Archive for the ‘DC’ Category

ACS – Answering my own question

October 27, 2009

(hat tip to Dr. Gridlock)

In earlier posts, I wondered what DC’s regional transit data looks like – and with the release of the 2006-2008 three-year estimates from the American Community Survey, we have some answers.

Data is available for the Washington, DC urbanized area.  That area looks like this:

So, that includes a lot of stuff, and a whole lot of suburbia.

The transportation data is as follows:

Workers 16 years and over 2,221,629 +/-8,331 2,221,629 (X)
Car, truck, or van — drove alone 1,415,834 +/-9,036 63.7% +/-0.3
Car, truck, or van — carpooled 237,724 +/-5,008 10.7% +/-0.2
Public transportation (excluding taxicab) 363,334 +/-5,319 16.4% +/-0.2
Walked 77,067 +/-2,795 3.5% +/-0.1
Other means 33,023 +/-1,979 1.5% +/-0.1
Worked at home 94,647 +/-3,018 4.3% +/-0.1

So, 63.7% of the region’s workers commute in a single-occupant vehicle, with 16.4% using transit.  For the same three year window (2006-2008), DC’s stats look like this:

Workers 16 years and over 293,532 +/-3,568 293,532 (X)
Car, truck, or van — drove alone 108,373 +/-3,363 36.9% +/-1.0
Car, truck, or van — carpooled 19,121 +/-1,591 6.5% +/-0.5
Public transportation (excluding taxicab) 108,687 +/-2,469 37.0% +/-0.8
Walked 34,455 +/-2,033 11.7% +/-0.7
Other means 9,421 +/-1,023 3.2% +/-0.3
Worked at home 13,475 +/-1,451 4.6% +/-0.5

36.9% drove alone, while 37.0% used transit.

Note that this is the rolling three-year sample, so the data is slightly different from the 2008 ACS data released earlier.


Visualizing DC’s commute

October 24, 2009

Matt Yglesias cites a great infographic from Wikipedia on national commuting mode splits.  The data, from the American Community Survey, again is only for work commutes for those residing within the central jurisdiction listed.  This is a nice visual representation to see how DC stacks up nation-wide.

Since DC’s geographic area is small, both the population and corresponding bubble for the number of workers will be smaller than other cities.  Hence, Boston (population: 609k) and San Francisco (pop: 808k) have similarly sized bubbles to DC.  I’d love to see this same graph for metropolitan areas rather than just core cities, since metropolitan areas are a far more realistic representation of the functional unit of cities.

Nevertheless, given the jurisdictional limitations of the data, it’s interesting to see all the cities represented.  Looking at the data in list form, it’s clear that DC is second to New York in a number of areas, but this graph shows how big that gap is – as well as three tiers of cities.  New York is in a class of their own, followed by a group of transit-oriented cities (DC, Boston, Philly, SF, Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle), and then everyone else.

Four ways to improve McMillan Two

October 15, 2009

(This is a follow-up post to Neil Flanagan’s initial post on GGW, as well as my own posts here and here)

The McMillan Two plan tackles a project of enormous scope, yet there are still several areas of the plan that need more emphasis.  The plan should be praised for its scope, vision, and long timeframe, yet as it stands, it is an incomplete idea that needs more depth to meet all the challenges DC will face over the next 50-100 years.

Similarly, the plan should be praised for its limits, as it lays out a skeleton for DC to grow around, rather than prescript every nook and cranny.  However, this limited breadth is also a major weakness in translating the plan from a handsome image into physical reality.

The following are four weaknesses in the current idea that could become strengths with the right amount of focus.


The McMillan Two plan includes several implicit transportation initiatives.  Most notably, the plan calls for the full removal of the freeways flanking the Anacostia – both the Southeast/Southwest and Anacostia freeways.  Nir Buras notes that streetcars could be added to the plan, as his plan continues the framework of the L’Enfant grid and radial avenues, maintaining the wide rights of way that could be amenable to streetcars.  However, any other discussion of transportation is strangely absent from the plan.

