Posts about Urban Design
Despite years of planning to transform Tysons Corner from a car-oriented edge city into a walkable downtown, some Northern Virginia residents are surprised to learn that Tysons' 4 Metro stations will not be surrounded by parking lots.
The confusion seems to stem from a mix-up about what Metro stations in Tysons Corner are supposed to accomplish. Are they places for DC-bound commuters to board, or are they the destination stations for people working in Tysons? There will surely be some of both, but most users will be the latter, and they're who the line must be designed to best serve.
If stations are surrounded by parking that will reduce the number of buildings within walking distance of Metro. Not only that, it would also make the walk less interesting and more dangerous, since walking through a busy parking lot is hardly a pleasant experience. That in turn would reduce the number of people who could use Metro to commute to Tysons. That would undermine the entire project.
The main purpose of the Silver Line project is to transform Tysons Corner. Tysons is a behemoth, with about the same amount of office space as downtown Baltimore. It can't grow or continue to prosper as a car-oriented place. Nor would it make sense to invest almost $7 billion in a new Metrorail line if it were not going to support a more urban Tysons, or serve easy commuting into Tysons.
Consider other walkable downtown areas, like downtown DC or Rosslyn. Would it make sense if Gallery Place Metro station were surrounded by parking instead of buildings? Of course it would not. Tysons will one day be the same. It may not look like that yet, but it never will if its best land is used for parking lots.
Yes, it's true there should be enough parking along the Dulles Corridor for commuters into DC to use the system. That's why there are large parking lots at the Wiehle Avenue and West Falls Church stations. There's no need for drivers to enter congested Tysons Corner to find parking, when more highway-oriented stations exist specifically for that purpose.
Alternatively, those few drivers who do want to park in Tysons will surely be able to do the same thing they do in Ballston, DC, Bethesda, or anywhere else: Pay to park in a nearby garage, and walk a couple of blocks. As more new buildings are built near Metro stations, there will be more available private garages to pick from.
There may be some small number of people currently living in Tysons who refuse to walk to stations, and will have to drive out of Tysons to find parking. That's unfortunate, but accommodating them with parking lots at urban stations would make those stations less convenient for the larger number of walkers, and future walkers.
Temporary parking isn't a panacea
Some suggest that since it may be a few years before all the land near Metro stations is developed, it could be used as interim parking on a temporary basis. In fact, that's exactly the plan at the McLean station, where 700 parking spaces will be available at first.
That could be a workable idea in a few places, especially at McLean, which is the easternmost of Tysons' 4 stations. But it's less practical than some may assume, because most of the land surrounding these stations isn't currently empty.
For example, Greensboro station is surrounded by strip malls. They will eventually be redeveloped into high-rises, but in the meantime the property owners make more money with retail there than they would with just parking.
In places where Fairfax County or WMATA can strike deals with landowners to let Metro riders use existing parking lots, that's fine. But it does not make sense to tear down functional money-making buildings and replace them with temporary parking lots. Especially when there are better parking options elsewhere for drivers hoping to park and ride.
The bottom line is that Tysons Metro stations were planned correctly. Some interim measures are OK if they're practical, but surrounding Tysons Metro stations with parking would undermine the entire reason for running the Silver Line through Tysons in the first place.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Last month, downtown Wheaton got a new Safeway, complete with 17 floors of apartments on top. While the new building gives Wheaton a skyline, it also has a lot of above-ground parking and blank walls, making the surrounding streets less inviting to pedestrians.
The Exchange, a new apartment building with a ground-level Safeway, towers over downtown Wheaton. All photos by the author.
Downtown Wheaton is having a residential boom, with 900 apartments in various stages of construction. Over half of them are in the Exchange, which is located across from the Metro station at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive and has a Safeway on its ground floor.
It's one of several residential projects with supermarkets being built around the region. Representatives from developer Patriot Realty says they were inspired by the Safeway with housing above at CityVista in Mount Vernon Square. There's also a Safeway with apartments above being built in Petworth, and a Giant with housing recently opened at the old O Street Market in Shaw.
Wheaton is one of the highest points in Montgomery County, and placing an 17-story building on top means it can be seen for miles in each direction. The county's plan for Wheaton calls for many more buildings like the Exchange, but for now it towers over the downtown's one- and two-story strip malls. And it fills most of a city block, meaning it faces not one, but three streets.
Seen from Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the Exchange (left) looks like three smaller towers. The Computer Building is on the right.
