Posts about Urban Design
London is adding protected bike lanes to one of its traffic circles. Could the same design work in DC? Would we want it to?
London city workers recently began rebuilding the Queen's Circus traffic circle to include protected bike lanes. Since central DC has so many traffic circles, it's worth considering whether the Queen's Circus design could work here too.
DC's big traffic circles are notoriously difficult places to bike. They have multiple lanes of intimidating and zig-zagging car traffic, and sidewalks too packed with pedestrians to be good bike paths. Most of the circles lack bike lanes, and those that have them (Columbus Circle and Thomas Circle) are still far from comfortable places to bike.
But the traffic circles are key destinations. People want to use them. Making the circles more bike friendly would be great for DC.
Would we want to do this?
This is sort of a good design. It's better than nothing. But with so many crossings, it's still pretty confusing what's the bike lane and what's for cars. It seems likely there will still be a lot of intimidating cross traffic.
In fact, the actual design doesn't even have the green paint; I added that to make the rendering clearer.
The other big problem with the London example is that pedestrians are mostly absent. Unlike DC's circles that typically have popular parks in the middle, this London circle is just a road. The central grassy section isn't a useful park, and there are no pedestrian crossings into it. That obviously changes how the entire thing functions.
Look to the Dutch
Perhaps a better example might come from this traffic circle in Rotterdam, where in typically Dutch fashion the bike lanes are much more well protected.
Rather than fight with cars, the Dutch put the bike lanes up on the sidewalk. That's more ideal from a cyclist perspective, but it's also much harder to accomplish.
The sidewalks around DC's downtown circles are too narrow in many places to accommodate bike lanes. DDOT could theoretically rebuild the circles to have wider sidewalks and narrower roadways, but that would be controversial to say the least, not to mention a lot more expensive than striping a bike lane on the street.
The Dutch example is better, but the British example is more achievable.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Over the past 11 years, beach volleyball has become an unlikely success in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, drawing young adults for clean, athletic fun. But as the city moves ahead with plans to replace the volleyball courts with a parking garage and rooftop lawn, typically unengaged millennials are fighting back.
Under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore hasn't poured a lot of public resources into sexy projects, focusing instead on keeping the city afloat and the books balanced. That's why it was surprising when the visionary Inner Harbor 2 Plan emerged.
The plan's headliner is an iconic bike/pedestrian bridge across the harbor. Other smaller complimentary projects, like adding stationary exercise bikes, food kiosks with outdoor seating, kayak ports, bike share, playgrounds, more beach, or a pool barge, would collectively make a big difference.
But there's been pushback to a proposal to build a $40 million, 500-space parking garage, which would replace the volleyball courts where the Baltimore Beach Volleyball league has operated since 2003, as well as a memorial to the Pride of Baltimore, a sunken clipper ship.
The garage, which would have a rooftop lawn, appears to be the very first project out of the gate, causing the Inner Harbor 2 plan to get off to an unpopular start for many. Millennials, often criticized as a demographic for being politically absent, are expressing their unhappiness about losing a popular recreational area for a parking garage.
Volleyball supporters have written at least five letters to the Baltimore Sun over the past month advocating for the beach at Rash Field and noting its ability to draw young people. An unscientific poll from an earlier post I wrote in February received over 850 votes of 900 total for keeping beach volleyball.
Rash Field could use some improvements, but the many smaller projects in the Inner Harbor 2 plan could give the space the punch the city is looking for. Todd Webster, owner of Baltimore Beach Volleyball has been willing to help pitch in, if he could secure a multi-year lease for the league.
A parking garage isn't what will make Rash Field and the Inner Harbor a better place. There are many cheaper ways to make Rash Field better without displacing Baltimore Beach Volleyball or the Pride of Baltimore memorial. Doing so would not only be in keeping with the city's bent for fiscal responsibility, but it could also free up money for projects that are truly a game-changer for the Inner Harbor.