While the L’Enfant plan laid out the skeleton to the city and the McMillan plan made Washington into the City Beautiful, the element that’s added (or re-added) the meat to the city’s bones over the past 30+ years has been Metro.   Metro has shaped suburbs and provided a mechanism for repopulating downtown.

Similarly scaled projects and plans around the world all feature substantial investments in transit infrastructure.  Both Canary Wharf in London and La Defense in Paris feature large transit investments.  Nir Buras might not like the form of these developments, but they fit the scope of McMillan Two.  In London, Canary Wharf features both the Jubilee Line extension while also serving as the hub for the massive investment of the Docklands Light Railway.

London DLR

Similarly, La Defense includes an extension of the Paris Metro line 1, while also serving as the terminus to the T2 tramway, as well as a stop along RER A.

Currently, the area along the Anacostia includes a couple of Metro stations in the vicinity, but if these new areas are to serve large new developments, they need infrastructure to support that growth – beyond just streets and bridges.  Even without McMillan Two’s narrowing of the Anacostia, transportation investments will be necessary for redevelopments in Poplar Point, the River Terrace power plant, and Buzzard Point.  These could be McMillan Two’s numerous bridges across the Anacostia, with or without the narrowed river channel.  Still, that framework is only one part of the equation – imagine what DC could do with a transit investment in the area on the scale of the DLR.

Green Infrastructure

By building off the principles of the McMillan Plan, McMillan Two is also building off the principles of the City Beautiful movement.   The City Beautiful asserted that grand, monumental spaces could foster moral and civic virtue amongst residents, and that a harmonious physical order would promote a similarly harmonious social order.

The track record for meeting these lofty goals is inconclusive at best, but the City Beautiful certainly left Washington and other places with many practical (and beautiful) enhancements.  Beautification efforts also tackled basic problems of infrastructure – sewers and utilities, sidewalks and streetscapes.   The common critique of the City Beautiful is that it is solely an aesthetic treatment for planning, yet many of its basic elements functioned quite well and continue to do so today.

McMillan Two appeals to the beautiful elements of that tradition, but it lacks the functionality.  Combined with the serious ecological concerns about narrowing the Anacostia, the functional elements of the plan seem to be in short supply.

However, the plan provides an opportunity, as well.  One impetus for the plan (as well as Buras’ selection of Paris as his case study) is DC’s currently poor relationship with the water.  DC urban waterfronts are in short supply, with only small stretches along Maine Ave SW, Georgetown, and Old Town Alexandria providing places where the city meets the water. Likewise, concerns over ecology and the Anacostia’s hydrology ought to be far more prominent in the McMillan Two agenda.

Together, these elements represent the opportunity to make this plan as the large scale, urban application of green infrastructure.  During his interview on the Kojo Nnamdi show, Buras rightly points out that the Anacostia today is in no way a natural river.  However, I believe we can both better connect the city to the waterfront while also mimicking natural marshes and ecosystems through the use of permeable pavings, bioswales, and other sustainable urban drainage systems.  To date, most of these applications focus on small-scale projects, but this plan provides the opportunity for a large scale application.   Furthermore, most of these drainage systems mimic natural ponds and marshes, and take their visual cues from those influences – this provides a chance to implement such systems in both an urban environment and in an urban design. How can stormwater detention and infiltration areas be effective public, urban spaces?

Like the transportation elements, use of this infrastructure is not predicated on narrowing the river.  It can be applied to any plan, and would hopefully become part of the best practices across the city.


The single greatest aspect of the McMillan Two plan is its breadth of vision and scope.   Such breadth is also a challenge.  Both the L’Enfant and McMillan plans featured a grand vision and scope, but they were also easily broken up into manageable chunks, making implementation easy.  L’Enfant’s street grid took decades to build out, but surveying streets is a relatively easy task.  McMillan’s monuments and public spaces evolved over the course of several decades as well.

