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Shipping container restaurant opens on U Street

Shipping containers continue to proliferate as an affordable building material. The latest addition is a new restaurant near the corner of U Street and Vermont Avenue, NW, called El Rey taqueria.

El Rey taqueria on U Street.

In this case, El Rey owner Ian Hilton says it wasn’t actually cheaper to build using shipping containers. But that could be due to El Rey’s particular layout or needs. It’s hard to know for sure.

Elsewhere in the region, shipping containers are used or will be used at Half Street Fairgrounds near the baseball stadium, and possibly in Tysons Corner.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

January 15th, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, development

Downtown & Georgia Avenue Walmarts open for business

Walmart’s foray into urban format stores officially begins today, with stores on H Street and Georgia Avenue opening for business. The H Street store marks the first time in 18 years DC has had two downtown department stores.

I stopped by the downtown store and snapped a few pictures.

H Street Walmart.

The main entrance leads into a small ground floor lobby. The actual store is one floor up. I was surprised to discover that aside from the lobby, the whole store is a single level.

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December 4th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: development, economy

New entrance & mezzanine open at Rosslyn Metro station

As of this morning, Metro riders can now access Rosslyn station via its new entrance on the east side of North Moore Street.

The new entrance combines 3 high-speed elevators with a new track-level mezzanine, complete with more fare gates and a manager kiosk. It expands the passenger capacity of the station, providing room for more passengers to enter and exit more quickly.

Rosslyn’s new entrance and mezzanine.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

October 7th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: development, metrorail, transportation

Reston’s other town center to expand

Reston’s Lake Anne Village Center could soon expand with a larger main street and more housing.

Lake Anne Village Center, with proposed additions.
Rendering from Republic Land Development.

Reston Town Center is one of the most well-known suburban downtowns in the DC region, but it’s not the only town center in Reston. In addition to the big one, Reston has several smaller village centers spread around the surrounding neighborhoods.

The largest of those is Lake Anne Village Center, which has a pleasant waterfront and a 15-story apartment tower that was Reston’s tallest building for decades. Before the big town center came along, Lake Anne was the heart of Reston.

Now it’s set for a revival. Developers working with Fairfax County propose to expand the village center, with a larger main street, nearly 1,000 new residential units, and a second high rise.

Lake Anne revitalization plan, with proposed new buildings in red.
Image from Republic Land Development.

While it makes great sense to add infill to Reston’s village centers, especially Lake Anne, it is too bad this plan is still so car oriented. The main street extension is nice, but the circle-shaped residential area to the north is unnecessarily suburban. If the purpose of dense mixed-use areas is to promote walkability, why not actually make them walkable?

In a location like Reston, it’s true that most residents will have cars. That’s fine. But why so many landscaped setbacks? Why are the parking lots between the buildings rather than behind them? And why is all the car traffic funneled onto a single street with only one connection to the arterial highway, instead of having a grid?

The topography of the site looks challenging, and there may be pedestrian paths that aren’t immediately obviously in the plan. Still, Fairfax should consider these questions as this development moves through the approval process.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

September 26th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: development

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

Shops begin to open at Brookland Metro development

Monroe Street Market, the large multiblock development adjacent to Brookland Metro station, is making rapid progress. The first buildings are occupied, and shops are beginning to open.

The landmark Brookland sign at Monroe Street Market.

The new town center will stitch together the residential neighborhood, Catholic University, and the Metro station like never before. Although it’s a smaller scale than what’s gone in at Columbia Heights, and will always be more of a local node than regional shopping mecca, it will be no less transformative to the livability of the neighborhood.

One of the first shops to open for business is Analog, a boutique and on-site crafting workshop selling, among other things, DC- and geography-themed paper goods. My wife is co-owner of Analog, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.

More small shops and artist studios will open through September, with the larger retailers coming in spring 2014. The largest will be a new Barnes and Noble bookstore, which will include a section for Catholic University textbooks.

Here are a few more pictures of Monroe Street Market and Analog.

Monroe Street Market’s Arts Walk (top), 2nd building (bottom left), and Analog (bottom center & right).

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

September 6th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: development

National Harbor’s colossal never-built skyscraper

National Harbor was originally going to be called Port America, and it almost included a skyscraper that might have been taller than the Washington Monument.

By 2008 when the first part of National Harbor opened, the concept of suburban town centers was tried and true. But developers have been trying to build a town center there since the mid 1980s. When they started, it was the most progressive of ideas.

The original plan for Port America dates from 1987. It would have included a neo-classical mixed-use town center in the same place as National Harbor’s waterfront, plus a large office park on the adjacent property that is now under-construction to become an outlet mall.

The office park would have included a 52-story trophy office tower. It would very likely have risen above the 555-foot Washington Monument, and definitely would have dwarfed the DC region’s current tallest office building, Rosslyn’s 384-foot 1812 North Moore.

Port America. All images from Burgee-Jonhson.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

August 9th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: development, history, urbandesign

Stadiums aren’t about the money

click to enlarge
This doesn’t make money either.
Photo by \Ryan on flickr.

Why do cities keep building stadiums, despite study after study showing they don’t make money? Simple: They’re cultural amenities that people want, and are willing to pay for.

When Mayor Gray announced the DC United stadium deal last month, he kicked off a public debate about stadium-building. Much of the debate has focused on whether or not the deal will make DC any money.

The fact that stadiums often lose money is largely irrelevant. So do museums, libraries, and opera houses. Stadiums fall into the same category.

Smart communities try to squeeze some economic development out of stadium deals, because they may as well, but that’s always a side benefit. At the end of the day it isn’t the main reason cities build stadiums.

It’s true that the privately-owned sports franchises that use stadiums reap a disproportionate benefit from public financing deals, but that’s also irrelevant to the stadium-building decision. Pro sports franchises are also cultural amenities that lots of people want and will pay for.

This is why decades of policy wonk hand-wringing over the money has rarely convinced anyone to stop building stadiums. That criticism, true as it is, simply does not invalidate the perceived benefit.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

August 6th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: development, economy, government

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
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
Tags: development



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