Though it remains unfinished, the Silver Spring Transit Center has been in planning since 1997. But 20 years before that, architecture students created this proposal for a giant box stretching across downtown Silver Spring.
Silver Spring is one of the region's largest transportation hubs, bringing together Metro, commuter rail, local buses, intercity buses, and eventually the Purple Line and the Capital Crescent Trail. Fitting all of those pieces presents a pretty interesting design challenge, and naturally attracts architecture students. When I was in architecture school at the University of Maryland, I saw more than a few thesis projects reimagining the transit center.
A section drawing of the proposed transit center, which would have also contained stores, offices, a hotel, and apartments.
Recently, Action Committee for Transit's Neil Greene found this proposal for the Silver Spring Transit Center produced by a group of architecture students at Catholic University in the 1970s, right before the Metro station opened in 1978. Like the most recent plans for the transit center, which have since fallen through, they surrounded the transit center with buildings containing apartments, offices, a hotel, and shops. Except in this proposal, they'd all be in one giant superstructure surrounding the station platform.
In their design, Metro trains would pull into a giant, skylit atrium, surrounded by shops and restaurants, with apartments, offices, and hotel rooms above. That was a really popular idea at the time, pioneered by architect John Portman, though I don't know of any atria that included a train station.
Directly below the platform was the B&O Railroad, the precursor to today's MARC commuter rail. Below that were buses, taxis, and a kiss-and-ride, as well as an underground parking garage for commuters.
The entire structure would have stretched over multiple blocks from Colesville Road and East-West Highway, where the NOAA buildings are today, up to Wayne Avenue, where the current transit center is. Existing streets would go through the transit center in underpasses, while skybridges would allow visitors to travel through the rest of downtown Silver Spring without touching the street.
Of course, this was just a student proposal, and was never carried out. But Montgomery County did propose skybridges in downtown Silver Spring as early as 1969 and, by the 1970s, had drawn out an entire network of them, most of which were never built.
This was in keeping with the prevailing wisdom of the time, that cars and pedestrians should be kept separate. But as we've seen in places where this actually happened, like Rosslyn or Crystal City, this doesn't work very well, and those communities are getting rid of their skybridges.
Of course, had we actually pursued a design like this, the Silver Spring Transit Center might have actually opened by now. Repair work on the current facility is currently underway and Montgomery County officials say that it could open next year, just seven years after groundbreaking.
Metro's Silver Line isn't the only indication the transformation of Tysons Corner is clearly underway. Further undeniable evidence: The Plaza, a popular new urban-style open space at the front door to Tysons Corner Center mall.
The Plaza (that's its official name) is on the north side of the mall, near the pedestrian bridge from the Tysons Corner Metro station. Three new high-rises are under construction around the plaza, tightly enclosing the space like a genuine city square.
The pedestrian bridge to the Metro station isn't open yet, because the high-rise it connects is still under construction. But when all is said and done, The Plaza will become the main entry point to the mall from the Metro. In a very real sense it will become the center of this emerging urban neighborhood.
Befitting Tysons, The Plaza is a thoroughly contemporary update on the classic city square. There's no marble statue in the middle, no grand fountain like in Dupont Circle. Instead, there are padded couches, small-scale artistic flourishes, and outdoor games.
The first plaza-fronting retail, a Shake Shack, opened earlier this week. More is coming soon.
One crucial difference between The Plaza and a traditional city square is who owns it. This may masquerade as civic space, but it's clearly private property. Security guards patrol the square, and you can bet homeless people aren't welcome to sleep on benches.
But still, The Plaza is a big step forward for Tysons. It's a genuine gathering place, and people are using it. Even without the Metro connection, plenty of other people were hanging out nearby when I visited last weekend. It's not the kind of place that a mere 20th Century office park would support.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
While repair work continues on the Silver Spring Transit Center, the entire block around it remains roped off. On Friday morning, big signs appeared asking to turn the space into a temporary park.
