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NFL stadiums belong in the suburbs

Should Washington’s football team relocate back to Washington? The DC Council is considering replacing RFK with a new stadium, hoping to lure the team back to DC, from Maryland.

It’s a terrible idea.


FedEx Field and its acres of parking. Photo by the US Navy.

Some people will no doubt oppose this idea simply because it’s expensive. But that’s not the problem. Stadiums are cultural amenities that people want, so it’s appropriate for cities to subsidize them sometimes.

This is a terrible idea because football stadiums specifically don’t fit well in cities. NFL stadiums are only used for 8 home games per year, and need large surface parking lots to accommodate the tailgating culture ingrained into football fandom.

The RFK site may not be in the middle of a walkable neighborhood, but surely there are better uses for it than a rarely-used stadium and vast parking lots.

I’m glad we have an NFL team in the region, but let’s leave their stadium in the suburbs.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

February 26th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, government, urbandesign



Harriet Tregoning taking job at HUD

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Photo from thisisbossi on flickr.

Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning, is resigning to take a job in the Obama administration as the Director of the HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.

The nation’s gain is DC’s loss. Tregoning has been one of the strongest regional voices for urbanism, transit, and smart growth.

With Arlington’s Chris Zimmerman also leaving local government this month, DC-area urbanists have big shoes to fill indeed.

February 4th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, people



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 | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, government, land use, preservation, proposal, urbandesign



Stadiums aren’t about the money

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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 | {num}Comments
Tags: development, economy, government



Denver proves Purple Line private funding can work

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Denver is expanding its light rail system using private partners.

Maryland Governor O’Malley is expected to announce today that the federal government has approved the Purple Line’s planning, and that Maryland will seek a private company to help pay for construction.

The idea is that a private company would pool its money together with state and federal funding to construct the Purple Line. The same company would then operate the line. In exchange, they would keep the fares, and Maryland would pay an annual contract fee.

With limited federal funds available, this type of public-private partnership is becoming common nationwide. DC is considering it for streetcars, but Denver offers a more instructive example.

In 2004, voters in Colorado passed a referendum for 122 miles of new rail transit in the Denver area. But the funding approved as part of that vote wasn’t adequate to build everything, so the transit agency had to find an alternate strategy. They’ve since approved two public-private partnerships, and are in the process of contracting a third.

Denver’s first partnership was for the Eagle P3 project, which is building 40 miles of electric commuter rail to the Denver suburbs and airport, at a cost of about $2 billion. The partnership is proceeding smoothly, with construction well underway and completion expected in 2016.

The second partnership is for a 10-mile-long suburban light rail extension. It began construction last year and is also expected to open in 2016.

The third will be for the 18-mile North commuter line. The transit agency put out a Request For Proposals in June, and is expected to select a partner company this fall.

All in all, Denver has or will soon have private partnerships to build almost 70 miles of new rail.

These deals do come with a cost. Typically the annual fee the state has to pay the partner is higher than the typical operating subsidy would be. So in essence, the operating cost is higher. But in exchange, the partner builds the line more quickly and sometimes more cheaply than the government could on its own.

Update: As expected, O’Malley announced the plan to use a partnership this afternoon. He also announced $680 million in state funds for the Purple Line, plus millions more for the Corridor Cities Transitway, Montgomery County Ride-On, and road projects.

August 5th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: commuterrail, funding, government, lightrail, transportation



Northern Virginia picks transportation projects to fund

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Almost $20 million will go to new VRE railcars.

For years, leaders in Northern Virginia have been asking Richmond to let Northern Virginia raise its own money to spend on its own transportation priorities. They are finally getting the chance.

When the Virginia General Assembly passed a broad new transportation funding bill earlier this year, it included a section for Northern Virginia to raise and allocate hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Those new taxes began rolling in on July 1, with the beginning of Virginia fiscal year 2014.

On Wednesday night, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) officially approved its first set of projects. The authority allocated about $210 million, split roughly evenly between transit and roads.

The largest projects include the Silver Line’s Innovation Center Metro station, new VRE railcars, and widenings along Route 28.

NVTA also approved a bond validation lawsuit that will preemptively ask Virginia courts to rule on NVTA’s legality. That process should take 6-9 months, and NVTA will have to wait until it’s over to actually start spending money. Taking the suit to court now means NVTA won’t have to spend years fending off other legal challenges.

The project list is shown below. For more details, see the project description sheets on NVTA’s website.

