Posts by Topher Mathews
|Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and new daughter in Georgetown.|
Since the 2010 general election, DC has had 3 council elections where the winning candidate gained less than 50% of the vote. Our current system too often hands a victory to someone who most voters vote against, in elections that too few voters participate in.
"The way District residents elect a mayor and Council members needs to change," Chuck Thies noted this week. He's right. It's time for a new voting system.
In the 2011 at-large special election, Vincent Orange won with only 29% of the vote. This month, Yvette Alexander won her primary with 42%, and Orange got 40% in the at-large primary.
It diminishes winners' legitimacy and support for our electoral process to end an election without strong public support for any candidate. And it's no way to choose our decision makers when we have better options available.
Back in 2010, I argued for scrapping DC's primary system. DC should replace it, I said, with a single general election with some form of a preferential voting system (like Instant Runoff Voting, Approval Voting, or one of several others).
These other voting systems represent a big change, and stand little chance of becoming law any time soon. But a less radical, yet still effective, option is available.
Nonpartisan blanket primary is the answer
If the District must keep holding primaries, the best model would be to hold a single primary open to all candidates and all voters. The top two vote-getters would then face off again in the general election in November. This system, known as a "nonpartisan blanket primary," is used in several states including Louisiana and Washington, and was recently adopted in California.
This system would easily work well for electing the mayor, the council chair, the ward councilmembers, and the attorney general (which will be an elected position starting in 2014).
How would at-large seats work?
Electing the at-large seats gets a little more complicated. Currently, 2 at-large seats (not including the chair) are up for election every two years. No party can hold more than 3 of the at-large seats, and because the chair will remain a Democrat for the foreseeable future, only 1 of the 2 at-large seats can go to another Democrat in a given election year.
This creates a complication for a blanket primary, since the top 2 vote-getters in the primary may not both be able to win in the fall if they're both Democrats. However there is a solution: eliminate these set-asides. The rule isn't accomplishing anything, anyway: Michael Brown, one of the "independent" members of the council, is in all practical senses a Democrat, and more aligned with his party on a number of issues than some members who are officially Democrats.
This move may also appease a DC Democratic party that might resist opening up the primary. While non-Democrat candidates could be unhappy about losing their set-aside seats, non-Democratic voters, who account for 25% of registered voters, would finally have an opportunity to cast a vote that matters.
Since there are 2 at-large seat open each year, 3 at-large candidates should advance from the primary to the general election. Voters would continue to cast 2 votes for the 2 seats. This would not guarantee that either of the victors would garner 50% of the vote, but it would guarantee that every voter that voted both votes would have chosen at least one winner.
Would the Democratic Party support this?
To implement this new system, the DC Democratic Party will have to get on board. The party has historically resisted any attempts to open the Democratic primary. Typically the argument is that it will lead to "meddling" or mischievous voting by people who aren't "true Democrats."
But there is scant evidence that mischievous voting actually occurs in open primaries. In fact, there would be little incentive to vote mischievously because your preferred candidate will need all the votes he or she can get to reach the general election.
Incumbents who have historically been elected and reelected with more than 50% of the vote, which often happens in the ward primaries, would likely continue to win easily under the non-partisan blanket primary system. They'd just have to beat their opponents twice. If they're popular, this shouldn't be a problem.
Moreover, with the primaries now so early in the year, an incumbent who loses would be a lame duck for 9 months. How would they govern for so long, knowing they have already been fired? Would they become indifferent? Ineffective? Venal? Voters won't find out this year, but eventually it will happen. In a nonpartisan blanket primary system, the campaign would continue into the fall, making the lame duck period very short.
Some might argue that the flaws of DC's voting system are hardly unique, particularly in jurisdictions dominated by one party. That's true. But it doesn't make it any more acceptable, especially when a better system is available.
We can continue to use a system where the 60% of the voters, in an election that only 9% of the registered population votes in, vote against a candidate who wins. Or we can demand a better system that produces victors with wider support from a larger electorate. This proposal could deliver that.
