaping how Tenleytown grows

Excellent design lets a corridor of nine story buildings sit comfortably next to large houses. Similarly, there's a lovely, pedestrian-only flight of stairs. It's rich fabric shows what happens when one generation gives thoughtful density to those that follow.

Honestly, in GDS's proposal, there's just nothing worth saying "no" to. The challenge for the community is to work with the design team to refine the proposal. Through the PUD process, the school has opened a dialogue. There's a risk the ANC could go down the rabbit hole getting concessions from the developer without a focus.

Instead, they'd serve the community best by doubling down and insisting that GDS get the basic elements of walkable urban design right: adaptable public spaces, permeable facades, pedestrian connectivity, and memorable architecture.

If they push the design for those criteria, the design will naturally develop a character suiting Tenleytown's history and geography. But more importantly, it will be a part of a thriving urban environment.

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Public Spaces


Fairfax trades a parking lot for a new park

Old Town Square in Fairfax used to be a park that nobody used because it was wedged between two parking lots in the middle of the city's small, historic core. Now it's bigger and more inviting, and it's helping Fairfax embrace its urban roots.


Looking towards University Drive and North Street. All photos by the author.

In its former life, the park was called Kitty Pozer Garden, and it sat next to a city-owned gravel parking lot with space for about 25 cars. A lot of that parking lot is now part of the new park.

The extra space allowed the city to install a splash pad where people can cool off in a fountain during the summer. The fountain has a waterfall feature, and there's seating all around as well as a new clock.

The Old Town Square site is sloped toward the intersection of University Drive and North Street, and in the future it will play host to public performances and other community events.


View of the park from across the street. Photo by author.

The new development and historic buildings around it help frame the park. Old Town Hall, which the city now uses for events, is next door, and both the City Fairfax Regional Library and some mixed-use buildings the city built in 2008 (which also replaced some surface parking) are across the street.


Photo by the author.

Like its neighbor Falls Church, the City of Fairfax doesn't have room to grow outwardly since it's an enclave within the much larger Fairfax County. The solution is to become more dense, and parks help ensure efforts to do so include green space.


New bike racks in the park. The remaining parking on the site is in the background. Photo by the author.

In a way, Fairfax is recreating the small, walkable core that it had before shifting its focus to move lots of cars along Chain Bridge Road and Main Street. Old Town Square, a project that was years in the making, will help bring people back into the heart of Fairfax.

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Transit


Topic of the week: Our favorite projects (from other places)

There's a lot to admire when you travel, and it's fun to observe how other cities achieve function and beauty. This week, we asked our contributors "What city planning or transit projects have caught your eye while traveling, and why?"


View from a hill overlooking Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo by Elina Bravve.

As might be expected, many contributors were inspired by other cities' transit systems, primarily overseas and mostly in Europe. Places with lots of active public space and bike infrastructure were popular as well. First, transit:

Jacques Arsenault was wowed by Istanbul's transit network:

I enjoyed Istanbul's streetcar system that goes up hills at least as steep as Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues, changing my perception of what is (at least, technically) possible for streetcars. Most of the streetcars run on dedicated track in the middle of the road.

Neil Flanagan was impressed with the way Vienna has worked its transit infrastructure into the city:

Even the elevated portions of the U-Bahn were great. They were attractive, they fit in to the city fabric, and they were actually really quiet. These aren't the loud, dark 'Ls' in Chicago and they didn't create useless highway underpass spaces like in Tysons. Some arches have been adapted to host stores and the bridges over major streets feel like gateways. It's possible to make elevateds good for cities.
Agnes Artemel talked about Munich, another city with an impressive streetcar network:
There's a wonderful streetcar system in Munich that makes it easy to get to the entire downtown, museum areas, and a number of parks. The streetcars run in both mixed traffic and on dedicated lanes, and the cars are modern and easy to get on. There are one day and multi-day passes available, and fare collection doesn't slow down boarding because everyone is on the honor system to have previously bought a pass. I spent a half day just riding the streetcars wherever they went and taking pictures out the window or at a station.
Artemel also gave shout outs to pedestrian-only streets in many French downtowns, Paris's Berges de Seine project which activates spaces along the river banks, and easy bike rentals at European train stations.

Ned Russell touted two ongoing rail transit improvement projects, Denver's FasTracks and London's Crossrail:

I like FasTracks because the city has really coupled urban development with the massive build out of the system, especially around Union Station in downtown. I remember the area being empty in 2006, and now it's a hopping neighborhood with a lot of people going there.