Baltimore-based architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht tried to visually reduce the building's mass by making each wing look like a separate "tower." From many points in downtown Wheaton, it actually does resemble a cluster of small, thin towers.
It works well with the other buildings on Georgia Avenue that are being built or were built a few years ago. The Exchange's "towers" pair nicely with the Computer Building, an office building one block away that's being converted into a 14-story apartment tower. Together, they create an interesting rhythm with the two other mid-rise buildings on the same block, which were built in the mid-2000's, and the six-story Solaire Wheaton across the street, which will open later this month.
Of course, the Exchange also has ground-floor retail, unlike all of those other buildings. The Safeway and an attached Starbucks have lots of big windows facing Georgia Avenue and even an outdoor patio with seating, which will likely attract people and make the sidewalks active when it's warm out.
But the building's structured parking garages threaten to undermine all of the good design features it has. The "towers" sit atop a podium containing several stories of parking for residents. The Safeway sits below that, at street level, and below it is another parking garage for grocery shoppers. Together, the parking garage and Safeway are about as tall as the mid-rise MetroPointe apartments next door.
Montgomery County's zoning code requires lots of parking in new apartment buildings, even when they're literally across the street from a Metro station. Underground parking can be really expensive to build and the foundation could have impacted the Metro station, even though it's one of the world's deepest. So the developer chose to put some of it above ground, and some below.
That means if you stand in front of the Safeway and look up, you see several floors of dark "windows" meant to make the parking garage blend with the apartments above. Around the corner on Reedie Drive, people leaving the Metro pass blank walls. The building's on a steep hill, so you're walking next to the parking garage, not the Safeway. If there wasn't so much parking, there could have been some small shops here instead.
Turn the corner again to Fern Street and there's basically six stories of blank wall facing Veterans Park: loading docks and shopper parking at the street level (it's set into the hill, so you can't see it from Georgia); the double-height windows of the Safeway, all of which are papered over; and three stories of resident parking.
Urban parks should have buildings with entrances and windows and storefronts facing them, which give people a reason to visit the park and provide "eyes on the street" that make it safer. There's already a public parking garage on one side of the park, and it's disappointing that the designers and developers didn't take the opportunity to do something different, or that Montgomery County didn't make them.
It's likely that many residents won't bring cars to the Exchange given its proximity to Metro and location in a walkable neighborhood. If the developer had been able to build less parking, there may have been more opportunities to shape the building's mass to make it feel even less bulky. And there may not have been as many blank walls. There could actually be apartments and shops looking out onto Veterans Park.
Montgomery County's working on a new zoning code that would demand less parking near transit, but it's too late for this building. It's unfortunate, because the Exchange sits on a really prominent site in downtown Wheaton. It's also the first high-rise to be built there, meaning it will set the tone for decades of future development.
In some ways, the Exchange is a good precedent for the projects to come. But it may also be a cautionary tale, showing developers what not to do.
On narrow sidewalks, there's often a tension between different users and activities. But sidewalks in an urban place need to make room for people to do more than just walk through.
On Black Friday, I went to the Apple Store in Bethesda Row to get my computer checked out. Though the area is a really popular destination for shopping and dining, the sidewalks are surprisingly narrow, and seemingly designed to make walking difficult and unpleasant.
Here's the sidewalk two doors down from the Apple Store on Bethesda Avenue. Next to the curb, there's a row of big, mature street trees in large, fenced-off planters. Where the buildings step back, there's also a little seating area with some benches.
The level of the street falls about a foot here, meaning the seating area is actually below the sidewalk. So there's a brick wall around the benches, just in case anyone falls.
That leaves about four feet for the actual sidewalk, which becomes a narrow channel between the storefronts and the brick wall. Since it's also on an incline, there's a railing to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, blocking off about a foot of sidewalk between the railing and the storefronts.
On a busy day, or frankly on any day when people are outside, you can watch folks struggle to pass each other through this slalom course: shoppers with bags, parents with strollers, or groups of friends chatting. They look down to avoid eye contact, form a single-file line, or swivel their bodies to squeeze through. The sidewalk discourages strolling or lingering here, which is part of the attraction of Bethesda Row.
Given, this is right across from Bethesda Lane, a pedestrian-only street. And Bethesda Avenue itself is a pretty narrow and slow-moving street, which is much nicer to walk along than Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, where the sidewalks are similarly pedestrian-hostile but there's far more car traffic.
But it still shows what happens when designers and engineers don't really think about the experience of walking through a place. Bethesda Row has most of the pieces to be a great place to hang out and gather, and most of the time it works really well. But poorly-designed sidewalks make it hard to enjoy being here.