The Library of Congress has a fascinating resource called "Researching Historic Washington, DC Buildings," which includes dozens of links to databases and collections with reams of information on old DC buildings.
One collection is a digitized version of Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys for Washington, DC. It's a highly detailed map of every street and building in the city in 1903.
Here are the maps for Georgetown:
Here's southeast Georgetown. Note the wooden bridge for K St. across Rock Creek, the factories and lumber yards on the water, and the fact Virginia Ave. used to go across the waterfront.
Here's southwest Georgetown. What's notable about this map is the streams that ran through Georgetown at this point, as represented by the black lines meandering through the neighborhood.
Here's northeast Georgetown. Notice that Q St. wasn't constructed yet, and Dumbarton House hadn't been moved yet. Plus, there was a giant streetcar facility on P St. (not to mention homes in what is now Rose Park).
Here's central Georgetown. What's notable here is that, as I discovered Monday, the addresses of homes north of Volta were different. And that's because Volta Place was Q St., Q St. was R St., Dent Place west of Wisconsin was S St. (east of Wisconsin it was Irving Place), Reservoir was T St. and R St. was U St. Oh and Wisconsin was called 32nd St. and 32nd St. was called Valley St.
Finally, here's northwest Georgetown. Note that Volta Park used to be the Presbyterian Burial Grounds, and that the weird Tudor style home on 33rd between Volta and Q was the Presbyterian church.
Roosevelt Island is a DC recreational asset and it's tantalizingly close to Georgetown. But far from easy to access for most DC residents. A ferry from Georgetown could solve that problem.
Last weekend, as I was taking in the newly-completed Georgetown waterfront park, my eyes (as well as many of the eyes of my fellow layabouts) were drawn to Roosevelt Island. It sits so tantalizingly close to Georgetown, yet it's a difficult place to visit.
From the waterfront park, it's over a mile walk across the Key Bridge and along a highway. This situation inspired me to ponder the idea of creating a ferry service between the Georgetown Waterfront Park and Roosevelt Island.
The distance between the park and the island is just over 100 yards. It would be possible to build a small pedestrian ferry to shuttle small groups of people back and forth from the waterfront park amphitheater to the island. All that would be needed would be a small dock at either end. The ferry could be wire-guided or simply be a small independent boat.
Illustration by the author.
Connected this way, the two parks would truly complement each other. The waterfront park is beautifully landscaped and sunny, but it doesn't provide that much in the way of footpaths. To walk a mile, you'd probably have to walk in a circle a couple times. Roosevelt Island, on the other hand, is almost nothing but paths and wild nature. With an easy connection, visitors could come to the waterfront park, have a picnic, and then make their way over to the island for a hike.
An even better (albeit much more expensive) option would be a bridge:
Illustration by the author.
This would allow a steady flow of visitors to move between the island and the park. Just imagine the beautiful vista that would be created by a sweeping bridge like London's Millennium Bridge going from the base of Wisconsin Ave. over to the island.
Roosevelt Island is in the District of Columbia, yet DC residents have to travel through Virginia via or along a highway to get to this fantastic and wild resource. The new waterfront park is a perfect new gateway to the island. Now it's time to build the threshold.
Crossposted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.
At the far western end of M Street stands the massive Car Barn. Built in 1895, the Car Barn served as a depot for the streetcars until they stopped running in 1962. After changing hands a couple times, the building now serves as extra space for Georgetown University. But one feature in the building's architecture reflects its earlier use:
On the pediment of the building it still reads Capital Traction. The Capital Traction Co. was one of the earlier mass transit companies that operated in DC. It constructed the Car Barn with an intent for it to be a Union Station.
As Wikipedia describes:
Union Station was designed to serve four streetcar companies: The old Washington and Georgetown lines would use the ground floor on M Street NW while the Washington, Arlington and Falls Church and the projected Great Falls and Old Dominion were to come across the Potomac from Rosslyn entering the second and third floors respectively on steeltrestles. The Metropolitan would use the roof. In reality, the Virginia companies never used it and the Metropolitan only sparingly so. The Washington and Great Falls took over the third floor. The station opened on May 27, 1897 and contained Washington's only cable loop.That's right, for a very short while Washington, DC had cable cars. From 1890-1899, the Washington and Georgetown Railroad. Its successor, Capital Traction, ran cable cars through the city.