I think the airport line, which is a fully electrified commuter rail connecting Union Station to Denver International Airport, could signal a change in the way a lot of Denver residents view the region's burgeoning rail system.

As for Crossrail, I love the fact that a city the size and scope of London is willing to spend about £15 billion (more than $20 billion) on a new rail system that acts as an express subway in town and a commuter rail outside town, all while not running down the median of freeways as so many of our systems do. This is what New York, DC and Boston all need: commuter rail systems that really run end-to-end across the region and not just into downtown.

Russell also likes that the Chicago Transit Authority puts secure bike parking inside of subway and 'L' stations, and wishes WMATA would do the same. "If Metro added bike parking inside, say, the massive and empty mezzanine at Mt Vernon Square, I'd be much more likely to lock my bike there and leave it," he says.

Accommodating bikes on transit means doing more than simply allowing them, noted Jonathan Krall. He cited San Francisco's BART, which has no restrictions on the time of day bikes can be carried onto trains, as an example. Steve Seelig agreed: "There's a huge gap in Metro policy with the rush hour bike ban. Seriously, I would ditch my car if I could use the system during rush hour."

Tracey Johnstone noted another positive subway innovation, this one from north of the border:

Toronto is introducing subway trains where there are no divisions between cars. Passengers who worry about crime feel safer, as do those who suffer from claustrophobia. And there are no seats lost to driving stations in every car.
"I liked the way each stop in the Seoul subway had a name and a three-digit number," David Cranor said. "The first digit told you which line you were on, and the next two which station. It eliminated the need to count how many stops you had to go, and put things in a language everyone understands." Matt Johnson noted that MARTA in Atlanta tried something similar.

Portland, Oregon's aerial tram is "a great example of a unique transit mode," said Kelli Raboy. "Yes, it's a tourist attraction, but it also seems surprisingly effective at serving the nearby university, hospitals, and residential areas. My favorite part of the tram is actually the free and well-used bicycle valet next to the station."


Portland's aerial tram. Photo by Kelli Raboy.

Our region's next new rail transit line could learn a lot from a similar line that just opened in Minnesota, said Adam Froehlig:

I look at the new Green Line in Minneapolis/St. Paul and see a lot of potential lessons to be learned for the Purple Line, especially with regards to the College Park campus and along University Boulevard. They include the design going through campus, what to do regarding pedestrians crossing the tracks on campus, and the streetscape.
Moving on to examples of public spaces, Mitch Wander cited a European model:
The street markets throughout Valencia, Spain provide an amazing alternate use of street space, a great place to shop, and an entertaining walking experience. Many neighborhoods have a designated day of the week on which blocks are closed to vehicular traffic. For several hours on that day, people of all ages wander around shopping, browsing and socializing.
Paris has created engaging public spaces for kids, noted Abigail Zenner:
When I visited Place de la Republique, there was a kiosk that had toys and games for kids. There were also little movable chairs. The other thing they rolled out last summer was bikeshare for children. It was limited to recreation areas but was such a cool idea.
Another country whose cities have great public gathering spots is Mexico. Elina Bravve explained:
In Mexico City, they close one of the main roads in the city, Paseo de la Reforma, to vehicle traffic on Sundays. The street fills up with bicyclists, joggers, roller bladers, dance activities, dog walking groups, and lots of family-friendly activities. There are also bikeshare bikes (Eco Bici) available for rent.

Also in Mexico City, I noticed some very cool architecture in Chapultepac Park. One of the best spots was Libreria Porrua, an indoor/outdoor bookshop overlooking the park lake, where folks were renting paddle boats for the afternoon.

Finally, Guanajuato is a very pedestrian-friendly city. It's full of green plazas connected by very narrow streets, which aren't ideal for driving. Instead, there's a series of underground tunnels throughout the city that moderates traffic, diverting it from the historic center of town. I learned post-trip that these tunnels were created to stop flooding from a nearby River, then converted to roads at a later date.


Mexico City's Paseo de la Reforma. Photo by Elina Bravve.

On the bike front, Portland—the city with the highest rate of bicycle commuting in the country—impressed a lot of people. "Where most cities end shared paths at intersections, dumping cyclists into crosswalks, this ramp in Portland delivers cyclists into a bike lane in advance of the intersection," wrote Jonathan Krall. "For a cyclist planning to turn left at the intersection, this is a big help. For a cyclist proceeding straight, it is much more visible to other traffic and much safer."


Ending of a bike lane with a ramp in Portland. Photo by Jonathan Krall.