Last night, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) presented several concepts for replacing the end of the Southeast Freeway with a boulevard. While it's supposed to reconnect Hill East to the Anacostia River, all of the designs presented prioritize through traffic instead.
The Southeast Freeway has been a barrier between the neighborhood and the river, but the new 11th Street bridges mean that the spur between 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE is no longer needed. DDOT would like to replace it with a surface street, called "Southeast Boulevard," connecting the freeway at 11th Street to Barney Circle.
A standing-room only crowd packed the Payne Elementary School auditorium for DDOT's public meeting on the Barney Circle-Southeast Boulevard Transportation Planning Study. At the meeting, required as part of an environmental assessment of the project under the National Environmental Protection Act, transportation planners shared design concepts for the project and gathered community feedback.
Alternatives for Southeast Boulevard and Barney Circle vary slightly
DDOT planners presented six different options they're studying for the new street, including a "No Build" option (Concept 1) required as part of the NEPA process that would keep everything as it is today.
Concept 2 puts Southeast Boulevard on an elevated structure midway between L Street SE and the existing CSX railroad tracks. The boulevard would be on the same level as L Street, with green space acting as a buffer. Pedestrians and cyclists could access the waterfront by crossing the boulevard at 14th Street SE. DDOT would also build a "multi-modal" parking facility underneath the raised boulevard, with ramps off of the boulevard providing bus and car access to the parking facility.
In Concept 3A, Southeast Boulevard would be at grade, below the level of L Street, with surface parking and green space next to it. There would be a foot and bike bridge over the boulevard and another surface lot to provide access to the waterfront.
Concept 3B is similar to 3A, except the boulevard is on the same level as L Street. In this case, pedestrians and cyclists would have to cross directly over the 4-lane boulevard and surface parking lot to access the waterfront.
Concept 4A places the Southeast Boulevard closer to the railroad tracks and away from L Street, with a parking lot in between. The boulevard and parking would be at grade below the level of L Street. Pedestrians and cyclists would access the waterfront via a pedestrian bridge over the parking lots and boulevard.
Concept 4B is the same, except the boulevard is at the same level as L Street, and pedestrians and cyclists would cross the parking lots and boulevard at 14th Street.
Planners also presented two options on the Barney Circle project, both of which would place traffic signals at the circle.
Option 1 would connect 17th Street, Kentucky Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Southeast Boulevard directly to the circle. Kentucky Avenue would stay a two-way street south of Freedom Way and one-way north of it. K Street would not be connected to the circle, but you could still reach it via Pennsylvania Avenue.
In Option 2, 17th, Pennsylvania, and Southeast Boulevard would connect to Barney Circle, while Kentucky Avenue would become a one-way southbound street from H Street to the circle. H Street would become a two-way street, with all-way stop signs installed at 17th & H and 16th, Kentucky, and H. K Street would remain one-way, but would connect directly to the circle.
These options prioritize through traffic over local connections
All of DDOT's concepts for Southeast Boulevard have three things in common: they all include a four-lane boulevard, have no connections to local streets, and include some parking element. The agency's traffic analysis determined that the new street was necessary, connections to local strets would increase cut-through traffic and that there's a significant need for parking.
The result is concepts that simply recreate what DDOT and the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative are trying to eliminate: a freeway that separates the neighborhood from the waterfront. The extra lanes, lack of signals and additional parking will just attract more drivers to the neighborhood during rush hour.
The designs are especially harmful to 17th Street, where Hill East residents have fought for years to reduce traffic volume and speed. DDOT proposes making 17th Street the only access point to Southeast Boulevard via Barney Circle, making it an alternative for drivers trying to avoid 295 and the 11th Street bridge.
Replace the freeway with a new street grid
If a new street is necessary, a better option is to extend the neighborhood grid by connecting the local streets, 13th, 14th, and 15th, to a two-lane boulevard with stoplights at each intersection. This would make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to cross at multiple locations and make the boulevard a local street, rather than a freeway.
A two-lane road with multiple signals would attract less traffic, easing but not eliminating some of the pressure on 17th Street SE. Green space could provide a buffer between L Street and the two-lane boulevard. And forget the unneeded parking lots.
On Barney Circle, Option 1 appears to be preferable to Option 2, assuming that DDOT can implement traffic calming measures on Kentucky Ave SE. Option 2 exacerbates current traffic volume problems by attracting more vehicles to 16th, 17th, and H streets. Without changes to the Southeast Boulevard portion of the project, both Barney Circle options make the neighborhood worse off.
