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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Highway Prejudice

I was reading this WaPo Roads and Rails Q&A session and I noticed a disturbingly high number of people commenting that HOV lanes and congestion pricing was unconstitutional because they discriminate against people who can't find another person to ride with them, and it is unconstitutional to discriminate on public infrastructure.

Oh Really?

I can't take my bike on the Shirley Highway. Are they discriminating against me? I can't even take a mo-ped out there. I sure as hell can't walk along the shoulder. You can't take your car on the Metro. Is that discrimination? Is it discriminatory for trail users to yeild to cars when they cross roads? I'd like them to tell me where controlled usage becomes discrimination, and why.

Now, I'm not endorsing HOV and HOT lanes (and certainly not any new construction of such roads) as any sort of a cure for our traffic problems here in Washington. But this is a very poignant reminder of how entitled we believe are cars should be.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Imagine Prince George's Plaza

Though nowhere near up to par with Arlington's Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, Old Town Alexandria, or the central business districts of Bethesda and Silver Spring, Prince George's Plaza might be the best example of transit-oriented development in Prince George's County. It combines a Metro station with heavy retail, medium density housing, and a walkable street grid. Unfortunately, those things are not integrated with each other.

I love the City of Hyattsville. As soon as I can afford to do so, I plan on moving there. It has a ton of potential. Potential, however, means room for improvement.

Anecdotally, I was told by a Hyattsville Police officer that the city plans to annex and redevelop the suburban style medium-density apartment complexes north and west of the mall. In this same conversation, the officer, who was advising me on where the city experienced most crime, cited garden style apartment complexes like these (like Kirkwood near West Hyattsville station or the apartments on the southwest corner of University and Adelphi) as the worst offenders. I can only assume the isolation of the buildings behind PG Plaza makes them ideal places to engage in criminal activity.

Generally, I don't like the idea of putting heavy transit near a mall. Malls are inherently car-oriented, and over the past decade they have experienced severe decline in image and practicality. The Mall at Prince George's (which I will forever call PG Plaza despite its new name and this newfangled civic movement against saying "PG" in favor of "Prince George's") might be able to take advantage of the Metro station across the street.

Many of the larger development projects in Prince George's County have been greenfield developments outside the Beltway and far from transit taking on a semi-new urbanist format, but are far from transit and isolated from the better urban design closer in. Bowie Town Center and National Harbor are good yardsticks for what we can expect out of planned developments at Brandywine, Westphalia(pdf), Konterra, and Woodmore Town Center (pdf): far from existing transit, isolated pockets of walkable mixed use surrounded by parking. PG Plaza, if redeveloped, can present a retail design similar to that of Bowie Town Center with the added advantage of being across the street from a Metro station in an area that can easily be reticulated into the surrounding street grid.

Remove the roof, which PG Plaza didn't always have anyway, and lay down the grid. I give you new Hyattsville:

View Larger Map

With this, perhaps more pedestrian friendly changes will occur as well. East-West Highway has three shockingly bad design flaws on that stretch. First, the median fences. Anytime a street has a fenced median to discourage jaywalking, it's a sure sign of poor design. Pedestrian traffic is like water flow. It will find the path of least resistance from origin to destination, and will creatively by-pass obstacles. Instead of trying to force pedestrians to go out of their way to cross East-West, embrace the foot traffic with more crossings, traffic signals, and a parallel street to spread out the traffic.

Next, the pedestrian bridge from the Metro station to the mall parking lot has to go. Parking ought to be consolidated into a garage, and the street frontage should be developed. pedestrian bridges over suburban arteries like this are not functional, they encourage speeding on the road, they kills street life, and they are unbearably tacky. Perhaps if the street frontage has an arcade with an upper level of shops and whatnot, it could stay, but generally it looks horrible and it proves to be cumbersome for access to the Metro station.

Third, rename the damn road. East-West Highway (MD route 410) is a title unbecoming for a road passing through the CBD's of Bethesda, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Hyattsville. In Takoma Park, 410 is actually called Ethan Allen Avenue. Perhaps Hyattsville could follow suit and rename it something like "John Clark Hyatt Avenue" after the town's founder. Apt, historical, and far less generic.

