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“Sneckdowns” reveal street space cars don’t use

Every time it snows, vast sections of city streets remain covered by snow long after plows and moving cars have cleared the travel lanes. These leftover spaces are called “sneckdowns,” and they show where sidewalks or medians could replace roads without any loss to car drivers.


A DC sneckdown from the 2009 snow storm. Original photo by Rudi Riet on flickr.

The term sneckdown is a portmanteau of “snow” and “neckdown,” the latter being another term for sidewalk curb extensions. So it literally means a sidewalk extension created by snow.

Following the recent snow storm in New York, Streetsblog put out a call for photos of sneckdowns in the wild. They received plenty of responses.

Next time it snows here, be on the lookout.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 8th, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: environment, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign



It’s fine to not build parking at Tysons Metro stations

Despite years of planning to transform Tysons Corner from a car-oriented edge city into a walkable downtown, some Virginia residents are surprised to learn that Tysons’ 4 Metro stations will not be surrounded by parking lots.


Development planned at the Spring Hill Metro station. Image from Fairfax County.

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 Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

December 3rd, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: metrorail, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign



9 suggestions to change the height limit

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.


Paris’ La Defense skyline. Photo by KJ Vogelius on flickr.

Much of the debate about the height limit has settled into two opposing camps, those who want taller buildings, and those opposed to any change. But it doesn’t need to be so black and white.

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.

That sounds cumbersome, but it’s standard practice in many cities, and DC already does it in some neighborhoods.

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 Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 30th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, government, land use, preservation, proposal, urbandesign



Notes from Seattle: A very complete street

Each day this week while I’m in Seattle for Railvolution there will be a brief post about some cool transportation-related thing in that city.

Seattle is currently rebuilding its Broadway corridor to add a new streetcar line. When complete, Broadway will have both a streetcar and a cycletrack, making it one of America’s most multimodal streets.

It’s going to be quite a sight.


Seattle’s Broadway corridor. Video from SeattleStreetcar.org.

Tomorrow: Ferries.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 24th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: bike, streetcar, transportation, urbandesign



The future of San Francisco transit, according to Star Trek

Take a look at this street scene from the recent Star Trek movie. It shows San Francisco in the year 2259.

Apparently in the universe of Star Trek, city streets will look pretty much the same 246 years in the future as they do today. Cars, a cable car, and a fancy articulated bus, all on a road with basically 20th Century lane markings. The pedestrian crossing and traffic signals are different, but it’s a wholly recognizable scene.


From Star Trek Into Darkness.

On the other hand, by the year 2372 things change quite a bit. These next 2 images are from the Star Trek: Voyager episode Non Sequitur, and show a street in San Francisco’s Mission District.

It’s a fully pedestrianized space, complete with a subway entrance to the fancy future Trans Francisco subway system. Very progressive overall.


From Star Trek Voyager.


From Star Trek Voyager.

October 11th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: bus, fun, metrorail, transportation, urbandesign



DC planners want height limit that’s targeted, not blunt

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.


DC’s skyline today. Photo by the DC Office of Planning.

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.

OP’s report follows a National Capital Area Planning Commission (NCPC) study of the issue. NCPC’s own recommendations earlier this month called for similar but more modest changes.

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 Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 25th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: urbandesign



Turn parking into parks for Park(ing) Day

Today is Park(ing) Day, and all across the US city-dwellers are claiming car parking spaces and temporarily converting them to parks for people.

Instead of using all our street space to store cars, why not use some of it to make our cities nicer places to live? On Park(ing) Day, groups find an on-street parking space, pay the meter to claim it legally, and instead of parking a car, they park seats, tables, plants, or whatever.

Groups are sponsoring parklets all over the DC region today. I visited two near my Arlington office alone.

Parklets on Clarendon Boulevard (left) and 14th Street North (right).

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 20th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: parks, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign



NCPC will likely recommend tweaking DC height limit

click to enlarge
Downtown DC.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) study considering whether or not to raise DC’s height limit is unlikely to recommend major skyline-altering changes. But it will suggest tweaking the rules to add more flexibility, and leaves open the possibility of taller buildings outside downtown.

In his report to NCPC, executive director Marcel Acosta will recommend against raising the height limit significantly downtown, but will suggest changing the rules regarding rooftop penthouses.

The rules currently allow unoccupied mechanical-only penthouses to breach the height limit by a few feet in certain situations. Acosta will propose allowing active human use of those spaces.

Acosta will also recommend that NCPC further consider raising the height limit for areas outside downtown, where the impact on the monumental core would be negligible. That might allow places like Anacostia or Tenleytown to develop along more similar lines to Arlington and Bethesda.

The NCPC will vote on an official recommendation in November, after hearing Acosta’s report and gathering public feedback. Following that, Congress will have the power to either pass a bill making changes, or retain the status quo.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 11th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: master planning, urbandesign



Montgomery rethinks Bethesda Purple Line station

The Bethesda Purple Line station is currently planned to squeeze into an existing tunnel below Bethesda’s Apex Building. But planners are now considering an alternate plan to tear down the Apex Building and redevelop the entire site.


Existing plan (top) and alternate proposal (bottom). Images by Maryland MTA.

Between Silver Spring and Bethesda the Purple Line will run on land from a former railroad line. Years ago the railroad sold the development rights above the tracks in downtown Bethesda. Now there are two buildings atop the rail corridor, the Apex Building and the Air Rights Building.

The Purple Line will pass easily under the Air Rights Building, but the Apex Building needs to accommodate a station. And while the tunnel there was designed to carry tracks, it wasn’t originally built to hold a station. The structural columns supporting the building come down into the rail tunnel, severely constraining the space.