If the goal of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is really "to reduce barriers between neighborhoods and the waterfront parks" and "provide continuous pedestrian and bicycle access along the entire waterfront," than we need an option that replaces the Southeast Freeway with a new street grid that prioritizes local connections.
What do you think about the proposals? You can send your comments directly to DDOT at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opponents to redeveloping the McMillan Sand Filtration Site often say it'll result in a loss of recreation and park space. But a recent video of the proposed plan by development team Vision McMillan Partners shows a compelling vision of a site with a large park and recreational component.
The newest plan, which the Historic Preservation Review Board called "very tangible and commendable" earlier this month, consolidates the site's green space, and ensures it's available to the whole neighborhood, rather than as piecemeal private yards.
While the fight to get redevelopment moving at the 25-acre site is far from over, winning HPRB approval is one more major hurdle cleared in bringing a 6-acre public park with pool and rec center, dedicated new affordable housing, and rowhouses and apartments to the long-shuttered site.
Talk about upcoming elections in DC and Maryland, planning in Arlington, and find out how Vienna, Austria got its affordable housing at events around the region this week.
Transit reporters talk politics: How will Smart Growth issues affect the 2014 elections in DC and Maryland? Tonight (Tuesday), the Action Committee for Transit will host a panel discussion on transit and the election with the Washington Post's Robert Thomson, also known as "Dr. Gridlock," Ari Ashe from WTOP, and Josh Kurtz from the blog Center Maryland. Kyjta Weir, former Washington Examiner reporter and currently at the Center for Public Integrity, will moderate.
This free meeting will be from 7:30-9 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. For more information, visit ACT's website.
After the jump: Events in Arlington, Fairfax, Hyattsville, and of course, our next happy hour in Penn Quarter.
Hear Leinberger talk about Arlington: Arlington County's planning department kicks off its new speaker series tomorrow (Wednesday) with author and researcher Christopher Leinberger, who will give a talk called "The Urbanization of the Suburbs: Why Arlington is the National Model and Where Do We Go Next." This free event will include a Q&A session with the speaker as well as a networking reception.
The talk is Wednesday, November 13 from 6-7 pm at the Artisphere, located at 1101 Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn. To RSVP or for more information, visit the county's website.
Spend Virginia's transportation money: Virginia's newly-passed transportation funding bill means new money for projects in Fairfax County. How should the county spend it? Fairfax County is holding its final two meetings this week to learn what residents want and find the best ways to get them moving.
The first is tonight, November 12 from 6:30-8:30 pm at the County Government Center at 12000 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax. The second is tomorrow, November 13 from 6:30-8:30pm at Forest Edge Elementary School, located at 1501 Becontree Lane in Reston. For more information, visit the Fairfax County website.
Learn about Bus Rapid Transit on Route 29: Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are holding an open house to talk about one of Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit lines, on Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville.
Speakers include Planning Board commissioner Casey Anderson, county planner Larry Cole, Chuck Lattuca from the Department of Transportation, and transit advocate Mark Winston. The meeting is from 6-9 pm at the White Oak Community Recreation Center, located at 1700 April Lane in Silver Spring.
Testify on DC's zoning rewrite: DC's Zoning Commission is considering the first update to the city's zoning code since 1958 in a series of public hearings over the next two weeks. There are three: hearings this week: Tuesday will cover car and bicycle parking, Wednesday mixed-use zones, and Thursday downtown, PDR (industrial), and special zones.
The hearings are at the Office of Zoning, 441 4th Street NW at Judiciary Square. Each hearing starts at 6 pm and continues until all the witnesses are heard or the Zoning Commission decides to recess.
Tuesday's parking and bike parking hearing is now full, but you can still sign up for the overflow hearing the next Tuesday, 11/19.
...and in Montgomery County: Montgomery planners have also rewritten their zoning code to modernize antiquated, redundant zoning regulations and create new tools to help achieve goals in community plans. The County Council will hold public hearings on its zoning code update tonight and Thursday at 7:30 pm at the Council Office Building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. It's too late to sign up for tonight, but you can register to testify on Thursday by calling 240-777-7803 until 5 pm on Wednesday.
...and Prince George's County, too (sort of): The County Council is holding a public hearing tonight on Plan Prince George's 2035, a vision for how the county should grow in the future. The hearing starts at 7pm at the County Administration Building, 14741 Governor Oden Bowie Drive in Upper Marlboro. To sign up to testify, you can register online.