Project Funding
in millions
Location
Transit and multimodal projects
Innovation Center Metro station $41  Fairfax Co.
VRE railcars $19.8 Regional
VRE Lorton station 2nd platform  $7.9 Fairfax Co.
WMATA buses  $7  Regional
WMATA Orange Line traction power upgrades for 8-car trains  $5  Regional
DASH buses  $3.3 Alexandria
Potomac Yard Metro station environmental study  $2  Alexandria
Crystal City multimodal center bus bays  $1.5 Arlington
VRE Gainesville extension planning  $1.5 Regional
VRE Alexandria station pedestrian tunnel & platform improvements  $1.3 Alexandria
Herndon Metro station access improvements (road, bus, bike/ped)  $1.1 Fairfax Co.
ART buses  $1  Arlington
Leesburg park and ride  $1  Loudoun
Loudoun County Transit buses  $0.9 Loudoun
Route 7 Tysons-to-Alexandria transit alternatives analysis (phase 2)  $0.8 Regional
Falls Church pedestrian access to transit  $0.7 Falls Church
Duke Street transit signal priority  $0.7 Alexandria
PRTC bus  $0.6 Prince William
Alexandria bus shelters & real-time information  $0.5 Alexandria
Van Buren pedestrian bridge  $0.3 Falls Church
Falls Church bus shelters  $0.2 Falls Church
Road projects
Rt 28 – Linton Hall to Fitzwater Dr $28  Prince William
Rt 28 – Dulles to Rt 50 $20  Fairfax Co.
Belmont Ridge Road north of Dulles Greenway $20  Loudoun
Columbia Pike multimodal improvements (roadway, sidewalk, utilities) $12  Arlington
Rt 28 – McLearen to Dulles $11.1 Fairfax Co.
Rt 28 – Loudoun “hot spots”  $6.4 Loudoun
Chain Bridge Road widening  $5  Fairfax City
Boundary Channel Dr interchange  $4.3 Arlington
Rt 1 – Featherstone Rd to Mary’s Way  $3  Prince William
Edwards Ferry Rd interchange  $1  Loudoun
Herndon Parkway intersection with Van Buren St  $0.5 Fairfax Co.
Herndon Parkway intersection with Sterling Rd  $0.5 Fairfax Co.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

July 26th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, bus, commuterrail, funding, government, lightrail, metrorail, roads/cars, transportation



Parking lots remain mandatory, whether you want them or not

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Photo by photobeppus on flickr.

DC planning director Harriet Tregoning announced today that minimum parking requirements in transit-oriented neighborhoods will remain in the new zoning code.

As part of its rewrite of the zoning code, DC’s Office of Planning (DCOP) had proposed eliminating mandatory parking requirements in the densest, most transit-friendly parts of the city. Anyone who wanted to build parking would still be allowed to do so, but it wouldn’t be mandatory. The new zoning code will lower requirements for parking, but won’t eliminate them completely.

The new proposal will keep parking requirements for institutional and industrial land uses similar to what they are now. The requirement will drop by about half for residential and office buildings.

Under existing zoning, any new residential units are required to build parking spaces, whether the owner wants them or not. The requirement is a huge subsidy for drivers, and a major burden on car-free households. It also adds tremendously to the cost of new housing.

There is a silver lining: DCOP is still planning to eliminate parking requirements in downtown DC.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

July 12th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, roads/cars, transportation



Foxx has the makings of a great Transportation Secretary

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Charlotte streetcar construction. Photo by Reconnecting America on flickr.

President Obama yesterday nominated Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as the next Secretary of Transportation. If Foxx’s experience in Charlotte is any indication, he’ll make a strong choice.

During his nomination press conference, Foxx said “cities have had no better friend” than the US Department of Transportation under outgoing Secretary Ray LaHood, and that if confirmed he would hope to “uphold the standards” LaHood set. That’s great news.

The fact that Foxx comes from a major central city is also a huge benefit. It means he understands urban needs, which aren’t just highways.

Charlotte may not be New York, but it’s made great strides in the right direction. The city’s first rail line opened a few years ago, and a streetcar line is under construction now. Charlotte also gained bronze-level status as a bike friendly community in 2008, and launched bikesharing in 2012.

Foxx has been a strong advocate for urban rail, especially streetcars. He knows transportation and land use are tied at the hip, and has fought repeated attacks on Charlotte’s streetcar by former Mayor and current North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.

He’s also worked as an attorney for bus manufacturer DesignLine.

Foxx also knows that state Departments of Transportation can sometimes be part of the problem. At the federal level, it’s common for USDOT to delegate responsibilities and funding to state DOTs, under the assumption the states have a better understanding of local needs. But state DOTs aren’t any more local than any huge centralized government. And since they usually focus on highways, the result is that federal dollars mostly go to highways as well.

Since Foxx fought with the state over Charlotte’s streetcar, he knows that funneling everything through state DOTs means states hold the cards. He knows that can hurt cities.

Finally, Foxx hired Arlington, VA’s former county manager, Ron Carlee, to run Charlotte’s city government. Foxx would have heard about Arlington’s reputation for progressive transportation planning during the hiring process, and presumably counted it in Carlee’s favor.

Of course, no one can really predict what kind of Secretary Foxx will be. When progressive champion Ray LaHood was first tapped for the job, the blogosphere worried his history as a Republican from rural Illinois meant he’d be a status quo highway builder.

But we do know that Foxx has made a priority of building transit in his home city, and has had to fight to make it happen.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 30th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, government, lightrail, people, roads/cars, streetcar, transportation



Silver Line Phase 1 looking great, Phase 2 contract imminent

Construction of the Silver Line Phase 1 remains on pace to finish in September. The construction team is testing the tracks and adding station details, including the finishing touches of the canopy at McLean station, shown below.

In Phase 2 news, authorities have identified Clark Construction and Kiewit Infrastructure to build the next phase, past Reston to Dulles and Loudoun County. An official contract is expected in May.


McLean Metro under construction. Photo by Stephen Barna of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project.

April 29th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, metrorail, transportation



FBI headquarters could stay downtown, but at a cost

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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



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