Six black-and-white posters hang from the fences around the transit center on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue, reading "Move the fence? Let's use this space." They sport photos of different activities that could happen there, like outdoor movie screenings, musical performances, and festivals. In the bottom-right corner is the hashtag #DTSS, meant for people to respond on social media.
Two Silver Spring residents placed the signs early Friday morning. They asked not to be identified to keep the focus on the message, not the act itself. "The Montgomery County election has just happened; people have gotten reelected," they said. "This is an issue a lot of people ran their campaigns on, but not a lot has happened."
They added, "We wanted to do this to bring back the bigger discussion…which is: what is the future of the transit center? What are the short-term uses of the site?"
Montgomery County broke ground on the transit center in 2008, which was supposed to tie together local and regional bus routes, the Red and future Purple lines, and MARC commuter rail. Work stopped in 2011 after workers discovered serious structural defects within the $120 million complex.
After some disagreement between the county and builder Foulger-Pratt about who was responsible and how to fix the building, repairs began in June. County officials say the transit center could open next year.
The transit center in 2012. Today, the space around it is covered in grass. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Recognizing that the fence is necessary because the transit center is still an active construction site, the sign-hangers say they hope WMATA, who owns the land, would be willing to move it away from the sidewalk. "We talk about Silver Spring being this urban, vibrant place, but our biggest asset, our front door, is horrible," they said. "What is a chain-link fence for us to be presenting to the region when we're trying to attract people to live here, to work here?"
Moving the fence even 20 feet away from the sidewalk, they argue, could still keep people out of danger while creating space for aesthetic improvements or other activities. "This can significantly improve the experience of people who use the transit center," they say. "You could add some trees and planter boxes, so you could move them easily."
This isn't the first time community members have discussed the land around the transit center. Earlier this year, Councilmember Hans Riemer and former Planning Board chair Gus Bauman proposed turning it into a park.
The sign-hangers say that's not their goal. "It's a prime development site, not a future long-term open space site," they say. "But we can enjoy it while it's here, and help inform what happens here in the future."
So far, the two signs immediately outside the Metro station have been taken down, but the other signs on Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue remain.
For years, the ground-floor shops at the Guardian Building in downtown Silver Spring have sat empty. To lure new tenants, the building's owner brought the space to life with fake storefronts.
The Arkin family has owned this six-story office building, located at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street, for decades. But as owner Michael Arkin's health declined and he wasn't able to keep the building up, many of the retail tenants moved away, retired, or passed away. After a stroke a few years ago, his sons took over management of the building. "We had our work cut out for us," said son Devin Arkin, who grew up in Silver Spring but now lives in Chicago.
The sons renovated the building and commissioned an sculpture for the lobby of 1950s-era hardware they found in the basement. But they weren't sure what to do with its nearly 7,400 square feet of empty retail space until they read about towns in Northern Ireland who disguised their empty shops with murals depicting open, lively businesses.
Arkin's advertising firm Huckleberry Pie crafted scenes of busy stores, like a men's wear store and a bakery, and fitted them over the empty windows. Workers toil away behind the counter as ducks and chickens peer out from door frames. Discrete "For Lease" and "Build to Suit" signs appear between images of food and goods.
Cameron Street is a few blocks away from the shops and restaurants along Ellsworth Drive, and as a result there isn't a lot of foot traffic. The Guardian Building isn't alone in having an empty first floor. The Cameron, an apartment building across the street, lost one of its two ground floor tenants, an outpatient surgery center. And two blocks away at Cameron and Spring streets, there are ground floor spaces at United Therapeutics' new headquarters that have been vacant for nearly four years.
If all of the storefronts on Cameron Street were filled, it might actually become a compelling destination that could draw shoppers and diners from other parts of downtown Silver Spring. But since most of them are empty, nobody wants to be the first to take the risk. (Other than Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the first floor of the Cameron, which as a chain can draw customers on name recognition alone.)