Peyton Chung's shared observations on a more general planning theme:

Cities like Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Montreal, and San Francisco have vast areas of three- to five-story walk-up residential buildings, with many miles of walkable retail streets connecting them. Even in cities without a long tradition of flats, many of the livelier neighborhoods (like Ghent in Norfolk and University City in west Philadelphia) tend to be those where flats, rather than rowhouses, predominate. Now, some New Urbanist architects are talking about these housing types as the "Missing Middle" of density.

But thanks to the recent "pop-up" controversy, there will probably never be any in DC. Columbia Pike was intended to have mostly four- to six-story buildings, but without a streetcar that won't happen, either.

Have you noticed great planning and design in other cities? Tell us about your favorites in the comments!

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Public Spaces


2015 is going to be a great year for city planning

Experts say smart planning will keep gaining ground in 2015. Hear more in two new videos from Mobility Lab.

In "Energizing People to Reimagine Our Cities," the interviewees talk about broad changes in city operations. Harriet Tregoning, who used to be DC's planning director, says residents need to support projects even when their cities "fail fast and fail often."

"People don't always talk about the fact that [Capital Bikeshare] is our second system," she says. "SmartBike was an abysmal failure, [but] we were able to replace that dinky little bikeshare system with something that was much much better and immediately successful."

Erin Barnes from the crowdsourcing site Ioby urges cities to rethink public spaces: "People get really upset if you talk about taking away parking spaces. But if you close a street to car traffic and open it up for anything else, you give people an opportunity to reimagine how you would use all that public space."

In "Energizing People About the Future of Public Transportation," Gabe Klein, previously DC's transportation director, predicts a shift in how we talk about planning. He says we'll move from a narrow focus on transit versus cars versus biking and walking toward a broader look at how transportation as a whole helps a city work.

Tim Papandreou from San Francisco's transportation department cites a specific example: "We have smart phones, but really dumb wallets." Mobile apps could make it easy to combine different ways of getting across town both from home and while traveling.

Emily Badger, a transportation reporter at the Post, says new types of data that tell us more about how people connect to jobs are transforming our approach to transit.

"2015," Papandreou predicts, "is going to mean more, not less."

The interviews for both videos were filmed in January at Transportation Camp, an annual "unconference" that Mobility Lab sponsors to bring together and advance new ideas in transportation.

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Public Spaces


Ask GGW: Where do you enjoy the outdoors?

With spring weather almost here, it's time to get out and enjoy the less concrete-filled parts of our region. We asked our contributors to tell us about their favorite outdoor spots and why they love them. We also gave bonus points for places you can get to by transit!


A fall sunset on Greenbelt Lake at Buddy Attick Park. Photo by Matt Johnson.

The answers were as wide-reaching as our contributor base itself, but the District had the highest concentration of locations. We'll start there, then get to Maryland and Virginia.

Payton Chung named some downtown and Georgetown favorites:

The urban blocks of the C&O Canal in Georgetown don't just let you snack on a cupcake next to a waterfall while dreaming of escaping it all and riding a CaBi deep into the woods. You also get a great glimpse at what urban places (and transportation) looked like before the car.

Pershing Park is perhaps the most thoughtfully designed park in downtown DC, and a great quiet escape on a hot summer day.

One of the more fantastical park experiences in the District is to run a kayak aground on Theodore Roosevelt Island or Kingman Island and pretend you're an early explorer who's discovered an uninhabited island.

Dumbarton Oaks Park was Topher Mathews' pick:

Dumbarton is a hidden corner of Rock Creek Park tucked below its more famous and rich Harvard-owned sister in Georgetown. It has woods, glades, and a meandering stream criss-crossed by stone bridges, and it's a beautiful example of landscape architecture by one of the country's preeminent landscape architects, Beatrix Farrand.
Tracey Johnstone enjoys the grounds of the National Cathedral:
It's on a hill, so there's often a refreshing breeze. Some of the lawns are large enough you can play catch without endangering others. Or you can sit in the rose garden on the lower, south side of the grounds. There are secluded benches and some small lawns ringed by azaleas and other foliage. It's a great place to read or to have a picnic.
On top of Rock Creek Park and Beech Drive, both of which are largely closed to motor vehicles on weekends, Eric Fidler noted another road, Ross Drive, which parallels Beach Drive south of Military Road but runs along the ridge. It provides great views of the valley and gets very little car traffic. There are moments on Ross Drive when you can stop and not hear or see any signs of human civilization (aside from the road pavement, of course). It's surreal to think such a place exists in DC."