Hyattsville is evolving as a city. It has come a very, very long way in the last decade, and it continues to grow and improve. PG Plaza will undoubtedly emerge as a hot spot for good urbanism. Eyesores like the pedestrian bridge will be replaced by more of what we're seeing in the nearby Hyattsville Arts District, and instead of an island of good urbanism, it will grow into the fabric of the surrounding areas.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lady Bird Johnson Park

I have always thought Lady Bird Johnson Park was a little strange. Though closer to the Virginia shore, this island lies completely within the District, much like Roosevelt Island to the northwest. Although, unlike Roosevelt, this island is overrun with freeway spaghetti, most of it serving the Commonwealth and not the District. Also, this area is served by a Metro station, Arlington Cemetery. There is no residential, commercial, office, or industrial construction on the island, save a small marina on the south end. There are no park facilities. The entire area just seems like a serene setting to plop down a bunch of (confusing) highways.

Considering Lady Bird Johnson's efforts to beautify our nation's freeways, I suppose this is somewhat fitting (and probably intentional). though her Highway Beautification Act pertained mostly to interstates and ironically none of the highways on her island are interstates. Still, it seems like such a waste of a land. Why call it a "park" if there are no park facilities? It's not exactly the kind of place one can picnic or hike.

I would like to see the highway lanes consolidated, perhaps with some modest low rise apartments on the north side of the island oriented to the Metro station. And open the island up with some trails and waterside park facilities. Right now, the District seems to be allowing this land to be utilized only by the commuters in Arlington County.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Imagine West Hyattsville

West Hyattsville Metro Station is one of the most underutilized stations on the Metro system, standing out even in TOD-beleaguered Prince George's County. It stands seemingly in a large field, discouraging the station's use as anything but a commuter stop. The County has plans (pdf) for vitalizing the area around the station, but I thought I might take a crack at it myself with some street connectivity.

View Larger Map

Queens Chapel Town Center has a great deal of potential to anchor a strong retail district. The area, at the intersection of Chillum, Mount Rainier, and Hyattsville, has the population to support retail progress. The success of the nearby Hyattsville Arts District has changed the image of the area. West Hyattsville, connected to the Arts District by a traditional suburban street grid, is poised to parlay the success of one of Prince George's County's most popular real estate ventures into success of its own. Only the presence of a Metro station,

The Northwest Branch runs just to the south of the station, but instead of serving as a barrier, I believe this watercourse can be embraced by development with small waterside paths. I included several new bridges over it, connecting potential new developments to the Metro station. The key element, in this case, is adding parallel roads. As I have stated time and time again (as with many before me), a street grid reduces traffic, lessens vehicle miles traffic, and eliminates car trips as the area becomes more walkable. Hopefully a developer with the vision will take advantage of the opportunity, and hopefully the County won't block any progressive efforts. Hyattsville could become the new Bethesda, it just takes some progressive leadership to make it happen.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Free Gas at My Grocery Store?

This past Saturday, I was shopping at the Safeway in Laurel Lakes. Upon checkout, I received a surprise: $9 worth of gas at any BP station, a figure based on the amount of money I had spent on groceries over my last few trips. I was completely unaware of this program until the cashier handed me a gift card. The program gives $1.50 in gas for every $100 spent at Safeway. For me, 9 bucks is about a third of a tank, which will get me to and from work for an entire week.

This is a powerful sentiment presented by Safeway. To me, this implies that Safeway's business model assumes that consumers MUST use an automobile (and a gasoline powered one, at that) to use their stores, and therefore ought to subsidize automobiles. Personally, I would prefer imrpved crosswalks on Rt. 1 and better passage through the monstrous parking lot in front of Laurel Lakes Shopping Center. I would never drive to Safeway again. This furthers the notion that large grocery store chains ignore walkable urbanism in their business models despite its success in denser areas. In less dense places like Laurel, I'd like to see the two concepts at least coexist.

This has other implications. Since such grocery stores tend to be far fewer in areas with lower average incomes, this implies that a gas subsidy is the best way to get less fortunate people to the grocery store. In the automobile paradigm, this is somewhat of a charitable act on Safeway's part. However, not owning a car could save working class individuals a very significant percentage of their monthly take-home salary (25% for me!) , a savings that would far supercede the buck and a half I save on gas every time I spend a hundred dollars at Safeway.

I don't want to demonize the automobile. I own one, I use it daily, and I enjoy the freedom that driving provides. However I live 1600 feet from the entrance of the Laurel Lakes Safeway, and the only "safe way" for me to get there is to drive. I don't want to impose any major paradigm shift on anyone, nor do I want to take away their free gas or the parking in front of the store. For this particular shopping trip (which was rather large), I probably would have used a car no matter what the pedestrian facilities were. However, the simple fact that I can't walk 1600 feet from the grocery store to my house without risking my life in the process is inexcusable, and I really wish my local grocery store would acknowledge that this is a problem.