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Walter Reed’s main street should be Georgia Avenue

The Walter Reed campus is one of the largest redevelopment sites in the District. It may one day become the biggest node of activity between Columbia Heights and Silver Spring. Three teams are competing for development rights, and it’s now up to DC to select which team will get the opportunity to build.

Hines’ proposal. All images from the Walter Reed Local Development Authority.

Much of the media coverage of the 3 options has so far focused on which of them might accommodate a Wegmans grocery store. But the physical form matters more than the individual tenants. To function as a neighborhood downtown, Walter Reed must be walkable, as transit-oriented as possible, and fully integrated with the surrounding neighborhood.

Specifically, Georgia Avenue must be the main street. Developers of large properties often try to mimic shopping malls and pull the center of activity inwards, towards the center of their own site, and away from the edges. That’s why Ellsworth Drive became the center of Silver Spring, and why CityCenterDC’s central plaza won’t face a public street.

But that arrangement makes a place feel artificial, and limits the spillover economic benefits to surrounding parcels. It also pushes more people to drive, when the main transit spine isn’t front and center to the densest cluster of development.

With no Metro station at Walter Reed, and Takoma station a long walk to the east, the major transit access will be from Georgia Avenue. First the 70-series bus line, and eventually streetcar. Since Georgia Avenue is both the transit spine and the community’s existing main street, it should be the heart of activity for Walter Reed.

Hines and Roadside proposals

Hines (left), Roadside (right).

The Hines and Roadside concepts are similar. Both propose the southern half of the property be suburban in character, with a town center clustered in the northern half.

Hines shows a public park fronting on Georgia Avenue, which would be a nice amenity. But that park has the unfortunate effect of pushing the hub of its town center back nearly 2 blocks away. One rendering even shows the streetcar pulled off Georgia Avenue, rerouted to better serve Walter Reed and more poorly serve everywhere else.

It’s harder to tell from the plans whether the Roadside proposal treats Georgia Avenue, Dahlia Street, 12th Street, or 13th Street as the main street. It appears to be about the same density as Hines, but without the town center park.

Forest City proposal

Forest City.

Seemingly the densest of the 3 proposals, Forest City is the only finalist team that attempts to urbanize the southern half of the property. It also maximizes building frontage along Georgia Avenue, while providing ample parks along 13th Street.

Forest City does propose to make Dahlia Street a retail spine, while they do not say what sort of land uses would front on Georgia Avenue. There may be enough added density in their proposal to support both Dahlia and Georgia as retail spines, or maybe they’d make Georgia all residential. The former would be fine, the latter wouldn’t.

At first glance, Forest City’s proposal appears to be the best of the 3, but all the development teams must release more details, especially their proposed ground-floor land uses for every street.

No matter which team is ultimately picked, a town center near Georgia and Dahlia is better for DC than what’s there today.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

July 31st, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, streetcar, transportation

To build a soccer stadium, DC will swap the Reeves Center

DC has agreed to a preliminary deal to build a dedicated soccer stadium at Buzzard Point, and to redevelop the Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW with a new mixed-use building.

Rendering of a Buzzard Point soccer stadium. Image from DC United.

Under the deal, the stadium would be located at the southern base of Potomac Avenue SW, just 4 blocks from Nationals Park. It would seat 20,000-25,000 people, and cost around $150 million to build. DC United would pay for construction, but the District would donate the land.

Development firm Akridge currently owns the land for the stadium. Instead of buying the land outright, DC would swap it for the Reeves Center. Akridge would then tear down and redevelop the Reeves Center, while United would build a stadium at Buzzard Point.

The deal must still be approved by the DC Council.

Is this a good idea?

Is Buzzard Point the right place for a stadium? Usually it’s not a great idea to put two large stadiums so close to each other, because when so much land is given over to sports, there’s not enough left over to build a functioning mixed-use neighborhood. That’s a major problem with Baltimore’s Camden Yards area, with the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, and with most multiple-stadium complexes.

But Buzzard Point may be different. Nationals Park has helped induce strong redevelopment east of South Capitol Street, and along M Street SE/SW, but the west side of South Capitol Street has lagged behind. The west side clearly functions as a different place, and a stadium there could help.

On the other hand, maybe the west side of South Capitol Street hasn’t redeveloped as much precisely because Nationals Park superblock is a barrier.

From a transportation perspective, Buzzard Point makes sense. Although it’s further from a Metro station than Nationals Park or RFK, it’s still within walking distance. And actually, a little bit of distance is a good thing, since it means soccer fans will pass by retail areas between the stadium and Metro, and that the most valuable land nearest the station can still be used for mixed-use development.

On top of the Metro connection, DC is planning for both the Georgia Avenue and Anacostia streetcar lines to terminate at Buzzard Point, directly adjacent to the proposed stadium site.