The old power source for the streetcars is reflected in the pediment. At each side and at the peak, there appears to be a "flying wheel" (somewhat like the Red Wings logo). But if you look closely, you can see that they are actually models of the old cable car pulley:
The Car Barn was barely opened before Capital Traction moved away from cable power to electrical power. But 116 years later, a little piece of Washington's brief flirtation with cable power remains.
Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.
The Barnes and Noble in Georgetown has given up its lease, giving way to an unnamed retailer paying an unusually high $65 per square foot.
Why the closing of a large chain store struck a particular chord with Georgetowners (and others) is that it was a perfect "Third Place." This term, coined by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place, described those places in a community where people come together outside their home (first place) or work (second place).
They can be bookstores, cafes, pubs, libraries, whatever. To Oldenburg, and those that follow him, these places are most essential parts of that community.
What made Barnes and Noble a particularly great Third Place was that it offered Georgetowners and visitors alike a place to escape from the heat or the cold (or just the crowds), but you didn't have to pay anything to use it.
Commenter Ben wrote on Georgetown Metropolitan,
This is terrible news no matter how one looks at it. I can't fathom of any retailerMany of the classic Third Places continue to exist in Georgetown
— Bloomingdales, Saks, H&M, whatever — filling the hole that the B&N will be leaving behind. It was one of the precious few commercial spaces where one could literally "kill time" without racking up enormous bar tabs or restaurant bills. I spent many an hour in this store, browsing, sipping coffee and — yes — buying.
Oddly enough, if there's one store that can fill the "just want to browse out of the elements without buying something" void, it's the Apple Store. Every time I go in there, people wander in just to play with the toys for a while before wandering out (which 9 times out of 10 is exactly what I'm doing as well). It's not quite the same as browsing great literature (or a great magazine rack), but it's the least technology can do for us after killing our bookstore.
Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
There are many benefits to living in a dense city. The most obvious is that with so many people living in close proximity, their joint buying power and habits can support shops and restaurants within walking distance.
It's why a corner shop like Sara's Market, at 30th and Q, can survive in a totally residential neighborhood in a way that it couldn't in a suburban subdivision (where it would probably be illegal in the first place).
But Sara's recently instituted summer hours on Sunday. They don't open until 1:00, and close at 7:00. It's a reasonable easing of their normal hours, but it reflects one of the fundamental characteristics to Georgetown that will continue to seriously limit the amount Georgetowners will be able to support locally oriented businesses: not enough Georgetowners actually live here full time.
This was one factor that the owners of Griffin Market cited in their closing, namely that too many Georgetowners only live here part of the year. This was based on their own anecdotal evidence, but the Census records contain statistical evidence to support the observation.
Georgetown has 4,732 households. Of those, 568 are vacant. That's a rate of 14.2%. That's much higher than the rates of other similarly well-off neighborhoods. For example, Cleveland Park's vacancy was only 3.36%, the Palisades was 8.38%, and AU Park was only 0.47%.
While some of that vacancy rate represents truly empty houses or homes on the market, it could also reflect the fact that a lot of Georgetowners spend a lot of time elsewhere. Of course, either way an empty house is an empty house, and it means fewer residents around.
Moreover, the Census asks whether the home is for "seasonal or recreational use", and Georgetown's numbers are also much higher than the other neighborhoods. Georgetown reported 131 such residences (2.8%). The next closest of the other neighborhoods is the Palisades with 51 such residences (1.0%). Cleveland Park and AU Park reported zero such residences.
These aren't definitive statistics, but they are consistent with the anecdotal evidence that Georgetown has housing density but less human density. And it's probably not a coincidence that when small local shops close up they often will quietly grumble about the lack of business from the residents who profess to love all our small local shops. The love's there; maybe it's the people who are lacking.