McMillan Two’s big move, narrowing the Anacostia, cannot easily be broken up into chunks (if it can be done at all in good environmental conscience).  For a plan with a scope of 100 years, you also need an implementation plan.

Potentially, it’s possible to meet all of McMillan Two’s goals without actually narrowing the river.  If you were to combine base re-alingment (as the plan displaces the Navy Yard, Bolling AFB and the Anacostia Naval Air Station) with the construction of new bridges, but without the narrowing of the river, you’d still have a large area to redevelop according to the plan without the hydrologic hurdles.


Neil’s inital post on the subject generated quite a few comments.  This kind of plan requires public support, and gaining that support requires input from stakeholders through mediums like this.  Comments and criticism will make this a stronger plan.  My personal initial reactions to the plan have shaped my view of it, but only through a robust dialogue will the plan evolve beyond just the ideas of Mr. Buras and into a true civic vision for Washington DC.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington

America’s Metro

October 12, 2009


Last week, GGW’s daily links thread noted Metro’s consideration of moving to automated station announcements within trains, instead of the current announcements made by train operators.  The link included a look back to when Metro’s 7000 series railcars were first announced, more than a year and a half ago.

Automated announcements are one of those things that make it easy for those unfamiliar with the system to navigate it.   I can’t think of anyone saying this would be a bad thing, but it certainly removes a bit of the local flavor from the system.  DCist noted this last January, when the new car designs were initially revealed:

  • Automated station announcements. So no more “Judishuwary Square”.

This kind of local flavor is a small sacrifice in favor of greatly improved usability for most riders.  The more troubling aspect of the new car design, however, isn’t the loss of local character, but the bizarre rejection of Metro’s local connections.

As borne out by the DCist comments, perhaps the single most objectionable piece of the 7000 series design was the addition of the new “America’s Metro” logo.  Some see it as an egregious example of poor graphic design (and it is).  More troubling, however, is the fact that Metro is a local asset with a federal role.

Frankly, this isn’t America’s Metro.  It’s DC’s Metro.  Perhaps this logo was an olive branch to the Feds as a means to conjure up support in Congress.  However, the Metro is one of DC’s federal investments that’s paid tremendous dividends to the day to day life of the city’s residents.

The implications for Metro’s identity aren’t too promising, either.  Metro’s always had a strong, modern brand – thanks to the architecture, the unity within the system’s design, and the brand itself.  Since its creation, WMATA hasn’t always been the best steward of that design legacy.  However, the new bus liveries are promising and functional – hopefully this logo will be dropped from the final design for the 7000 series.

Washington Post Newsgraphic on 7000 series

Washington Post Newsgraphic on 7000 series

Technically, the 7000 series should be a welcome addition to Metro’s fleet.  However, let’s not sacrifice the system’s visual integrity.  Thankfully, those seat color schemes have not yet been decided.

These are not minor details, they matter.  Metro has bigger problems these days, to be sure.  That’s no excuse, however, to lower standards.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington

ACS Data – How DC stacks up

October 11, 2009

Bike Pittsburgh, courtesy of Streetsblog, has some great, sortable data of how various cities stack up on the transportation aspects of the recently released American Community Survey data.   Bike PGH provides the context, ranking cities based on their percentages using transit, walking, biking, etc.  Looking at how DC stacks up against the other major cities in the United States gives a great deal of perspective as to how we’re doing as a city.

Again, remember that these are commute trips only, and for city residents only.  It’s important to understand the limitations of the data, but this is an even comparison for all the cities involved.  Obviously, this is still not an apples to apples comparison, as many ‘newer’ sunbelt cities are still aggressively expanding their city boundaries via annexation, while cities like DC remain both constrained by static political boundaries and surrounded by substantially urban jurisdictions (Arlington, Alexandria, etc).

Nevertheless, taking all of the statistics together gives a good sense of how DC stacks up.