As for the Reeves Center, it cannot be redeveloped soon enough. A large city office building was a useful and necessary investment along U Street in the 1980s, when central DC was declining. But now the neighborhood is booming, the land is in high demand, and the Reeves Center is obsolete.

In a perfect world, I still think Poplar Point would have been a better location for a soccer stadium. But in the real world, Buzzard Point works. Since DC taxpayers won’t be on the hook to pay for construction, let’s do it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

July 25th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development

Fairfax still wants a real center at Vienna MetroWest

Developers floated a plan last month to drastically downscale the town center at Vienna MetroWest, but Lynda Smyth, the county supervisor for the area, said she never approved such a change, nor would the Board of Supervisors likely ever do so. Developers say they’re still committed to the full town center, but can’t do it right away.

The downscaled proposal, with single-story buildings fronting onto parking lots. Image from Paraclete Realty.

Developers spoke with county supervisors and residents about the plans at a public meeting on June 18. According to resident Eric Bleeker, the room was packed, and many attendees came because they’d heard about the plan on Greater Greater Washington. Supervisor Smyth said she hadn’t seen the new proposal until it was posted to Greater Greater Washington, and would almost surely not approve it.

According to Tim Alexander of development firm Clark Realty, the downscaled proposal is supposed to be temporary. Clark still wants to build the full town center, but can’t find tenants for the originally proposed office buildings in the current economy. In the mean time, his company doesn’t want to leave that land empty for what could be years.

“The negativity to the plan was immense,” said Bleeker, who lives at MetroWest. “After a good verbal lashing from Supervisor Smyth, the Clark representative spoke of wanting to work with the county on alternative ideas, and threw out pop-up retail.”

What now?

Unfortunately, Clark is between a rock and a hard place. Plan A, the full town center, is impossible in the short term due to the economy. Plan B, the downscaled version, is rightly unpopular. What could work for Plan C?

It would be short-sighted to simply build residential towers in the town center instead of offices. MetroWest would lose its planned mixed-use character. It would be harder to keep retail spaces full over the long term with neither daytime workers in walking distance nor a lot of car traffic passing by.

So temporary single-story buildings may be the only viable near-term option, even if “temporary” means years. But if that’s the case, Clark should strive to build a bona fide main street, rather than a couple of retail pad sites, with half of them fronting onto parking lots.

Even if parking lots are necessary, the main strip of activity should be the pedestrian-oriented walkway down the middle of the site, leading to the Metro station. All stores should front directly onto the main street, and there shouldn’t be any gaps in the street wall where a parking lot comes right up to the front.

If the full town center is years away then a temporary single-story retail town center may be an unfortunate reality, but even if so, Clark can do better.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

July 3rd, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, urbandesign

Baltimore’s suburban downtowns emerge as more urban

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Towson Row. Image from Baltimore County.

Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Arlington are some of the best suburban downtowns in America. Baltimore’s suburbs, by comparison, have lagged behind. But with large infill projects coming to Towson and Columbia, Baltimore’s most walkable suburbs may soon catch up with DC’s.

In Towson, 1500 new residential units have opened in the past 4 years, with the largest redevelopment, Towson Row, announced just last week. The change has been enough that the Maryland Transportation Administration is now considering a Towson circulator bus network.

Columbia has further to go. Towson at least has a traditional grid of streets around which to build. Columbia, by comparison, was planned in the mid-20th Century around a mall. All Towson really needs is more buildings; Columbia must be reworked from the ground up.

click to enlargeDowntown Columbia master plan. Image from Howard County.

But they are getting there, slowly. In 2010 Howard County adopted a master plan to make downtown Columbia more urban. And now, actual projects are in the works.

Developers are moving forward with a 9-story infill project after plans for a 22-story one on the same property fell through. The shorter project is actually denser. It will have 160 apartments, 12,000 square feet of retail, and 130,000 square feet of office space, compared to 160 apartments, 11,000 square feet of retail, and no office space in the 22-story version. The 22-story tower was proposed nearly 10 years ago, and was a more suburban design.

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future both Towson and Columbia will continue to lack an important piece of the urban puzzle: regional transit. DC’s suburban downtowns have the advantage of Metro, but Baltimore’s Metro is smaller, and serves neither Towson nor Columbia. Long range plans call for an eventual light rail connection to both places, but that’s decades away.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 25th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, development, lightrail, master planning, transportation

Vienna Metro town center won’t have a town center

Outside of Tysons Corner, Vienna MetroWest is Fairfax County’s greatest experiment yet in transit oriented development. But now it appears developers have scaled back, and may build car-oriented retail instead.

Original plan (left), and current plan (right). Images from Clark Realty and Paraclete Realty.

MetroWest was initially approved in 2006 after years of debate as a dense, walkable town center adjacent to Vienna Metro station. It was Fairfax County’s first big smart growth win.