Planners can squeeze a station in the existing space, but the result is a narrow platform crowded with building columns.


Apex Building column layout. Image by Maryland MTA.

Meanwhile, there are other problems with the existing arrangement. There’s not enough room in the tunnel for both a light rail station and a bike trail, so the trail is planned to be moved to the surface.

Also, building a subway station under the Apex Building would complicate any potential future redevelopment prospects. Since the Apex Building is only 5 stories tall, it’s already shorter than most other buildings nearby, and it will become a prime redevelopment candidate after Bethesda becomes a key Purple Line / Red Line transfer point.

Redeveloping now could solve the problem

The new proposal suggests tearing down the Apex Building, building the Purple Line station in a new custom-built trench, adding a 2nd tunnel for the trail, and then allowing the owners of the Apex Building to replace it with a bigger building.

Montgomery County is currently in talks with the owner of the building, and is working through a minor master plan amendment to determine the density and height.

If the new plan is approved, all the pieces will work together better. The Purple Line station will be simpler and more spacious, bike riders will have an uninterrupted dedicated trail, and one of the most transit-accessible properties in Montgomery County can be redeveloped at a more appropriate density.

It would be win/win/win.

As long as this doesn’t delay the rest of the Purple Line, I say let’s do it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 10th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: development, lightrail, master planning, transportation, urbandesign



Four suggestions for a new Franklin Square

DC and the National Park Service are partnering to redesign Franklin Square, the largest of the parks lining K Street in downtown DC. As they draw up plans, here are 4 ideas that will help transform Franklin from one of DC’s most underused parks into one of America’s best public spaces.


Franklin Square today.

Work with the city’s edges

Most of downtown DC’s existing squares pay little attention to what’s around them. They’re laid out symmetrically, with paths emanating outward from a central statue through grass and trees to the street. Each side is close to identical, regardless of what’s across the street. That works well for small spaces like Dupont Circle or McPherson Square, but not for larger ones like Franklin Square.

Larger squares need multiple sub-areas, each with distinct attributes that reflect what’s around them. Franklin Square is big enough that it shouldn’t be symmetrical. The more active 14th Street side should be more welcoming to large numbers of people, and should have more hardscaping and mixed-use. Conversely, the less active 13th Street side should be quieter and more park like.

Embrace transit

One big reason the 14th Street side is more active is the entrance to McPherson Square Metro station at 14th and I Streets. That’s a big opportunity. Rather than treating that as just another corner, no different from the other 3, the new design for Franklin Square should focus acutely on the Metro station. That corner should be the most intense part of the park, and should function as its unofficial center.

New York’s Union Square is a great example of what that might look like, with its hardscaped plaza surrounding a subway entrance, and quieter park area behind.

But the Metro station isn’t the only big transit component to Franklin Square. It’s also a major transfer point for several of DC’s busiest bus routes. The southern edge of Franklin Square, along I Street, is essentially one long transit station, serving hundreds if not thousands of passengers per day.

But Franklin Square’s current layout treats I Street the same as all the others. Landscaping curves away from the sidewalk, and benches face inwards towards the center of the park. As a result, every day tons of bus passengers stand in the grass facing I Street, while most of the benches sit empty, facing the wrong way. Except the grass is actually dirt, because too many people stand in it for grass to grow.

By ignoring bus passengers, Franklin Square’s current layout makes it a worse park, and a worse transit stop. Embracing I Street with better transit amenities would make the whole park better for everyone.

And don’t forget that the northern edge, along K Street, will eventually have streetcar service.

More stuff is better, but make it visible

Franklin Square’s existing layout should teach us one thing, at least: That it’s not always enough to simply plop some green space in the center of the city and hope for the best. If designers phone it in and just build a big grass lawn, the result won’t be any better than what’s there now.

The best parks are surrounded by extremely busy sidewalks, from which pedestrians naturally spill over and hang out. Except for the corner with the Metro station, Franklin Square is surrounded by moderately busy sidewalks, but not extremely busy ones. That means the park needs amenities to draw people.

Interactive features like movable seating, splash fountains, and vendor kiosks are all great ways to add vitality to parks, and should be considered in Franklin Square.

The existing fountain at Franklin Square fails to draw many users because it’s nothing but a squat ledge set in a sunken plaza. It’s impossible to see until you’re right on top of it. If designers want people along the park’s edges to enter and move towards the middle, there need to be highly-visible, interesting-looking things in the middle. That means they need to be taller than 2 feet.

Finally, the park does need a large central landmark. It may make sense to put such a thing at the southwest corner near McPherson Metro rather than the center, but regardless of its location within Franklin Square, there should be some single defining icon, to act as gathering place and landmark. A more grand fountain, or an archway, or a clock tower, or something.

Consider what’s missing from downtown

Since Franklin Square is so much larger than McPherson or Farragut, it can fit things the others can’t. It’s worth asking what amenities are missing from downtown DC that
Franklin Square might accommodate. Downtown doesn’t have any ponds, like Boston’s Public Garden. Nor does downtown DC have a concert shell. Surely there are others.

Franklin Square won’t be able to fit every possible idea, and some that it can fit may not be the best uses for Franklin’s particular needs anyway. But redesigning such an important square isn’t an opportunity that comes along every day, so while we have this chance it’s worth exploring all the options.

The National Park Service will hold a public meeting to discuss the redesign on the evening of October 2, at the Sheraton at 1201 K Street, NW. Come with ideas!

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 5th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: parks, urbandesign



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