On warm weekends, you'll probably find Mitch Wander out on the river:

Fletcher's Boathouse at Fletcher's Cove is an absolute outdoors gem. You can rent rowboats and canoes to explore the Potomac River and C&O Canal. The fishing is beyond wonderful. Fletcher's Boathouse staff can sell you everything needed, including fishing gear, the required DC fishing license, and insider tips, to catch a variety of fish. Over the coming weeks, the annual shad migration from the Chesapeake Bay will a fishing experience not to be missed. The D6 bus goes to MacArthur Boulevard and then you can walk down to the Boathouse.
"Frederick Douglass National Historic Site has the greatest panorama of the city," added John Muller.

Another great view can be had from the top of the hill at Fort Reno Park, one of Claire Jaffe's favorite spots growing up. "It might be partly the nostalgia factor, but it is the highest land point in the city and has a nice view of the surrounding area. Especially in the warmer months when it's green and sunny, it's a wonderful place to sit and relax. You can also run up and down the hill... if that is what you're into."

Tina Jones gives a shout-out to the Melvin Hazen Trail:

The trail crosses Melvin Hazen Creek three times en route to the confluence with Rock Creek. At the eastern end there's a big, open green field, a covered picnic pavilion with a fireplace, bathrooms, Pierce Mill and the fish ladder, and access to more trails north and south.

From the west, you can get there from Connecticut Ave at Rodman Street, just north of the Cleveland Park metro, and by the L1, L2, and H2 buses. From the east it's accessible on foot from Mount Pleasant.

David Koch went with a classic, Meridian Hill Park:
It has a great classic design and a location that can't be beat, and it's mostly well-maintained by the National Park Service. It always brings a smile to my face to see the sheer variety of uses that it gets from locals, from picnics to Frisbee to yoga to tightrope walking, not to mention Sunday's drum circle. There's also a multitude of quiet, secluded places you can find to read a book in solitude, even on the most packed weekend afternoons. I'd say it's the closest thing DC has to Central Park, pace the Mall.
Speaking of the Mall, Canaan Merchant gave "America's front yard" his nod, saying how much he enjoys people watching there while he bikes home in the summer.

Personally, I'll add the National Arboretum, a sprawling green space off New York Ave NE accessible by bike from NoMa or Eastern Market Metro stations as well as via the B2 bus. There's also Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Arboretum, easily walkable or bikeable from Deanwood Metro, and Hains Point, a great biking spot along the Potomac.

To close off the District review, Neil Flanagan noted the solace to be found at Rock Creek Cemetery, and Dan Malouff called Dupont Circle "perfectly awesome" for its "mix of hard plazas versus landscaping, of city noise versus calm serenity, and of grand landmarks versus intimate hideaways."

Our contributors' Maryland favorites

Greenbelter Matt Johnson makes Buddy Attick Park part of his walk home from the bus when the weather is nice. It "surrounds Greenbelt Lake, and is an integral part of the green belt that surrounds and permeates the planned community. Some of the neighborhoods closest to the park have direct access to the loop trail that encircles the lake. And the town center is just steps away from the east entrance. The easy access and bucolic setting means that almost always, the park is full of families picnicking, teens playing sports, joggers exercising, and couples strolling."

Katie Gerbes loves Lake Artemesia in Berwyn Heights, alongside the Green Line between College Park and Greenbelt. "The lake has lots of gazebos, fishing spots, and a trail going around it. It also connects to the Paint Branch Trail, so a trip to the lake can be part of a larger run or bike ride. It gets a little buggy with gnats in the summertime, but it's a great place for a leisurely walk in the spring and fall."

Jeff Lemieux also takes to the outdoors in that part of Prince George's County:

My favorite natural spaces in the DC area are USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and MNCPPC's Anacostia Tributary trail system. USDA allows bike riding on most roadways through the research farms, which affords a lovely rural experience in the midst of sprawling suburbia. The Anacostia Tributary trails provide scenic recreation and also form the spine of an extensive commuter bike network in northern Prince George's county. Both areas are easily accessible from the Green Line's College Park and Greenbelt stations.
Closing out Maryland, Little Bennett Regional Park in northern Montgomery County is great for rambles in the woods. The downside is that it's only barely transit-accessible, via RideOn route 94—I used a Zipcar to access it.

Virginia destinations

Meadowlark Park, Northern Virginia's only botanical garden, got praise from Jenifer Joy Madden:


Meadowlark Park near Tysons Corner. Photo by Jenifer Joy Madden.
There, paved trails wind through rolling formal gardens and around sparkling ponds. Wilder paths draw you into the woods and great stands of native species. Kids love the Children's Garden, where they are encouraged to smell and touch the fragrant herbs and flowers.