Biking commute mode share:

  1. Portland, OR – 6.0%
  2. Minneapolis, MN – 4.3%
  3. Seattle, WA – 2.9%
  4. Sacramento, CA – 2.7%
  5. San Francisco, CA – 2.7%
  6. Washington, DC – 2.3%
  7. Oakland, CA – 2.1%
  8. Tucson, AZ – 2.0%
  9. Albuquerque, NM – 1.8%
  10. Boston, MA – 1.6%

Walking commute mode share:

  1. Boston, MA – 14.3%
  2. Washington, DC – 12.1%
  3. Pittsburgh, PA – 11.1%
  4. New York, NY – 10.3%
  5. San Francisco, CA – 9.4%
  6. Seattle, WA – 9.3%
  7. Philadelphia, PA – 8.6%
  8. Honolulu, HI – 7.9%
  9. Minneapolis, MN – 6.1%
  10. Baltimore, MD – 6.0%

Public transit commute mode share:

  1. New York, NY – 54.8%
  2. Washington, DC – 35.7%
  3. San Francisco, CA – 31.9%
  4. Boston, MA – 31.2%
  5. Philadelphia, PA – 26.8%
  6. Chicago, IL – 26.7%
  7. Pittsburgh, PA – 20.9%
  8. Baltimore, MD – 19.5%
  9. Seattle, WA – 17.7%
  10. Oakland, CA – 17.1%

Drive alone commute mode share (presented lowest to highest):

  1. New York, NY – 23.3%
  2. Washington, DC – 37.2%
  3. San Francisco, CA – 38.4%
  4. Boston, MA – 41.1%
  5. Chicago, IL – 50.5%
  6. Philadelphia, PA – 50.7%
  7. Pittsburgh, PA – 52.8%
  8. Seattle, WA – 52.9%
  9. Baltimore, MD – 57.9%
  10. Oakland, CA – 58.1%

All in all, that’s a strong set of rankings.  Bike PGH has the full sortable data if you want to take a deeper look.  For the sake of brevity, I’ve only listed the top ten in each category here.

DC stacks up well in these numbers.  The biking mode share is quite western (Albuquerque?), and transit mode share strongly correlates to cities with heavy rail rapid transit systems.

Commute Flows

October 7, 2009

Earlier this week, Lynda Laughlin at GGW noted a few key statistics about the District of Columbia, released as part of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.   Matt Yglesias honed in on the transportation mode share for DC residents:

When it comes to urban transportation, path dependency issues are everywhere. The more car-dependent people are the more political support there’ll be for car-promoting policies. Conversely, the more there retail and job opportunities are already accessible through non-automotive means, the more realistic it is for new residents to get by without a car, or for a family to get by with only one. And one interesting thing about the District of Columbia is that according to the Census Bureau we’re nearly fifty-fifty in terms of commuting patterns.

I don’t know that I buy Yglesias’ notion that DC is near a tipping point.  Certainly, non-auto transportation allows for density, which allows for more street level retail, which can allow more people to shift their lifestyles, etc.  These linkages are well documented, but the path isn’t linear, nor is it purely a market-based reaction – it requires infrastructure, policies to enable it, etc.

The more interesting discussion was on what this data represents.  This data comes from the American Community Survey, showing the mode of transportation of DC residents only (not workers) for their commute trips only.  This is significant because the focus on DC residents alone doesn’t give a full picture of the overall dynamics of the DC Metropolitan area, and the focus on commuting trips alone doesn’t capture the full use of the transportation system, since most of our trips are not commuting trips.

The latter point touches on Yglesias’ assertion that DC is close to the ‘tipping point.’  Arguably, such a point in an urban area would be when there’s sufficient density, diversity, and design to enable non-auto modes to dominate all of those trip types, not just the commute.

The former point, however, notes the Metropolitan emphasis.  And all of this was basically a roundabout way for me to link to this from The New Republic’s blog, noting the importance of emphasizing metropolitan policy over the loaded ‘urban’ policy terminology.  It’s not just arguing semantics, it’s a reflection of how our cities actually function.