With construction of the residential sections underway, the town center seemed close to finally, finally happening. But now that it’s time to actually start leasing spaces, the town center development plan looks a lot different.

Instead of dense, walkable midrises, the are single-story retail buildings surrounded by surface parking lots. Instead of an urban town center, it’s a glorified strip mall. What happened?

One can speculate. A recession hit, competing developments at nearby Dunn Loring Metro opened first, and the market changed.

Developers do often build single-story retail as a “temporary” placeholder until they’re ready for more intense uses. That was the idea behind the Kentlands town center in Gaithersburg, which is now redeveloping parcel by parcel. But “temporary” in this case can mean 20 years.

For people who bought homes at MetroWest based on the promise of a strong town center nearby, the potential of something better years in the future is little consolation.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 14th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, land use

Langley Park transit center finally moving forward

Maryland has awarded a construction contract for the Langley Park transit center.

Langley Park is currently the busiest bus transfer location in the region that isn’t connected to a Metro station. But it’s a mess. Bus stops are spread all around the busy crossroads of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard. Transit users hoping to transfer have to cross up to 14 lanes of traffic, and have to memorize which curbside bus stops their route uses. It’s a complicated and dangerous situation.

Solution: bus station.

Langley Park transit center, including future Purple Line connection.
All images from Maryland MTA.

To solve this problem, Maryland has been planning for years to build a Langley Park bus station. The station would centralize all bus routes in the area under a single building, with vastly improved customer amenities.

Funding for the station was lined up in 2010 when MTA received a TIGER grant for it, but a land ownership issue delayed construction until now. Groundbreaking is expected this summer, with completion in fall of 2015.

Location map.

Transit center plan.

May 31st, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, development, lightrail, transportation

Tysons Corner skyscraper will be region’s tallest

A proposed skyscraper in Tysons Corner will be 435 feet tall, making it the tallest in the DC region, and first to breach the 400 foot threshold. The building is proposed as part of the SAIC redevelopment, adjacent to the Silver Line’s Greensboro Metro station.

SAIC Westpark. Image by FXFOWLE, published online by The Tysons Corner.

Traditionally, the tallest skyscrapers in the region have been in Rosslyn. But Rosslyn is in the flight path to National Airport, so buildings there can’t rise higher than 400 feet. A bevy of development projects in Rosslyn, Alexandria, Tysons, and North Bethesda are in the 300-400 foot range, but this is the first serious proposal to crack 400 feet.

Outside the DC region, Maryland’s tallest building is 528 feet, and Virginia’s is 508 feet. Richmond’s is 449 feet.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

May 7th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development

FBI headquarters could stay downtown, but at a cost

click to enlarge
Rendering of potential H Street FBI building. Image from Arthur Cotton Moore via Washingtonian.

As the FBI searches for a new headquarters location, most of the options have focused on the suburbs or Poplar Point, but Washingtonian reports on another proposal: Keep it downtown, at H Street and North Capitol Street, NW. But that location has serious downsides.

The proposal would repurpose the existing Government Printing Office buildings on North Capitol Street, and add a new extension to the west. The new building would be over 2 million square feet, and would cover multiple blocks from New Jersey Avenue to North Capitol.

Ideally an employer as large as the FBI should have its offices downtown, but the FBI isn’t just any employer. Its building is likely to be a security fortress, which means it won’t be very good for pedestrians, or have ground floor retail. H Street is an important pedestrian and retail spine. Giving up a long stretch of it to the FBI would be just as bad there as it is on E Street, where the FBI is a sidewalk dead zone.

Actually, a dead zone on H Street might be even worse. Walmart is building an urban format store directly across the street from the FBI proposal. And love Walmart or hate it, it’s going to be one of downtown’s biggest retail draws. That means this exact block of H Street is about to become one of the busiest retail main streets in the city. It should have retail on both sides.

One advantage of this FBI proposal is that the land is already owned by the government. That does mean it’s less likely to get retail on it, but putting the FBI building on it would cement that, literally.

There are other questions. DDOT’s proposed crosstown streetcar would run along H Street. The FBI has never weighed in on streetcars, but would they throw up security-related roadblocks? It’s unknown.

According to Washingtonian, the FBI would close G Street entirely to traffic. That further cripples the L’Enfant grid at a time when other projects are trying to restore the grid nearby. And would this forbid pedestrians and cyclists as well?

Finally, the existing GPO buildings are among Washington’s most prominent historic red brick buildings, and were designed by a prominent architect at the time. The FBI concept renderings show a courtyard in the middle of the GPO building, but aerials show no such courtyard currently exists. That suggests the buildings will have to be completely gutted to fit the FBI. Is that a worthy tradeoff?