Only a few months ago, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority opened a beautiful paved trail that connects cyclists on the W&OD trail with Meadowlark. Also, Fairfax Connector 432 now gets within striking distance of Meadowlark, but unfortunately it only runs Monday through Friday during rush hours.

Agnès Artemel recommended Great Falls Park and Huntley Meadows Park (both in Fairfax County), along with Daingerfield Island and Marina and Winkler Preserve (in Alexandria) for nature lovers, and added she appreciates the stream and trees along Spout Run Parkway between the George Washington Parkway and Lee Highway in Arlington.

There's also the well-known Mount Vernon Trail, hugging the river through Alexandria and Arlington. And Founders Park on Alexandria's waterfront and Ben Brenman Park at Cameron Station, also in Alexandria, deserve mention as great open spaces.

Adam Froehlig, an avid hiker, goes a little farther afield, pointing out the hiking trails along the north side of the Occoquan and along Bull Run. There's Fountainhead Regional Park towards Manassas, as well as the Appalachian Trail, which isn't all that far from DC and is accessible by commuter rail, as it runs through Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and served by MARC and Amtrak.

And when it comes to wildlife watching, nothing beats the beaver-tended wetlands of Fairfax's Huntley Meadows Park, accessible via Fairfax Connector routes 161 and 162, which connect it to Huntington Metro.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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Public Spaces


Springfield Town Center might save enclosed malls

Shopping malls are having a rough time as consumers increasingly shop elsewhere. While it's too early to say they're done for, successful malls have to take big steps to stay current. Springfield Town Center is experimenting with ways to do just that, including unique international stores and a central court laid out like an urban plaza.


Inside the new Springfield Town Center. Photo by Ser Amantio di Nicolao.

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I visited Springfield Town Center, a few minutes from his house in Annandale. Before it reopened in October, it was Springfield Mall, a 1970's-era regional shopping center that once hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana but had fallen so far that owner Vornado felt the only solution was to tear the entire thing down and start from scratch.

This isn't the only mall in the region that's being replaced with something else. Laurel Mall is now Towne Centre at Laurel, an outdoor shopping center. Landmark Mall in Alexandria and White Flint Mall in North Bethesda will soon become mixed-use districts. And the former Landover Mall is a candidate for the FBI's new headquarters.

What sets Springfield Town Center apart is that it's still an enclosed mall. Vornado kept the three anchor stores, Macy's, JCPenney, and Target, but demolished the old mall and built a new, reconfigured one in its place. Still, the new mall feels very different than enclosed malls you've seen before.


The old Springfield Mall. Photo by Rev. Xanatos Satanicos... on Flickr.

Malls still have a place

The assumption among real estate folks is that shoppers would rather spend their money at big-box stores that offer one-stop shopping, or head to historic main streets or lifestyle centers where they can get out and walk around outside.

But the mall isn't over yet, as some hope. Real estate analysts CoStar estimate that about 80% of the nation's existing malls are still healthy, though it's not clear what "healthy" means.

Malls must adapt to survive

As going to the mall becomes a once-in-a-while occasion, the malls that are thriving are super-regional malls like Tysons Corner Center, a 15-minute drive from Springfield. While it's smaller than Tysons, Springfield Town Center's bet is that shoppers will go to the mall if it offers something you can't find anywhere else.

Vornado brought in several "fast-fashion" retailers who are both new to the DC area and generally not found in malls: Uniqlo from Japan, Spain's Suiteblanco, and Topshop and F&F, both from the UK. Inside, there are deliberate design choices that make the mall feel like a place to linger: high-quality materials, bright lighting, and a large room with tables, chairs, and a grand central staircase that calls to mind an old train station waiting room.

It seems to be working, if only because of the curiosity factor surrounding a new mall. Two weeks after the holiday shopping season, Springfield Town Center was packed. The parking lots were full and the corridors were bustling with shoppers, especially teenagers, who are turning away from shopping malls. The mall's two sit-down restaurants, Maggiano's and Yard House, both had an hour-long wait.

I'm curious to see if shoppers will choose Springfield Town Center over big-box stores and downtowns, or even bigger malls like Tysons. There are plans to eventually surround the mall with offices and apartments, similar to what's happening at Tysons Corner Center and the Mall in Columbia in Maryland. Ultimately, that might create the kind of environment, and support the diversity of retail, that will draw shoppers in the long run.

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