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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An Email

I know posting has been sparse recently as I have been busy with a new job and overwhelmed by selling my suburban house while preparing for a series of temporary work-related relocations. But recently I received an email regarding municipal land use policy that I wanted to open up to a wider debate. Please leave any constructive comments you might have regarding the issue.

do you think it is a good idea, bad idea, or value neutral idea for a small town to amend their ordinance protecting "open spaces" in order to allow for the refurbishing of an existing building to be transformed to affordable senior housing.
(I don't know if "open spaces" is a standard term, but in this case it means land zoned for institutional use and includes areas that have a lot of property such as schools, churches, library etc)

I watched a LONG debate/discussion at a city council meeting and found I'm kind of in the minority in my opinion and wondered what a less biased person with actual knowledge of city plan would have to say.

Dave Murphy 
"Open space" is a very sketchy term. Gigantic empty lawns that nobody uses for anything are often considered "open space". On the one hand, if they can be used for something more meaningful, I'm all for it. If a building or set of buildings reinvigorates the town, absolutely it is a better use of the land, regardless of its use.

A great example in my opinion would be Four Corners, an area we both know and love... When they tore down the Kay Tract to build Blair High School, they demolished acres and acres of "green space". That area was a haven for homeless people and drug activity. It was unpatrolled, unregulated, secluded, and crime-ridden.

But when they tore out all those trees, what arose was a school already too small for its student body despite the fact that it was spread out over twice the real estate of the old school. The main feature that interacted with the rest of the "town" (if one were to consider Four Corners its own town) was not the main facade of the school, not the grand entrance, walkways, side buildings, or even athletic fields; it is the driveways and parking lots that front the school.

It secluded the student body, who for the most parts are residents of Four Corners and downtown Silver Spring, from the rest of the town. Was it a better municipal use of land than a bunch of trees with trash and homeless people? Absolutely. But does it contribute more to the townliness of Four Corners? Barely.

A good side effect was the pedestrian improvements that came along with a 3,200 student school, and Four Corners desperately needed those pedestrian improvements. But despite the fact that it is the most heavily traveled intersection in Eastern Montgomery County (for PEOPLE, not cars... more people move through that intersection than even Georgia and Colesville) no major mass transit improvements came with the school save for maybe a bus shelter or two.

Now consider the lawns providing the setback for St. Bernadette's. That is open space. It is green space. Is it serving the people of Four Corners? Does it serve St. Bernadette's other than to isolate it from the high speed traffic of University Boulevard or the "public school kids" that as a universal community of faith we ought to be reaching out to and embracing? The only thing I've ever used those fields for is stretching out a football team before a game at St. Bernadette's. And in 5 years of coaching and two years of playing, I can count the number of times I've done that on two hands.

Now consider something like this:

Erik Bootsma, the architect that authored this article, is a Beaux Arts architect and a Catholic. He writes about religious structures often. Here's his website, it's great:

But back to the suburban church being retrofitted... American churches are often gigantic, isolated structures that are monuments to themselves. Whereas in Europe, Cathedrals are the centerpieces of the towns, in America you have junk like the Mormon tabernacle, which only interacts with people driving down the Beltway and in no other way serves as a structural outreach to the community. For all their questionable doctrine, this is actually my number 1 gripe with the Mormon church. They structurally isolate themselves from their surroundings, even in Salt Lake City. But nowadays, every church does that. They move from central locations to wherever they can have the biggest parking lot, assuring that few will walk to their services and ostensibly turning away anyone that does not drive a car.

If St. Bernadette's was to take the lawns in front of the parish and do something useful such as what Bootsma proposed there in Arlington, it would create a community directly affected by the parish rather than isolated from it. And for a religious institution, what better way to attract members than to make the primary structure (the church) the focal point of a community? And as far as traffic on University Boulevard goes, building frontage could slow traffic down, and a more permeable street network could actually relieve congestion there. A train line running up Columbia Pike would be nice also.