Meshing that together with the commuting discussion, TNR has a great graphic of commuting flows in Chicagoland – which still has a huge and dominant downtown office market, yet still sees a wide network of commuting patterns:

I would love to see a similar image for DC.   Considering the relative size of downtown DC, with transit-oriented employment centers in Alexandria, Arlington, Silver Spring, Bethesda, and others, sprawling agglomerations in Tysons and the Dulles corridor, as well as proximate centers in Baltimore and Annapolis – I’ll bet it would make an interesting graphic.

Pledge Your Support

September 17, 2009

Car Free DC is coming up next week – Tuesday, September 22, 2009.   Sign up, pledge to go car free or car-lite.   Also, come on down to the street celebration between 11am and 3pm on the 22nd – the street celebration will be happening outside of the Portrait Gallery and the Verizon Center at 7th and F streets NW.

What is Car Free Day, you ask?

Car Free Day is an international event celebrated every September 22nd in which people are encouraged to get around without their car – highlighting transit, bicycling, walking and all alternative modes of transportation. By taking a fair number of cars off the roads people who live and work there are given a chance to consider how their neighborhood might look and work with a lot fewer cars. Click here for more information about World Car Free Day.

Washington celebrated Car Free Day for the first time in 2007 with about 1,000 District residents committing to be car free for the day. Last year, Car Free Day expanded to the entire Washington Metropolitan Area, and 5,445 residents throughout the region pledged to be car free. This year we hope even more drivers throughout the region will leave their cars at home or go “car lite” by sharing a ride to work. By taking the Car Free Challenge, participants not only help to improve air quality, save money, and reduce their carbon footprint, but also get a chance to win great prizes at the event.

Come on out next Tuesday.

A Parisian Anacostia

September 10, 2009

Yesterday, Kojo Nnamdi hosted classical architect Nir Buras on his show, talking about (among other things) narrowing and urbanizing the Anacostia River so it more resembles the Seine‘s course through Paris.  Such a massive public works undertaking would be under the guise of a new iteration of the L’Enfant and MacMillan plans for the city.

Buras hit on a wide variety of topics – some of which I agree with, some I do not, and some that raise serious concerns about his ideas.   They include the interface between city and water, hydrology and flooding, the supposed superiority of classical design, and a desire to make everything revolve around Paris.

Thoughts on the various topics:

Urban Waterfronts

Buras is certainly correct in noting that DC’s waterfronts are woefully underutilized.  I know I’ve had those thoughts myself, and think there are many opportunities on the shores of the Anacostia to help the city engage the water that flows through it.  We see some good examples of this here and there within the region – Georgetown’s waterfront, Alexandria’s waterfront, and even the SW DC waterfront (something’s just fun about grabbing a beer at Cantina Marina).  Still, there’s a far greater opportunity that we’ve missed.  Given the pending redevelopment of Poplar Point, this condition is poised to change in the relatively near future.

The problem with Mr. Buras’ idea is that he’s promoting Paris as the ideal, when he admittedly notes the dimensions of the Anacostia are more similar to the Thames in London.  He specifically calls to narrow the river from ~1000 feet wide to ~500 feet wide.  Instead of making the urban design meet the natural conditions of the land (as L’Enfant did so well, siting the Capitol atop Jenkins Hill, keeping his grid within the relatively flat plain below the fall line, etc).  Similarly, he dismisses Amsterdam and Venice as problematic for engineering reasons.

Having the city meet the water is a great idea.  Re-creating Paris is a solution looking for a problem.


Buras mentions the Anacostia serving as a barrier – and rightfully notes the barriers also imposed by both the SE/SW freeway and 295 – yet this major infrastructural idea gets little treatment from Buras compared to the idea of narrowing the river channel.  In my mind, removal of the freeway is a far more important decision, yet it’s not nearly the sexy idea.