Cross-posted to the Georgetown Metropolitan.
DC has begun a project to rehab and replace the streetcar tracks on O and P Streets in Georgetown.
DDOT will pull up all the cobblestones (technically Belgian blocks), tracks, and the yokes that support them. They will then reposition the yokes lower to be better aligned with the street grade, which has eroded a lot over the years. Once that's completed, they'll reposition the cobblestones and rails and, hopefully, the streets will look beautiful and be a lot more safe to travel on.
But what won't be riding on the tracks is streetcars themselves. The whole point of this exercise is not to make the tracks usable again but rather to simply preserve in place the last remaining examples of Washington's rare conduit power system.
That's a fancy way of saying the streetcars got their power from a buried power line. The streetcars accessed the powered line through a slot running down the center of the tracks. It looked a lot like a cable car slot, and for good reason because a lot of the streetcars in Washington were originally cable cars that were transitioned over to electric power.
Route 20 of DC Transit ran on Georgetown's O and P Streets until 1960. It wound its way through Georgetown on its way either out to Cabin John (by way of the Glen Echo Amusement Park) or towards downtown, ultimately terminating at Union Station. In Georgetown it came in on M Street, went up Wisconsin to P and headed west to 36th Street, hung a left all the way down to Prospect, where it would turn right and head out on the Cabin John right-of-way (which still exists!).
On the way back in, it would come in on Prospect, head over to 35th and up to O Street where it would turn right and head over to Wisconsin Ave.
Here's a map of the streetcar tracks that once went through Georgetown:
Green is covered tracks; blue is uncovered tracks; red is removed tracks.
Click for interactive version.
Nowadays you can only see the tracks on O and P Streets east of 35th St. But the rest of the loop around to 36th and down to Prospect is still there under the ashpalt. In fact, according to what I've been told, the tracks are still under the M St. and Wisconsin Ave. asphalt as well.
As part of this project, however, DDOT is actually removing the tracks west of the uncovered tracks that have been covered for decades.
And on Wednesday, they are starting that bittersweet removal on 36th St. just south of P. As you can see in the photo above, they've already carved out the tracks from the road. You can see the whole system quite clearly. If you're interested, you ought to stop by tomorrow morning as they remove the tracks. I was informed that the National Park Service will be there today to document the tracks as part of its Historic American Engineer Record.
Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
DDOT rejected Georgetown University's campus plan last week, citing its lack of an aggressive transportation demand management plan. While we are not in agreement about the Office of Planning's call for on-campus housing for 100% of undergraduates, we are in agreement that GU could make a much more aggressive investment in transit.
We believe that Georgetown University could manage its growth while having a dramatically smaller impact on the environment and on pedestrians and drivers in the community than it currently does. The path described below outlines how this could be done.
GU is the city's largest private employer and GU Hospital (GUH) is the sixth largest. We all want GU and GUH to grow and create more jobs, but that requires an aggressive investment in transit by GU and the city.
There are three changes in direction that GU should take if it is serious about managing transportation demands to enable smart growth.
Charge market rates for on-campus parking. Georgetown University should not be subsidizing parking for its employees and visitors and should not be overbuilding parking spaces.
GU and its hospital offer massive subsidies to employees, patients and visitors to park on-site. Even with those subsidies, typical parking demand during peak periods is 88% of available spaces. If parking were not subsidized, it would be clear that the campus has too much of it.
The university and hospital only charge $135 and $68 per month, respectively, for employee parking (p. 14 of TDM report). That is significantly below market rates in Georgetown, where others who work there pay between $200 and $300 per month for parking. The lowest monthly rate for a Georgetown parking garage is $215.
GUH charges $6 per day for patients and their visitors. The least expensive daily parking for visitors to Georgetown, by comparison, is $25. Washington Hospital Center charges $12/day, and GWU Hospital charges $7 for the first hour, $6 for the second hour, and up to $17 per day.