Join us for happy hour: GGW's regular happy hour series rolls into Penn Quarter this month. Join contributors and readers for drinks and discussion next Thursday, November 21 from 6 to 9pm at Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, located at 639 Indiana Avenue NW, across from the Archives Metro station.
Let's talk affordable housing: Join the Housing Opportunities Commission, Montgomery Housing Partnership, and Coalition for Smarter Growth for a talk about Vienna, Austria's city-run housing program. Wolfgang Förster, Vienna's Chief of Housing Research, will discuss how to create more affordable housing in the DC region. This talk is today from 2 to 3:30pm at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, located at 5701 Marinelli Road in White Flint.
Let's talk buses on Rhode Island Avenue: Do you ride the G8, 81, 82, 83, 84, 86, or T18 on Rhode Island Avenue? If so, join Metro for one of two public meetings on proposed service changes to these routes. The first is tonight from 6 to 7:30pm at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library, located at Rhode Island Avenue & 7th Street NW in Shaw, followed by another one tomorrow from 6 to 7:30pm at Hyattsville City Hall, located at 4310 Gallatin Street in Hyattsville.
And even more: WMATA will hold a webinar on its Regional Transit System Plan tomorrow from 12 to 1pm; the University of the District of Columbia is hosting a conference on sustainability about Hamburg, Germany on Thursday and Friday.
Congress is considering whether or not to change DC's height limit. Here are 9 suggestions that will help the city get the most benefit out of changing (but not eliminating) its height regulations.
Regulations can change in practical and beneficial ways, without destroying Washington's unique layout. If Congress repeals or changes the DC Height Act, the District will be free to regulate height in much more flexible ways.
That in mind, here are some suggestions that Congress and the DC Council should consider as they move forward.
1. Don't eliminate, calibrate
Even though eliminating all height limits completely isn't anyone's proposal and has never been seriously on the table, it's worth saying up front just to be clear. There are good reasons to regulate height, but our existing laws are not necessarily the ideal set. We can make them more ideal with some fine tuning.
2. Target development where we want it
Many assume raising the height limit would result in taller buildings everywhere, or all over downtown, but that need not be the case. It would be smarter to pick specific areas where we want to encourage more development, and only increase the limit there.
The city can raise the limit only on blocks with a Metro station entrance, for example, or only within 1/8 mile of Metro stations with low existing ridership, or only near Farragut Square, or only in Anacostia. Whatever.
No doubt where to allow them would be a contentious question, but the city already has many regulations encouraging or discouraging development in certain areas. There's no reason the height limit can't be used in the same way. We can be selective.
3. Grant a residential bonus for downtown
Downtown DC has no trouble attracting development, but office is usually more profitable than residential, so downtown is often packed during work hours but pretty empty in the evenings. More residential would help downtown stay active on evenings and weekends, not to mention reduce the capacity stress on our transportation network by allowing more people to live close to their work.
But under current rules, developers often can't justify using floor space under the height limit for residential when office is more lucrative. If they got a bonus for residential, allowing them to build taller only if some or all of the added height were used for apartments, that would benefit everyone.
4. More offices can go downtown, but also other places
We want a lot of office buildings downtown because that's where our regional transportation system converges. But we also want office buildings outside downtown so residential areas don't empty out during work hours, and to encourage a healthy economy throughout the city.
Uptown nodes like Bethesda and Clarendon are good for the region and would be good for the city, and would happen in DC if we allowed them to. So while it may be desirable to allow taller buildings in some parts of downtown sometimes, it's also desirable to encourage office development elsewhere as an anchor for uptown commercial districts.
5. Be inclusive of affordable housing
Height limit opponents say taller buildings will make DC more affordable, because it will increase the supply of housing, thus helping to address rising demand. Supporters of keeping it say tall buildings will make DC more expensive, because new development is almost always expensive. They're both right, but those points aren't mutually exclusive.
New buildings are indeed almost always expensive, because it costs a lot to build a skyscraper, and developers need to turn a profit within a few years.
But new buildings eventually become old ones, and this isn't a short-term decision. Buildings that are expensive at first often become the next generation's affordable housing. Part of the reason DC has an affordable housing problem now is that we didn't build enough new buildings a generation ago. If we don't build enough new units now, the next generation will be out of luck too.
In the mean time, we can solve the short-term affordability problem with inclusive zoning; in exchange for allowing taller buildings, the city should require some of their units to be affordable. Win-win.