As for your case, affordable senior housing is never a bad thing in theory. But what are they building? Garden style apartments with ample parking that will eventually mock seniors who lose the ability to drive? Or a community of well designed buildings that will allow seniors to partake in society without forcing them to drive? In my opinion, the latter serves more use than an open lawn that nobody uses.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Stupid Growth: Office Parks my Metro in Prince George's

Maryland's Housing and Community Development headquarters will be the first Maryland state agency to move into Prince George's County. In accordance with Governor O'Malley's transit-oriented development initiative, the offices will be relocated from practically-rural Crownsville in Anne Arundel County to a site adjacent to one of the Metro or MARC stations identified for O'Malley's plan.

The four stations in Prince George's County identified by O'Malley's plan are Laurel MARC, New Carrollton, Naylor Road, and Branch Avenue. This can be an excellent opportunity to implement a plan that could become a turning point for the County's future growth. My fear, however, is that it won't be.

Prince George's County has a long history of squandering valuable property along transit stations. College Park Station is the best example of that. Surrounding the transit hub, which has Metro, MARC, and several bus connections is an office park fit for suburban Atlanta. Its poor pedestrian approaches and wasteful spread-out design offer maximum parking without any continuity of place among the buildings. Despite being very convenient to transit, the design and layout of the area scream "drive here!"

Even worse in my opinion is Suitland. Suitland is a destitute area with high crime and a weak economy. When the Suitland Federal Center was built adjacent to the Metro, it came out as a sprawling officeplex with absolutely no orientation to the surrounding area. But don't worry, there is ample parking. Worse yet, the fenced monstrosity acts as a barrier between the town and the Metro station.

I hope this agency goes to Naylor Road station, where O'Malley made the announcement. And I sincerely hope they get it right. But if we get more Suitland and College Park, thanks but no thanks. Keep your office buildings in rural Anne Arundel County where they won't do any more damage to Prince George's County's transit access. Putting office buildings next to a Metro station is not all it takes to make good transit-oriented development.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A MARC solution for Fort Meade

I worked on Fort Meade for the better part of a decade. It made me hate commuting more than any Beltway traffic ever did. It is virtually impossible to get there without a car, and the parking is years of expansion beyond critical mass. The disastrous runoff and increasing traffic are wreaking havoc on the Patuxent River estuaries, and it is only going to get worse as Fort Meade receives almost 6,000 new BRAC jobs.

I have in the past called for Metro service to the base to service the 50,000 military, DoD, and contractors that work on the base and the adjacent facilities. And though that sure would be a nice connection, I am finally coming around to the reality that it would be more infrastructure investment that it would ever worth. The fact remains, however, that the base and surrounding facilities are not served by the MARC lines that run by either side of it. What more an obvious solution than to put a connection between the two of them?

View MARC Meade Line in a larger map

The idea would be to have trains leave Union Station and follow the Camden Line to Savage, where half of the trains would continue along the current Camden Line, and half of them would continue along a spur going eastward along MD 32.  The spur would connect to the Penn Line at Odenton and continue to Baltimore and beyond. Stops along the way could include National Business Park, NSA, and the Fort Meade main gate. New tracks would be about six and a half miles long. Portions could easily be constructed along defunct railroad rights-of-way.

The Camden Line, which runs along Route 1 all the way from DC to Baltimore, has several sites such as : Laurel, Muirkirk, and Riverdale Park are struggling to implement transit oriented development by their respective MARC stations. The Camden Line, however, has by far the lowest level of service on the system, and that will still be the case when MARC's 2035 plan is complete. a Meade connection could be used to add more service to the southern half of the Camden Line, which could help encourage those TOD projects.

Best of all, this connection would bring a viable transit alternative to a growing facility with worsening traffic and catastrophic parking problems. It would bring regular, high capacity transit at a minimal infrastructure investment.