Any proposal that keeps the FBI downtown merits serious consideration, but given the FBI’s security requirements, and given the potential for this location to be redeveloped with something even better, it may be preferable to let the FBI go. Putting the FBI on this block might be better than having it remain a parking lot, but almost any other building would be more ideal.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 4th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, government, urbandesign

Pop-ups may look weird, but they’re OK

click to enlarge
11th and V poptop.

This 5 story pop-up rowhouse at 11th and V, NW has gotten a lot of negative press. DCist and Popville had nothing kind to say about it. And while it’s undeniably a silly-looking thing, it’s not actually bad. In fact, from an urbanist perspective, it’s good for the city.

First, a bigger building will allow more people to live in a core city neighborhood. That will help the neighborhood support more stores and services, and reduce car traffic everywhere. Density in the core of the city is a good thing, and a 5 story building is a very reasonable amount of density.

Second, this preserves the narrow lot pattern of its block, versus having one developer buy up multiple row houses and then put in a much wider building.

All other things being equal, a street with several narrow buildings is preferable to a street with a single long building of the same square footage. A streetscape with constantly changing narrow buildings is more interesting to look at than one with a single long building. Narrower buildings are also more likely to be owned by small local property owners, instead of big development chains.

Yes, this property looks silly now. But think about the future. Assuming we can’t (and don’t want to) freeze the city in time, densifying infill on small properties is exactly the kind of development we want. If it’s all eventually going to be 5 stories anyway, it’s better that this block redevelop property-by-property than all once.

Pop-ups are the first step towards this in Amsterdam, which really isn’t such a bad thing.

Amsterdam. Photo by Jim Nix / Nomadic Pursuits on Flickr.

Will this particular building look as good as that picture? It’s hard to tell at this point. It might, but it could just as easily become the ugliest building in DC. Buildings that size aren’t inherently pretty or ugly. There are lots of good ones, and lots of bad ones. What it looks like is not ultimately the same issue as its mass and scale.

The point is, narrow 5 story buildings are a great physical form for city streets. That’s the form of some of the best parts of Paris, London, and New York. Although this will look weird with 2 story neighbors, it pushes the evolution of the block in a good direction.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 2nd, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, development, urbandesign

52 years later, Rockville will be whole again

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click to enlarge
Rockville’s awful parking lot, and the development that will replace it.

For literally decades, downtown Rockville’s most central block has sat empty, used only as a parking lot. It’s been a huge hole in the city’s urban fabric, separating the area near Rockville Metro station from the more vibrant Town Square. Now, after multiple failed attempts, it is finally, finally, being developed.

And with this property, the most visible sign of Rockville’s failed 1960 urban renewal will be erased.

Back in 1960, Rockville was transitioning away from its historic role as a sleepy county seat, and into a booming post-war suburb. City leaders fully embraced the notion that walkable urban places were obsolete, and approved an urban renewal plan that bulldozed 111 buildings covering 47 acres – almost all of Rockville’s historic downtown.

Like countless such plans from that era, this one was a disaster. A few mostly car-oriented buildings were constructed, including the short-lived Rockville Mall, but much of downtown remained empty.

It wasn’t until New Urbanism started taking hold in the 1990s that Rockville once again began thinking about its downtown as a downtown, instead of a glorified strip mall and office park.

Since then Rockville has had many successes. The Regal Theater opened, a grand new courthouse was built, and of course, the impressive new Town Square redefined the center of downtown. But in all that time, one key property has failed to redevelop, despite repeated attempts.

Town Center parking lot

Ever since the 1960 mass bulldozing of downtown, the block bounded by Middle Lane, Montgomery Avenue, Maryland Avenue, and Monroe Street, has been vacant of buildings. It’s the central block in Rockville’s downtown street grid, and marks the transition between the remaining urban renewal era highrises to the south, and the new Town Square to the north.

Arguably, it’s the most important single block in Rockville, and it’s been nothing but a parking lot for decades. In 2009 I named it the 5th most offensive parking lot in the Washington region, and the #1 worst outside of the District.

In 1994 the city worked with developers to plan a huge complex of office towers, including what would have been the tallest building in the city. The proposal floated around until the dot com bust soured the upper Montgomery County office market. By the turn of the millennium, the proposal was dead.

Then in 2005 the City of Rockville approved a new mixed-use redevelopment for the property, with somewhat shorter buildings. But development never got started, and when the recession hit those plans were once again tabled.

But now it appears that 2005 proposal has been dusted off and is ready to be built. The developer has a tenant and bank financing, which had always been the major holdups.

7 years after project approval, 18 years after the first proposal, and 52 years after urban renewal ruined Rockville, downtown is finally being stitched back together.

Upon seeing the property fenced off for the start of construction last week, Thisisbossi said it best on Twitter: FINALLY.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

December 12th, 2012 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, history



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