Hopefully, the Guardian Building can buck the trend. Its fake storefronts may not convince anyone, but it does look better than it did before. Hopefully, they'll catch the eye of potential tenants soon. According to this marketing brochure, the space is still vacant.
Problem: The Ballston Common Mall isn't working very well. Solution: Open the mall up to the surrounding streets, so it becomes the center of a lively community rather than a walled-off separate place.
Ballston is one of the smallest malls in the region. It can't compete well against bigger centers with more stores, like Pentagon City or Tysons Corner. Instead, the mall generally only draws customers from a small area nearby, and thus makes less money than other, bigger malls.
Meanwhile, being an enclosed mall that serves mostly local traffic, it saps sidewalk retail away from Ballston's neighborhood streets. Stores that would otherwise be on the sidewalk are instead bottled up in the mall.
To fix this, developer Forest City plans to face more stores to the sidewalk, and give them more inviting storefronts. It will replace nondescript mall doors with open-air plazas that naturally extend the street into the mall. Capping the building will be a new 29-story residential tower.
Forest City still needs to work with Arlington County to finalize and approve plans. For now, these are just concepts. But if all goes well, the 1980s-style Ballston Common Mall will transition to become the contemporary Ballston Center in 2017 and 2018.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
The more riders who use a bus stop, the larger and more amenity-filled the stop should be. That's the message behind this nifty infographic from Arlington, showing the basic types of stops, and when they're appropriate.
Much of the outcry over Arlington's "million-dollar bus stop" seemed to stem from the widespread belief that all bus stops are the same. But while the Arlington stops did benefit from a redesign, the general idea that "a bus stop is a bus stop is a bus stop" is wrong. Actually there are several different kinds, appropriate in different times and places.
For very small stops, used by less than about 40 passengers per day, simple "flag pole" bus stops are perfectly fine.
Bigger stops serving up to a couple hundred people per day need a little extra space for waiting, and at that level it's nice to provide basic amenities like seats and trash cans, so transit agencies step it up with sheltered bus stops.
But what if there's even more passengers? What if you're getting as many riders as a light rail or BRT station, on the order of a few hundred or even a thousand per day?
At that level you naturally need a station comparable to light rail or BRT, bigger with more waiting area. And it makes sense to introduce even more amenities that can speed up service or improve the customer experience, like high curbs for level boarding, off-vehicle fare payment, real-time arrival displays, and bike racks.
Meanwhile, when hundreds or thousands of riders a day are using a single space, it's no longer just a bus stop. At that point, it's a highly-visible civic gathering spot.
And as important it is to provide transit riders with attractive facilities, it's also important even for non-transit riders that our civic spaces be attractive. Thus it's appropriate for large transit stations to look nicer (and cost more, and last longer) than a row of mass produced bus shelters.
The continuum of transit stations doesn't even stop there. For more than 1,000 riders per day you start to need entire buildings with space for multiple vehicles, bathrooms, a staffed information desk, and more. Or you need bus subway stations, which are vastly more expensive still.
What's appropriate on Columbia Pike?
With about 16,000 bus riders per day, Columbia Pike is already the busiest bus corridor in Virginia. Buses on Columbia Pike carry more riders each day than the Norfolk light rail, and about as many as either of VRE's two commuter rail lines. It's a serious transit corridor.
And it's only going to get more serious. With the streetcar, transit ridership on Columbia Pike is expected to approximately double, to over 30,000 per day by 2030.
That's a lot of riders. That's considerably more than any bus route in DC, and about 1/3 the expected 2030 ridership of the Metrorail Silver Line. That many riders need and deserve good facilities.
What's odd about the debate in Arlington is that everyone seems to agree Columbia Pike needs vastly improved transit, but people are outraged about the costs anyway. Opponents to the planned streetcar aren't saying "don't build anything." They're saying "build BRT instead."
Putting aside the fact that full BRT is impossible because Arlington isn't allowed to dedicate Columbia Pike's lanes for transit, these expensive bus stations are exactly what BRT looks like. No matter whether you favor streetcar or bus, big transit stations are necessary.