Ecology and Hydrology

JD Hammond summed it up succinctly: “I do worry about flooding.”  So do I.  I’m no hydrologist, but some of Buras’ answer to astute questions from callers don’t leave me with a lot of confidence that he’s fully assessed the impacts of such a decision.  One points out the damage done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, particularly noting how man’s manipulation of the Mississippi River and various wetlands didn’t help that city – it hurt it.  Man’s engineering can’t replicate nature.  JD Hammond emphasizes this point as well, looking to Los Angeles and the concrete gutters that serve as rivers.

The other thing is that I can’t quite tell exactly where Mr. Buras proposes to narrow the river.  Presumably, he’s talking about the region between the confluence with the Potomac and the area around RFK Stadium – any further upstream, and the river is quickly surrounded by both the National Arboretum and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – trying to force the river into an urban condition amongst such natural parks is boneheaded.

Classical Architecture

Perhaps the most tedious bit of Buras’ talk was the rambling was his talk on the superiority of classical design.  For one, conflating classical aesthetics and architecture with good urban design is annoying.  I’ve got nothing against classical architecture, but I happen to rather like modern architecture as well.  I’m far more interested in good design, regardless of the style it fits into.   As it relates to the city, I’m more interested in how those buildings fit into and function within an urban environment.

Holistic Understanding

I find it curious that Buras talks of having a holistic understanding of architecture and urbanism, while the hydrology of his proposal shows a profound lack of any sort of holistic understanding of water systems and their intricate feedback mechanisms.

All in All…

Buras raises an intriguing idea.  I certainly support the idea of crafting a new vision for DC, guiding it as the city’s previous plans have done.  I appreciate the fact that Buras is focused on the city, not just the Federal elements (as some other plan proponents have done). I absolutely embrace the desire to have DC interface with her rivers and waterways in a far more productive and beneficial fashion.

However, the focus on classical design (to the point of exclusion, it seems, of all else) troubles me.  Likewise, the details of the plan that were the focus of the Kojo interview (narrowing the river by half) look to be an attempt to force Paris upon DC.  Also, the lack of concern over the hydrologic impacts is both troubling and a step in the wrong direction – as we embrace sustainability in terms of design, we should apply what we’ve learned about rivers and their ecosystems rather than just throw up something that looks good.

There needs to be more to a plan than just good-looking classical design elements.

NIMBYism on the Hill

August 31, 2009

Recently, this article from the Washington Examiner showed up on my neighborhood listserv for Hill East.   A troublesome carry-out establishment on the Hill, previously a magnet for the drug trade and crime, has been torn down and replaced with a taller, mixed use condominium building with space for ground-floor retail.

The Examiner:

A former Hill East carry-out joint known to be magnet for drugs and violence has been reborn, to some neighborhood dismay, as a condominium and retail complex at the corner of 15th and C streets Southeast not far from RFK Stadium.

The criminals dispersed with the carryout’s closure, residents say. But neighbors are not unanimously celebrating its replacement — yet another condo building, one of three relatively new towers on the same block.

“You’ve created on this one block, condo alley,” said Neil Glick, Hill East advisory neighborhood commissioner. “You’ve totally destroyed the character of a residential street of houses. I don’t think it’s progress at all.”

Jim Myers, longtime Hill East activist, dubbed the redeveloped block “Condo Canyon.”

“To understand why some neighbors are irate, you must realize that they endured decades of violence outside the New Dragon and environs, and gained a few moment’s peace that was quickly replaced with the sound of heavy machinery tearing down buildings,” Myers wrote on the neighborhood listserve. “And then the new buildings went up and up until the sun and sky were not to be seen again.”

This is why I can’t stand NIMBY arguments.  Mr. Myers just equated a problematic business establishment, crime, shootings, and the like with positive reinvestment in the community.   The classic NIMBY defense, using the ‘shotgun’ approach of raising every conceivable objection (no matter if some of them are contradictory) and seeing what sticks.

Richard Layman offers his perspective:

In any event, the block isn’t destroyed and neither is the rowhouse character of the greater neighborhood. If the cornice/roof line of the building was decent, likely if I lived on the block the addition of this building wouldn’t have bothered me.