6. Require good architecture
Some who want to change the height limit say regulations hurt DC's architecture, resulting in boring-looking buildings. Meanwhile, many others hate tall buildings because so many skyscrapers are ugly. Both arguments are equally bad, because the world is full of both great and ugly buildings of every height.
But there's no denying that tall buildings stand out, and thus become landmarks whether beautiful or ugly. To ensure we get the former rather than the latter, DC (or even NCPC) could require aesthetic review & approval for the design of any building above a certain height.
A city the size of DC wouldn't want to insist on aesthetic review for every building, but there's no good reason DC can't do it for tall ones.
Of course the devil is in the details. To use this sort of oversight, DC would have to establish design guidelines that tell architects what the city will approve or deny. That could be contentious, and might not be the same everywhere in the city.
7. Preserve historic facades and encourage entrances
Frequent, unique-looking entrances are incredibly important for quality walkable urbanism. One problem with tall buildings is many are so wide that they're boring to walk next to at the ground level. The minimalist facades of modern architecture compound the problem.
This is why the urbanism in Georgetown is better than Rosslyn. It's not that Rosslyn has buildings that are too tall, it's that Rosslyn's buildings are too wide, and too bare at the ground level.
While it's not practical for tall buildings to change completely every 25' the way rowhouses in Georgetown do, their ground floors can be designed to look and function as smaller buildings, and historic buildings can be integrated into larger developments above.
This may not strictly be a height limit issue, but it's a good way to ensure that taller buildings improve the streetscape. It can be accomplished using the design guidelines and architectural review process outlined above.
8. Outlaw surface parking lots
Surface parking lots are the bane of walkable urbanism, but they're common in almost every skyscraper-heavy downtown in America, because one large building can sap up years worth of demand, leaving developers of other properties waiting in limbo for reason to build.
Many developers in downtowns around the US opt to leave land nearly empty rather than fill it with short buildings, on the chance that they may strike it big with the next big once-a-generation mega skyscraper. Surface parking lots provide a convenient way to use that land in the mean time.
This is a big problem, and DC is not immune. In 2008 the developer of what's now the shiny office building on the northwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street wanted to use that land as a parking lot.
Outlawing surface parking lots in areas where tall buildings are permitted would go a long way towards ensuring downtown DC never looks anything like this.
9. Protect the iconic monuments
Development economics are important, but they're not the only thing. The most valuable land in DC is probably the White House Ellipse, but we're not going to put skyscrapers there. DC's skyline view of the Capitol and Washington Monument is one of the world's most iconic, and should of course be preserved.
But taller buildings in Farragut Square or Brookland or Anacostia wouldn't impede that view any more than they do in Rosslyn, and La Defense did not destroy Paris.
We can, and should, allow taller buildings where they're most appropriate, while protecting the views that define our city.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Many complain that Metro's subway stations aren't bright enough, but they're surprisingly not that dim compared to other systems. Better surfaces can ensure that the limited lighting available is used more effectively without altering Metro stations' iconic appearance.
Which of these stations do you think is better lit? This one in Vancouver:
TransLink system lighting standard for subway platforms: 4 foot-candles. Photo by monnibo on Flickr.
Or WMATA's Gallery Place-Chinatown station?
WMATA system lighting standard for subway platforms: 10 foot-candles. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Believe it or not, Vancouver's transit agency specifies platform lighting 60% dimmer than WMATA's: their standard is 4 foot-candles, versus 10 foot-candles for WMATA. I usually read when I'm aboard transit, and whereas I have to seek out light on Metro subway platforms, I've never thought twice about the brightness on TransLink platforms. (Admittedly, I've spent much less time on the latter, partly due to the automated system's startlingly low headways).
It's not how much lighting, but how to use lighting
The difference is that TransLink also specifies high-reflectance, light-colored walls and floors, which direct light into occupied areas so that they feel much brighter. With "passive illumination," it's not just how much light is used, but also what the space does with that light.
Seemingly minor increases in reflectance for surfaces like walls and ceilings, particularly for indirect lighting scenarios, proportionately increase the brightness one can achieve with a given amount of light.
By comparison, much about the classic Metro station design thwarts attempts at improving lighting, and in fact intentionally so. Our standards of brightness have increased, partly because illumination has become so cheap.
Yet the stations' dark material palette, which includes unpainted concrete walls and ceilings, burgundy tiles, chocolate brown panels, even the bronze railings, absorbs what little light new fixtures add. These materials also attract dirt, which further darkens the stations over time.