Against the Generistocracy

Fifteen years ago, I was a nonconformist in high school. Like my older brother before me, I sported wild hair and listened to the latest parent-unfriendly rock music. And I loved visiting Phantasmagoria, a (literally) underground record store on Grandview Avenue in Wheaton.
It was an easy walk from my high school, a since-demolished private Catholic school that has, in its relocation, implied that they want to keep lower middle class students like me from ever attending there again. But in 1995, that school was a quarter mile from the Wheaton Metro station where I caught the C2 or C4 home, and occasionally I would stop in at Phantasmagoria or one of the other quirky little off-the-beaten-path shops in Wheaton along the way.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Links and Open Thread

I have been very busy with work and selling my house lately, and there haven't been many posts in recent months. I have a couple posts in the works that will be posted soon. In the mean time, consider this an open thread to talk about somewhere in DC that needs a little re-imagining. Off the top of my head, here's a few:

Walter Reed Army Medical Center
RFK/East End
Southern Avenue Metro
Downtown Bowie
Bailey's Crossroads
Glover Park
Fort Davis

Buffalo faces mounting issues as suburbs spread out and city spreads thin.
Rethink College Park talks about a Streetsblog video on autocentricity
Yonah Freemark looks at what DC Transit will be in just a few short years.
And check out a couple of new transit ideas that were posted on GGW.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I may not have to imagine much longer...

As scenic and wonderful as Laurel has been the past seven years, it looks like I'll finally be making my way back into the District. My humble abode will be going on the market this month.

I have a lot of history in the region here. I was born in Foggy Bottom. I grew up inside the Beltway in Silver Spring. I went to grade school just outside the Beltway, and high school in Wheaton. I attended Montgomery College, and I even lived in Rockville for a year. I joined the Army at 21 (pre-9/11, but just barely, if you were wondering) and resettled here after my basic and advanced training. I joined the Army to see the world, but they stationed me back in Maryland.

I purchased a house in Laurel in 2003 when I was 23 years old. I was a Specialist (E-4) in the Army at the time, making about $1,800 a month plus a housing allowance. It took a lot of scraping to stay in this house, but a couple of war zone deployments helped me pay the mortgage as my taxes skyrocketed during an unprecedented housing boom. After I got out of the Army, I languished in unemployment for about six months, during which I picked up odd jobs and took extreme measures to afford the mortgage until I managed to crack into a government job with an entry level wage suitable for allowing me to live somewhat comfortably while keeping my house.

I've come a long way since then, and so has the housing market, not to mention the city of Laurel and the DC Metro area. I know I am very fortunate to have survived the housing boom-and-bust and still have made money on my house. It was part determination, part luck, and part having smart people around me.

But as it goes, my current job sends me all over the DC area quite regularly and Laurel is no longer a suitable staging point. I'm moving back into the city of my birth, to a yet-to-be-determined neighborhood. Having grown up in the shadow of the Capitol and lived just about my entire life here and being a person who loves cities, it is a powerful notion for me to be moving back into a city that has overcome so much strife. In my youth, the mass exodus from DC was taking place. By the time I was in the sixth grade, DC was the murder capital of the US. While I was in high school, my mother fought with me every time I wanted to go to RFK or the 9:30 Club, citing my safety. And even as recently as 2004, the Army forbade me from going into the parts of the city where I am currently looking to purchase my next home.

But in November 2008, Election Day, I saw a celebration at 14th and U, an intersection that for the past forty years had been overcoming scars left by race riots, neglect, and construction of the Metro. It was a historic day for many reasons as Obama became the first African-American president in a critical period for the nation, but for me it was different, something that had nothing to do with politics. All kinds of people celebrated in the streets of a fully rejuvenated neighborhood. Washington had returned to being a great American city. It made me want to go back. And now it looks like I can finally do that.