Richard also notes that the vast majority of housing units in Ward 6 are rowhouses.

It is true that this is change. But the way it is characterized reflects an incredibly strong parochialism, one that is pretty dismissive of providing a means for new housing to be added and different types of people to be accommodated within extant neighborhoods.

Basically what they are saying is that only people with the means to buy a single family house should be able to live in their neighborhood.

Well said, Richard.

In addition to his points, I’d challenge the NIMBY assertion that these condo buildings represent some massive degradation of their built environment.  I went over to the site and snapped a few photos.


This is the building in question.  The area is predominantly 2-story rowhouses, but of varying heights.  Showing the context of the streets, you can see what this change really means:


I find it curious that Mr. Myers would complain about these buildings blocking out the sun and sky when the gorgeous old trees along the street are taller than the buildings in question and block out much more of the sun.

Also, this is part of DC’s L’Enfant City.  The other notable thing from this picture is the width of 15th street.  These buildings are hardly out of scale with the urban design of the area.  These 4-5 story buildings aren’t exactly miniature Empire State Buildings.

It’s also worth noting the value to the city as a whole benefits from this kind of surgical infill development.  Adding density at key locations, particularly in places such as this within easy walking distance of a Metro station (Potomac Ave) and two grocery stores, is a good thing for the city as a whole.  If the NIMBY folks wanted a better retail establishment, it’s worth noting that neighborhood-serving retail in a location like this doesn’t just magically appear, it comes into being with the support of local residents.  Adding density with a few condo units here and there is a fantastic way to increase the livability of the area.  It’s a positive feedback mechanism – adding density provides more opportunities for retail, making the area more attractive for residents and visitors alike.

Additionally, Richard Layman already noted the benefit in having multiple price points and multiple housing varieties in a neighborhood.

Unlike Mr. Glick and Mr. Myers, I do think this is progress and Hill East will be a better place because of it.

Downtown Open Space

August 24, 2009

Last week, DC Metrocentric floated the idea of leaving the old convention center site free from development, turning the area into a park, plaza, or some other sort of space.   Matt Yglesias rightfully shot the idea down.  The map accompanying his post makes the reasons why abundantly clear:

Substantial, underutilized park spaces flank the site.  Mt. Vernon Square and Franklin Square are the two big ones, while the small triangular park on the north side of New York Avenue between 11th and 12th is the remnant of one of the original ‘town squares’ of the L’Enfant plan – the square will be completed, returned to its original form (at least, in terms of building setbacks) with a similar triangle on the southern side of New York Ave between 10th and 11th.  To visualize, the asphalt on this particular section is slightly darker than the rest of the parking lot in the above aerial photo.

Common complaints about Franklin Square (and frankly, all of DC’s downtown parks) is that they’re not well programmed for urban space – often overrun with unhoused people, panhandlers, and the like.  They feel unsafe.

In short, a lack of open space isn’t the issue – it’s the programming of that space.  This isn’t a new complaint, particularly with NPS managed properties.  GGW’s post on Tourmobile operations set off a nice discussion in the comments about the trouble NPS has in addressing the very different needs of wild parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, etc.) and urban ones (the Mall, Farragut Square, Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, etc.).

Also, consider the historic urban design implications of parkland in this space.   From an urban design perspective, the combination of DC’s dense core, height limit, and uniform building setbacks provide for a great sense of place.  The streets of the L’Enfant plan are not just traffic arteries, they are public spaces framed by the development around them.  Open space here disrupts the L’Enfant plan now, and it would as parkland, too.

Finally, consider the opportunity cost of not developing this land.  Adding the proposed office, residential, and retail at this location will be a tremendous asset to the city.  As everyone knows, the current commercial real estate market has seen better days, but the opportunities this site presents are just too good to pass up.  The additions to the tax base, the additions of more residents living downtown, the additions of more retail space – as well as the proximity to transit at Gallery Place and Metro Center are all positives for the city.