And no matter where you go, they're expensive. For example, BRT stations in Eugene, OR run $445,000, while in Grand Rapids, MI they're $662,000. Norfolk's light rail stations are $762,000.
Naturally, Arlington isn't building these larger transit stations at every bus stop. They're only going in at a handful of the busiest stops, where passenger capacities meet that threshold of a few hundred per day, or soon will.
For example, according to Arlington Transit Bureau Chief Steve Del Giudice, the eastbound Walter Reed station is currently hosting about 525 boardings per day (that's boardings only, not including alightings). Assume it doubles with the streetcar, and Walter Reed will soon have over 1,000 boardings per day.
That's half as many boardings as the Arlington Cemetery Metro station. Far too many for a simple shelter.
Ask someone about driving in Bethesda or Silver Spring on a weekend night and he or she will give you a mouthful: "There's nowhere to park!" But as those communities have grown, their parking demands have actually gotten lower. On an average day, thousands of spaces there sit empty.
Montgomery's downtowns have lots of empty parking spaces. Image by the author using data from MCDOT.
This Friday, transportation planner Tom Brown and I will talk about parking and placemaking at Makeover Montgomery II, a conference about strategies for urbanizing suburban communities organized by the Montgomery County Planning Department and the University of Maryland. In 2011, Brown led a team at Nelson\Nygaard, where I now work, that recommended ways Montgomery County could better use its parking to promote and strengthen its downtowns.
Montgomery County has had its own municipal parking authority since the 1940s. A 1952 spread in the Washington Post's "Silver Spring Advertiser" section boasted, "Look at all the parking space!" in downtown. But downtown Silver Spring couldn't match the sea of free parking at new suburban malls like Wheaton Plaza, and it began to languish.
Many communities around the country faced the same story, especially older suburban communities that have more in common with revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods than in greenfield developments on the fringe. Yet these older suburban communities often have the power of place: unique, local shops and businesses, walkable streets, and vibrant public spaces. Today, people will eagerly deal with the hassle of parking to visit places like this and, increasingly, to live in them.
When Silver Spring started competing on place, not parking, it started to take off as an urban destination for the entire region. And a funny thing happened: as more homes and offices and shops were built around the Metro station, filling downtown's gaps and vacant lots, the demand for parking actually decreased.
According to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, the demand for parking in Silver Spring actually peaked in the early 1980s, when it had fewer residents and jobs. Today, a majority of downtown residents get to work without a car. Over 40% of downtown's 9500 parking spaces are vacant all the time.
Realizing that its parking policies needed to reflect how people actually got around in its downtowns, county officials asked Nelson\Nygaard to offer suggestions. The resulting Montgomery County Parking Policy Study recommended reducing or eliminating parking requirements in urban areas, since there was already a glut of parking spaces, and finding ways to direct drivers to underused lots and garages.
Officials are starting to take the advice. Last year, the county passed a new zoning code that still mandates parking in new developments near transit stations, but requires far fewer spaces than it does for more suburban, car-dependent areas. That will conserve land and reduce building costs, as structured parking garages are very expensive to build lowering the barrier for potential residents and businesses who want to come here.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has introduced demand-based pricing in Bethesda, setting higher rates for on-street parking spaces and lowering them in garages to encourage drivers to park there instead. This frees up on-street spaces for drivers staying for brief periods; reduces circling for a space, which causes congestion; and sends a message to drivers that they'll be able to find a space.
People will choose to live, work, and hang out in Montgomery County's downtowns not because it's easy to park there, but because they're great places to be. Some parking will be necessary, but these places will thrive if our community leaders focus on urban design and create complete streets that welcome everyone who already comes to Silver Spring or Bethesda by foot, bike, or transit.
Makeover Montgomery II runs from this Thursday through Saturday at the Silver Spring Civic Building in downtown Silver Spring. We'll be part of a panel discussion this Friday afternoon at 1:45 pm. For more information or to register, visit the conference website.