Even with these heavy subsidies, Georgetown experiences "typical demand for 3591 spaces during peak times" out of a total of 4080 spaces (p. 17 of TDM report). That's 88% usage during typical peak times.
The city's largest employer should create more jobs, which can only happen by shifting commuters to transit. That's why DDOT also recommends that developers charge market rates for employee parking as part of their transportation demand management plans.
Oddly, GU thinks its prices disincentivize driving. The Campus Plan states that "the University will continue to manage its parking permits and rates to disincentivize driving to campus" and GU will "continue use of price to discourage single occupancy vehicles."
Subsidized parking rates induce driving, and nothing would increase transit use by employees, patients and visitors more than charging the same rates that employees and visitors in the rest of Georgetown have to pay. 46% of GU and GUH's 8,302 employees drive alone to work, and only 396 of them participate in SmartBenefits. Those numbers may be better than they were in 2000, but they are nowhere near what they could be if GU stopped massively subsidizing parking.
Lobby DDOT to help manage demand and bring the streetcar to campus. Typically, very large employers provide lots of jobs, and they expect transit routes to go where those jobs are; for example, National Harbor in Maryland, which receives a subsidized shuttle bus from the Green line paid for by the state.
But Georgetown has not lobbied DDOT to bring transit to its doors. When DDOT rolled out its Capital Bikeshare initiative, the agency had to take the initiative to place a CaBi station on campus and push to secure a deal with GU. It should have been the other way around.
The biggest benefit for GU from DDOT would be for the agency to bring the planned streetcar line along K and M Streets past Wisconsin Avenue to campus, either to the Car Barn (where the city's original streetcars turned) or up the Canal Road entrance into campus.
Residents and students have disagreed on the route of the GUTS Shuttle from campus to Dupont Circle, but the planned streetcar route would connect to several Red and Orange Line stations, making the Dupont and Rosslyn GUTS routes less important. DDOT would rather run the streetcar down M than along K, but will accept K if that's what the community wants. The community wants the streetcar, but many oppose overhead wires on M Street.
GU knows none of this because it was communicated to a meeting of the Georgetown BID, ANC and Citizens Association that the University wasn't even invited to. DDOT doesn't know what GU wants, and that has to change.
Support performance parking. The University should also support performance parking. Currently the Georgetown ANC, as well as BID and Citizens Association, are working with DDOT to place meters in high-demand residential blocks that would charge market rates for parking. This will increase parking turnover and availability.
The Georgetown ANC has pressed DDOT for years on this initiative, with the help of CAG and the BID, and has grown frustrated at times with DDOT's pace. GU, on the other hand, has been fine to be placed on a need-to-know basis. This is simply unacceptable.
Prioritize pedestrians over cars with car-free promenades and woonerfs. Library Walk connects the majority of student housing with the library, quad and several academic buildings and is the primary route used by students. One would expect that such a route would be an attractive footpath with park amenities like benches and tables.
Instead, Library Walk is a street, with narrow sidewalks for students. It doesn't even connect to other streets; it's a dead end.
This is a missed opportunity for creating an engaging, attractive space where students want to be. Spontaneous interactions on Library Walk don't result in lingering, because no one wants to congregate on a narrow sidewalk next to a street.
Cars should be banned on Library Walk, the asphalt and curbs should be replaced with an attractive park and footpath (just like the path south of the SQ Quad) and benches and tables should be added to encourage socializing.
In addition, streets that are heavily used by students but also required for certain car trips should be converted into woonerfs. The key features of woonerfs are that pedestrians have priority over cars and the distinction between the sidewalk and the street is blurred (short curbs, same brick/stone patterns used on street as on sidewalk).
GU needs to make a greater commitment to transit than it is today. Such a commitment would demonstrate GU's lip service to environmental issues and its consideration of the community's concerns, and enable it to create more jobs without overburdening its transportation infrastructure.
Yesterday, the Office of Planning issued its report on Georgetown University's ten year campus plan. It recommends some severe and surprising restrictions on the university, including a demand that GU house 100% of undergraduates on campus by the fall of 2016.