So I'll be posting about that experience, schedule permitting. And if anyone is looking for a spot halfway between DC and Baltimore, I know of a cute little bungalow off of Route 1.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Bike Crossing and a Disconnected Street

I drive around the College Park Metro Station a lot. That area is home to one of the most notable examples on Prince George's County's long list of misguided transportation infrastructure disasters. The College Park Trolley Trail crossing at Paint Branch Parkway. Rethink College Park has chronicled the embarrassingly over-the-top markings, signs, and traffic implements to bring notice to the heavily traveled bike path crossing.

Allow me to set the scene: The College Park Trolley Trail runs along the bits and fragments of a disjointed Rhode Island  Avenue between Route 1 and the MARC/Metro tracks. It is a heavily used trail that connects north College Park to the University and the Metro Center, and this crossing is a crucial point on the path. Paint Branch Parkway is a four lane road with a double yellow line. The south side of the road has a sidewalk that goes under the train tracks to the Metro station. The north side has nothing between the train tracks and Route 1 despite several bus stops along the route. The only signalized crossing accessible to the north side of the CPTT is at Route 1, about a quarter mile west. And as mentioned above, there are no sidewalks to get there.

College Park has been trying to get a HAWK signal at the intersection, an option the County dismissed quickly. There is another way to get the crossing signalized, however College Park is likely to foolishly dismiss it: connect Rhode Island Avenue to Paint Branch Parkway.

View Larger Map

The CPTT and Rhode Island Avenue would intersect Paint Branch Parkway at the same place, and the vehicular intersection could receive a traffic signal on which the bike and pedestrian path could piggy-back. This would also improve street connectivity in traffic-clogged College Park. But that's exactly why the idea will probably never be explored. It would attract cars into the neighborhood, a notion that the University and the residents will likely balk at. Never mind the fact that it houses College Park's newest parking garage at Knox Road and Yale Avenue. People won't want through traffic by-passing traffic-choked Route 1 on the narrow, speed-bumpy neighborhood streets.

Prince George's County, like most of the rest of the nation, favors funneling traffic onto main streets instead of keeping a permeable network of interconnected and redundant streets. Usually, this just isolates communities and creates traffic problems. In this case, however, it hurts (sometimes literally) pedestrians and bikers who cannot count on Paint Branch Parkway drivers to obey the 35 mph speed limit or the state law that mandates cars stop at all crosswalks for bikes and peds.

In most other wealthy countries on earth, bikes, cars, pedestrians and transit find a way to coexist together on publicly maintained roads. This separation of modes with a grossly negligent safety situation once again emphasizes that in a country that is already bad at that, Prince George's County finds a way to prove they are one of the worst.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Look at Southwest

Southwest was gutted by urban renewal a couple decades ago, and it became one of the less savory parts of the city. The area is now experiencing a revival, however the original street grid is still decimated by the elevated freeway and railroads and several of the residential and office complexes that occupy superblocks. What would Southwest look like if all the letter and number streets and diagonal avenues were connected across the quadrant? Something like this:

View Southwest L'Enfant in a larger map

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Imagine Lamond-Riggs

Northern DC has a huge swath of relatively dense urbanized area with little direct access to Metro. This area consists largely of the Petworth, 16th Street Heights, Brightwood, Manor Park, and Lamond Riggs neighborhoods, and the obvious reason is that there is no line running underneath Georgia Avenue. There are commercial corridors along this route on Georgia Avenue, Kennedy Street, Upshur Street, Blair Road.

While it is not economically feasible right now to dig underneath Georgia Avenue, that area is likely to get a streetcar connecting Silver Spring to the next station along Georgia, the Georgia Avenue/Petworth station (which technically is in Park View, just south of Petworth). The eastern reaches of this area would not benefit as much from this new transit line, however the opportunity exists to add a Metro station along the Red Line in the Lamond-Riggs neighborhood at Kansas Avenue and Blair Road:

View Larger Map

This station would lie about halfway between Takoma and Fort Totten, which are just under two miles apart. It would directly serve the Blair Road retail corridor, and if placed on the southeast side of Kansas Avenue, the New Hampshire Avenue corridor would be directly served as well.