As part of a deal to build a replacement for the Tenleytown Safeway, residents are looking for the right public benefit to ask for. But the rare opportunity to get a big donation is bringing out narrow interests.
At the February ANC 3E meeting, Steve Strazzella of developer Bozzuto presented the latest iteration of a 5-year-old plan to redevelop the so-called "Secret Safeway," located at 42nd and Davenport streets NW. Bozzuto plans a block-long, brick building with 4 stories of apartments atop a 65,000 square foot supermarket and two levels of parking.
The project is a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which gives an owner more flexibility with a property's zoning if community representatives and the DC Zoning Commission agree to it. There are basically two ways a PUD contributes to a neighborhood: through public benefits, or amenities within the project itself. But it's unclear who will benefit from what the community's asked for.
The proposal has some benefits all by itself
Safeway originally needed a PUD because it wanted a new supermarket bigger than what could fit on the part of the site zoned for commercial use. In response to community pressure, the company agreed to build the store as part of a mixed-use development that is often the foundation of a more vibrant, walkable neighborhood.
In many ways, the proposed building is good on its own. What is currently an ugly one-story building that turns its back on the street and has acres of impermeable parking lots would be replaced with a new store, 200 rental apartments and extensive green roofs, all a quarter-mile from the Tenleytown Metro station and a half-mile from the Friendship Heights Metro.
Bozzuto has hired a new architect for the project, Maurice Walters, who also designed the Arts Walk at Monroe Street Market in Brookland. The developer wasn't willing to share any images, but as before, the apartments will range from studios to three-bedroom units, perfect for an area known for its family-friendliness.
The plan will absorb the adjacent WMATA chiller plant, allowing the building to have an inviting, street-friendly facade for the entire block. A loading dock in the rear will be fully enclosed, hiding loading activities from public view.
Neighbors unsure what the public benefit should be
At the ANC meeting, the neighbors largely supported the project. No one opposed it outright. For his part, Strazzella came to the commission ready to negotiate. Owners of the adjacent rowhouses worried that the proposed building would block their sunlight, but already the building was lower than previous iterations. Residents were divided on whether the building had too many parking spaces, and whether residents should be able to get parking permits.
Everyone generally agreed that Bozzuto should close a slip lane that lets southbound drivers speed off of Wisconsin Avenue onto 42nd Street. Instead, traffic would have to slow down and turn right, reducing cut-through traffic without sacrificing connectivity. In its place, there would be a small park just outside the entrance to the new store.
Beyond these points, discussion broke down. In a preemptive gesture, Bozzuto came with plans for a 4,000 square foot community building to occupy a corner of the lot on Ellicott Street. The building would hold meeting space, but it was unknown who would own it. While the main building featured quality design, the community building was bland and uninspired.
In the subsequent discussion, one woman said it would be better used as a park. Another said it should become a new house. Commissioner Sam Serebin insisted that it should be an outdoor pool. The commissioners agreed to talk it out, but Strazzella indicated that Bozzuto wanted to file with the Zoning Commission within 60 days.
To me, the community building makes little sense. There's no clear need for this kind of functional space. More importantly, there's no reason for this kind of building to be placed on a solidly residential street. But at the meeting, it felt like everyone agreed that the ANC had to extract something from the developer.
How do you decide what a community benefit is?
Part of the problem is that there is no framework to decide what's appropriate at this site. The Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Study would have identified community needs and combined them into a menu of amenities. In that scenario, either the developer or the ANC could see whether the benefit would be appropriate. In the absence of that or any plan, the public is left grasping for any chances it gets.
ANC 3E negotiated an meticulous PUD for the Babe's Billiards redevelopment nearby by focusing on the benefits and negative impacts of the project. This is a much bigger project, so there's more opportunity to toss around big-ticket items. But rather than seeing the PUD process as a mere transaction between a developer and the public, both parties should view it as a chance to build a neighborhood together.
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