GU's proposed campus plan would cap its traditional undergraduate enrollment at 6,652. In addition, it asks to increase its overall cap of undergrads plus graduate students to 15,000. They originally proposed 16,133, but pulled it back in its pre-hearing submission. This would represent an increase of approximately 1,000 students.
OP supports GU growing its overall numbers of students, but with only graduated increases. The reports calls for the total to remain at current numbers for the next two academic years. In 2013 it would rise by about 500; afterwards, if GU meets certain conditions, the total would rise by another 500 or so.
If GU is mildly perturbed about the overall cap conditions, they're probably livid about the undergrad requirements. OP wants GU to house 100% of traditional undergrad students in GU housing by the fall of 2016. This would also be phased in.
The university previously agreed to build an additional 250 beds on campus by the fall of 2014. On top of that, by the fall of 2015, OP calls for GU to house 90% of its undergrads in GU housing. By the fall of 2016, the requirement is 100%.
If GU doesn't meet that requirement, OP wants GU's undergrad cap to be cut annually by 25% of the difference between the cap and the number of beds until it meets the 100% mark.
That additional GU housing also can't be built east of 37th Street. That's where the campus gate lies, though the campus boundary is farther east. No housing can be in the 20007 zip code, other than on the campus and behind the gates.
I believe there are about 1,500 GU undergraduates not living in GU housing. That means that after GU adds the 250 that it has already agreed to, it would need to build roughly an additional 1,250 beds by 2016.
GU would have a couple options to satisfy this. First, it could find space for more beds behind the gates. One idea I've heard was to build a dorm on top of Leo dining hall, but I don't know if that is feasible. Second, GU could buy housing for its students outside the 20007 zip code: in other words, in Rosslyn.
All in all, this is a pretty devastating report for GU and I am simply floored by it. But there are still a lot of "ifs." Most critically, while the Zoning Commission is often deferential to the Office of Planning, there's no guarantee they'd go along with this severe a proposal. One factor that is definitely not an "if" is the question of what happens if the Zoning Commission adopts OP's report: years of litigation.
GU appealed the last campus plan decision, and ultimately won. Further, while the courts have rejected various universities' claims that student caps violate the DC Human Rights Act, the court hemmed and hawed a bit before reaching that conclusion. The court might reach a different conclusion if presented with these more severe conditions.
Either way, this is a huge bombshell in this battle, and it fell squarely on GU.
Some people have lamented that the new Paul Bakery restaurant that is to open next to the Banana Republic in Georgetown is a chain. While it's fair to complain about the lack of genuinely exciting or even interesting restaurants in Georgetown, one of the things Georgetown's definitely not is chain-dominated.
As of my latest count, there are 126 restaurants in Georgetown. Of those, only 20 are part of a big chain. An additional 5 more are part of a regional chain (i.e. Five Guys).
So even if you lump the regional chains in with the national chains, there are still only 25 chain restaurants in Georgetown. That's less that 20%. And the number of chains is unchanged from last year, while the number of independent restaurants has increased.
Is the Georgetown restaurant scene a little threadbare? Absolutely*. Does it seem like no new and interesting restaurants open here? You bet. But that's a product of a lot of forces, only some of which are controllable.
The two largest factors are the liquor license and the rents. With the Georgetown moratorium, unless you were one of the lucky few that snagged one of the new licenses that were issued last year, you're stuck buying an existing license, which can run upwards of $70,000.
And even if you secure a license, you've got to find a good space that you can afford (and that doesn't require much construction). There just are only so many of those spaces available, partially because there are already 126 restaurants in Georgetown!.
But neither of those factors is likely to change in the near future. Is there anything we can do to attract new and interesting restaurants (of the kind that opens up in Logan and H St. every week or so) if we can't change these two factors? I wish I knew the answer to that question, but I suspect the answer is "no".
*Are there places I still love? Sure. But most people would agree that the vast majority of Georgetown's dining fare is pretty boring.
Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
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