What makes this site particularly amenable to a transit station is the plethora of suitable approaches. Peabody Street heads west and in less than a mile hits Georgia Avenue in the Vinegar Hill/Fort Stevens area. New Hampshire and Kansas Avenues head southwest into the heart of Petworth, an important neighborhood in the heart of northwest, densely populated and undergoing a true renaissance. New Hampshire Avenue also heads north through Takoma Park towards Langley Park, and this new station could serve as a hub for bus lines along New Hampshire.

Blair Road already connects this area to the Takoma station area, and linking transit-oriented developments can have a synergistic effect on the areas, like along the Orange Line in Arlington or the downtown areas in DC. To the south, Blair Road becomes North Capitol Street and crosses Riggs Road/Missouri Avenue near Fort Totten, another area which is rapidly growing. As Takoma and Fort Totten grow with more walkable, transit accessible developments, a station placed in between them could induce a string-of-pearls transit-oriented development environment that could become the focus of the northern part of the District, improving transit accessibility and the potential for growth and development. And it could be done without spending a single dime laying more track.

I imagine the first criticism of this station would be that it increases the time it takes to get downtown. For some, yes. However, there is an express train from Silver Spring to Union Station known as the MARC Brunswick Line. For many residents in Lamond Riggs, Manor Park, Takoma, Brightwood, and Petworth, it will most certainly shorten the amount of time it takes for them to get downtown. Considering the benefits of added grown and increased economic viability, adding one or two minutes to get downtown might be worth it. It certainly was at the New York Avenue station, which opened just six years ago and has induced billions in economic investment, even during troubled economic times.

What would this station be called? Track Twenty-Nine suggested "Kansas Avenue" some time ago, however I am partial to naming it after the neighborhood, Lamond-Riggs, or perhaps Fort Slocum after the nearby park and Civil War fortification. Though perhaps not well known right now, Lamond-Riggs has the potential to become a keystone for development along the northern edge of the District.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sneak Peek at Imagine, DC Transit Vision

Further explanation forthcoming, but at the GGW meet-up in Silver Spring tonight, a couple folks asked me about it, so here it is

What is on it?

-Potential extension of existing and under construction Metro Lines (including Silver), separated from each other to maximize capacity
-Two Metro Light Rail lines, the Purple Line (proposed) and the Black or "Columbia" Line (which hits Columbia Pike in MoCo, Columbia Heights, and Columbia Pike in VA)
-A vision for DC streetcars (red), Ride-On streetcars (light blue), streetcars for municipalities in Prince George's (various blues and purples), ART/DART (light green) and Fairfax Connector (white)
-Southern Maryland Area Rail Transport (SMART light rail, in yellow)

What's not on here yet:
-Corridor Cities Transitway
-Baltimore Transit
-A "Pink Line" heavy rail inner loop
-A "Brown Line" crosstown light rail

I probably won't add these, it doesn't mean I don't think we should have them:
-Tram/Streetcar stations
-Rapid/express bus (vision supplants most of this with rail anyway)
-Redevelopment and suburban ruralization that would ideally accompany this sort of plan
-Bicycle facilities (not my wheelhouse... yet)
-New/changed/removed freeways, parkways, and interchanges, as well as newly tolled roads

Here's a disclaimer: I am not under the delusion that this vision is feasible, politically expedient, affordable, cost effective, or in any other way possible. But I imagine it would be able to quickly and safely transport most of the area's growing population after gas prices breach the threshold of affordability.

Sorry I am currently incapable of putting together a beautiful graphic like many of my fellow transit nerds at BeyondDC, Track Twenty-Nine, or Greater Greater Washington, but hopefully the arrangement I have thrown together on GoogleMaps will  give people an idea of what I'm going for here.