Metro points to the efforts that it's taken recently, including regular power cleaning of the concrete station vaults, existing efforts to add fixtures, and replacing lighting fixtures system-wide with more modern (and thus brighter and more energy-efficient) equipment. The fruits of these can be seen at stations like Judiciary Square, which does indeed seem like a beacon of light compared to others in the system.
Reflective materials can improve lighting
However, using more reflective materials can also improve station lighting. That's the gist behind Metro's proposed changes to the Bethesda station, like replacing brown metal panels and concrete walls with brushed metal and clear glass. These changes will definitely help, but a more comprehensive approach could look at other changes that can improve lighting without dramatically impacting the stations' canonical appearance.
Laying a clear polymer coat on existing concrete surfaces could increase reflectance, reduce porosity and repel dirt, making cleaning easier. Painting the station vaults has proven controversial throughout Metro's history: Zachary Schrag's book The Great Society Subway points to a 1968 disagreement between the designers Harry Weese and William Lam as to whether to paint the vaults, and notes Weese's "commitment to 'pure structure in plain concrete' " in criticizing a 1990s decision by WMATA to paint some vaults.
But advances in construction materials now mean that light reflectance surprisingly has less to do with color as one might expect. A darker color with a slight gloss reflects more than a brighter color with a dull finish.
Today, much of the lighting in underground stations come from fluorescent tubes recessed within wells that are out of sight, beyond the platform edge or between the tracks. Since these surfaces are so close to the light sources, small changes here will result in big changes throughout.
Cleaning and brightening surfaces within these wells will result in more light reflected upwards into the station, as well as adding reflectors below the tubes to "catch" light that's currently pointing downwards, moving wire conduits so that they're below lights instead of blocking them, and replacing bronze-colored diffusers above the between-track tubes with clear plastic diffusers.
The stations' coffered ceilings have acoustic panels in them, which can be made brighter. These panels cover a surprising amount of the vaults' surface area, but because they're literally in the concrete's shadows, we don't tend to notice them very much.
These, too, accumulate dirt and dust over time, and over time they could be replaced by more reflective panels. The new Rosslyn entrance has highly reflective panels embedded within its coffers, which I didn't even notice the first few times I walked through it.
Similarly, WMATA could replace the drop-ceiling tiles underneath station mezzanines with tiles that reflect more light. Given the low ceiling heights in these spaces and the fact that they're largely hidden from view, a more ambitious upgrade could replace these with ceiling tiles with embedded LED lamps, reducing both shadows and glare in these areas while improving efficiency over the existing can lights. LED ceiling tiles might sound gaudy, but look no different than the fluorescent panels embedded in most office drop ceilings.
Attention to these details can ensure that the maximum possible amount of light is available within Metro's subway stations, improving energy efficiency, safety, comfort, and accessibility without altering their iconic appearance.
The DC Office of Planning (OP) suggests replacing the blunt citywide height limit with more targeted rules that would slightly increase heights downtown, and give DC the option to allow taller buildings elsewhere.
Under the proposal, the existing federal height limit would only apply to the L'Enfant City, and would change to allow modestly taller buildings. Elsewhere, DC would set its own limits using the local zoning process, which already requires federal and public input.
In many parts of DC, the zoning code already restricts height more than federal law, so this would result in no change for those areas. But for other peripheral neighborhoods, especially near Metro stations, it could potentially allow taller buildings.
Even so, it would take long public processes to rezone any land for taller buildings. To do so, the change would first have to be part of the District's Comprehensive Plan. After that, the Zoning Commission has to approve specific new zoning. At each stage there are opportunities for public feedback, and 2 of 5 members on the Zoning Commission are federal appointees.
Within the L'Enfant city, the report recommends modifying the height limit to allow slightly taller buildings. The current height limit restricts buildings to the width of the street plus 20 feet. OP recommends changing that to be simply 125% the width of the street.
In practice that's a very modest increase. Pennsylvania Avenue is 160 feet wide, so its height limit is currently 180 feet. Under OP's 125% proposal, it would rise to 200 feet.
For downtown DC, NCPC recommended allowing humans to use mechanical penthouses, which would effectively raise the height limit by one floor, as long as there are setbacks. Outside downtown, NCPC suggested further study but not yet any action.
OP argues that ensuring the economic stability and vitality of the capital city is a compelling federal interest, and reason to modify the height limit.
The ultimate decision will rest with Congress, which passed the original height limit law and is the only body which can change it.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
A long-awaited redevelopment could finally bring new housing and retail to Glenmont. But to create a urban, walkable environment around the Metro station, the Glenmont Metrocentre project needs to be designed for pedestrians, not cars.
Today, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved a preliminary plan for Glenmont Metrocentre, a 31-acre mixed-use development at the corner of Georgia and Glenallan avenues with 1325 apartments, 225 townhomes and 90,000 square feet of retail space. It would replace Privacy World, a 1960's-era garden apartment complex with just 362 units.
County planners first envisioned this project in 1997. Ten years later, the Planning Board agreed to let developer JBG build retail in addition to housing here, but the County Council refused to approve it until Maryland approved funding for an interchange at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road. With money in hand, the project can move forward. Next, JBG will need to submit a more detailed site plan.
The project is split into two phases. First, JBG will demolish 275 existing apartments and replace them with two apartment buildings and 4,000 square feet of retail. Meanwhile, partner Winchester Homes will build the townhouses. Later, two new buildings and more retail space would replace the remaining Privacy World apartments, but not until the interchange at Georgia and Randolph is fully funded, or the proposed Bus Rapid Transit lines along Georgia and Randolph have been built.
The developers will set aside 14.5% of the homes for low-income households, higher than the county's requirement of 12.5%. This will produce 225 affordable apartments, but it's not enough to replace all of the already-affordable units there are today.
They will also build new, wider sidewalks on Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road, and a 10-foot-wide "shared-use path" for walkers and cyclists along Glenallan Avenue. They can also pay for other improvements, like bike racks, signs that tell people when the next bus or train is coming, or a neighborhood circulator shuttle.
Plan creates great open spaces, lousy street network
JBG hired Baltimore-based architect Hord Coplan Macht, also responsible for the new Safeway and apartments in Wheaton, to design the project. On the west side of the site, closer to Georgia Avenue, are four apartment buildings with above-ground parking garages. The buildings will have between 5 and 7 floors; the tallest buildings sit along Georgia, and will also have ground-floor shops.
On the east side, closer to Layhill Road, are blocks of townhouses with rear-facing garages on alleys. Tying it all together are a network of new streets, giving residents and visitors alternatives to using existing arterial roads.
The design also creates a network of open spaces, including several pocket parks, a central lawn that serves as a community gathering spot, and a wooded area that will buffer the development from the railyard behind it.
However, the project's street network and potential architecture won't create the kind of walkable, urban environment that county planners and residents envision for Glenmont. Some blocks are really long, which encourage speeding and reduce the number of places where people can safely cross the street.
A "main street" parallel to Glenallan Avenue forms the development's spine and provides another connection between Georgia and Layhill. But according to the planning staff report, the State Highway Administration thought the intersection of the new street and Layhill was too close to Glenallan Avenue and would inconvenience drivers. Instead, the main street has been severed, forcing people to turn left, then right again before reaching Layhill Road.
Like in many new townhouse developments, the townhouses here will have rear-facing garages accessed from an alley, not the street. This can make the streets more pedestrian-friendly, but many developers use this as an opportunity to save money by getting rid of the streets entirely and arrange the townhouses so their "front" is on a pocket park instead.
The resulting layout is no less circuitous and confusing for drivers and pedestrians alike than the cul-de-sacs that alleys are meant to replace. The developers should put some more streets back into this plan, or at least redesign the townhouses in a way that forms more coherent blocks.
Pedestrian-focused design is a must
Since this is a site plan, we don't know what the buildings will actually look like. But since there will be a lot of foot traffic here, they'll need lots of detail and careful design to create an attractive, inviting pedestrian environment.
Judging from the townhouses that Winchester Homes is building up the street at Poplar Run, that may not happen here. It's as if the designers assumed that nobody would ever stand outside these houses and look at them, because very little thought went into designing the exteriors.
The windows and doors don't line up with each other, and without any trim, they look like they were pasted on. Each house has a number, but in a different place on each house, making them hard to see. And sticking utility boxes on the front of the house defeats the purpose of having an alley, which allows you to hide things like that.
Compare that to these new townhouses at the Mosaic District in Fairfax. Inside, they're very similar to the Winchester townhouses. But outside, so much more thought went into tiny details, like the way the stoop railings match the house lights, or even just making sure the windows line up with each other, creating visual interest and engaging pedestrians. These are the kinds of houses that belong across the street from a Metro station.
Glenmont Metrocentre could bring new residents, shoppers, and visitors to Glenmont and take advantage of a surprisingly underutilized Metro station. With so many people living and working across the street from the Metro, there will be a lot of pedestrians here. In order for this project to be successful, everything from the streets to the buildings must be designed with them in mind.
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