Archive for the ‘Potomac Ave’ Category

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.


Potomac Avenue Square – Update

August 24, 2009
Potomac Ave. Image from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr

Potomac Ave. Image from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr

Last week, David Alpert put together a nice Google map interface showing off DDOT’s Transportation Improvement Plan.   Of particular interest to me is the new traffic circle/square/oval/rhombus at the intersection of Pennsylvania, Potomac, and 14th St SE.  I’ve delved into the plans for the intersection previously (here and here).

The takeaway is that $1.45 million are allocated for the project in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2010, in addition to $200,000 allocated for the current fiscal year – money that likely paid for the initial studies referenced in the previous posts.

Now, if someone at DDOT can convince WMATA to add a nice canopy to the station, maybe the escalators won’t be out of service so often…

A New Square for Potomac Ave – Part II

July 7, 2009

Following up on the vision for the public space at the Potomac Ave Metro station, I wanted to offer a glimpse at what the square might look like in the future.  All of the great squares, circles, and other urban spaces are not just defined by their public spaces, but also by the buildings that frame the space.  With the addition of Jenkins Row to this intersection, Potomac Ave is approaching both a complete streetwall around the square, as well as the critical mass of various neighborhood services.

With that in mind, I turn to the draft of the Pennsylvania Avenue SE Land Development Plan.  Of specific interest for this intersection is the Potomac Ave sub-area plan.  This iteration identifies the 1401 Pennsylvania parcell as a key redevelopment opportunity.  A quick glance at the area will quickly identify the SE corner of the square as the weak link, containing a couple of vacant lots, a parking lot, and New York Pizza.  Living in the area, I love what NY Pizza brings to the ‘hood, so I would sure hope that any redevelopment helps them find a new home.  Even so, you can totally tell it used to be a Pizza Hut.

With Jenkins Row filling in the old gap on the eastern edge of the square, this parcel is the one missing link (aside from the Metro station plaza).  As such, the plan calls for new mixed-use construction at the side in the same mold as the Jenkins Row development – first floor retail with office and/or residential above.

Potomac Ave Plan

(Plan view)

Potomac Ave Massing

(Massing perspective)

Potomac Ave Sketch

(Concept sketch)

A couple of points stand out.  First, when combined with the reconfiguration of the intersection’s traffic flow, buildings fronting on the new square ought to see more foot traffic – at a very least, the sidewalks they front on should be far more attractive to pedestrians walking either around the square or passing through it.

Second, the current Metro plaza, as mentioned above, would then be the one missing part of the streetwall enclosing this square.  Given that the station is such a focus for foot traffic, this is fine – but one potential benefit is that a taller structure on the 1401 site is directly in the line of sight of Metro patrons coming out of the station’s escalator well.

All together, such a project could be the keystone in the arch for this public space.  As of right now, I’m unaware of any specific plans for the site.  I’ll just enjoy my pizza until then.

But seriously, if this site does get developed soon, you gotta keep the pizza.

A New Square for Potomac Ave

July 5, 2009

July’s issue of the Hill Rag contains some interesting tidbits in their ANC 6B beat report about a potential reconfiguration of the traffic patterns at the intersection of Potomac and Pennsylvania Avenues in Southeast Capitol Hill.  Talks of reconfiguring Penn. Ave’s course through Capitol Hill seems to be in the news a lot these days, with Greater Greater Washington talking about the process going on just up the road around Eastern Market.

Potomac Ave

(Bing Maps aerial oblique of the intersection.)

DDOT’s proposal for the intersection is to merge the three existing traffic islands in the current ‘square’ while re-routing Pennsylvania’s traffic flow around the perimeter of the square.  DDOT’s presentation showed two potential plans for remaking the intersection – one from the Middle Anacostia Crossings plan, and their preferred alternative.

Potomac Ave MAC plan

(MAC Plan)

Potomac Ave Preferred Alt

(Preferred Alternative)

The one key difference between the initial MAC plan from 2005 and the preferred alternative is the elimination of the east-west crosswalk through the square.  The initial plan called for pedestrians to be able to access the square while standing in the median of Pennsylvania Avenue.  This element was dropped from the preferred alternative.

The Hill Rag’s reporting made it seem that the ANC commissioners did not take kindly to the options presented:

While the commissioners and audience members didn’t seem to particularly enjoy the current layout, DDOT’s plan was universally panned for a number of reasons. One woman who lives near the intersection said the plan doesn’t go far enough to increase pedestrian safety, and she urged DDOT to consider installing a traffic camera in the area to cut down on driving violations. Another woman said that creating a traffic circle would obstruct the view of the Capitol building for drivers heading west on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Commissioner Carol Green said that the plan was unreasonable because it would prevent pedestrians from directly crossing Pennsylvania Avenue at the intersection.

“There’s going to have to be some way for them to cross without going a block out of their way, because that’s essentially what you’re asking them to do right here,” she said. “I can tell you for sure, they’re not going to do it.”

Commissioners voiced frustration when it became clear that the DDOT proposal was the only plan on the table right now. If the upcoming public comment period reveals that the community mainly objects to the plan, the entire planning process would need to start over and the project would be delayed for several years.

I’m not sure any of these criticims have any merit. Taking them in order:

Traffic cameras. These kinds of programatic elements are kind of beside the point when discussing major design decisions.  By forcing Penn Ave traffic to make a turn, it will naturally slow things down.  Traffic law enforcement strategies are a separate issue.

Obstructed views for drivers. Give me a freaking break.  Drivers will have a completely unobstructed view of the Capitol Dome on the blocks preceeding and following this square on their way into town.  By reconfiguring the public space here, may pedestrians might get some of that view, too.

Prevention of directly crossing Pennsylvania. I have no idea what Carol Green is talking about here.  I live nearby and have crossed this intersection many times, and either of the proposed changes would make it far easier to get across Pennsylvania.   The new square will make it much easier to traverse up and down 14th street, as you now only have to cross two streets to do so, whereas before you have to cross four.  Furthermore, there’s more than enough evidence on the ground of  ‘choice paths’ worn into the Pennsylvania median strip from jaywalkers cutting directly across:

Potomac Ave streetview

(Image from Google Maps Streetview)

Looking at either plan, I can’t see any scenario in which a pedestrian crossing Pennsylvania will have to go a block out of their way.  Perhaps Comissioner Green was referring to people travelling along Pennsylvania rather than trying to cross it.  It’s true that these Pedestrians will now have to walk a short distance around the square, but in that instance they wouldn’t save any time by walking in the street – as they would simply be walking through traffic, rather than the current practice of jaywalking to get across.  Even so, a few rough calculations from the aerial maps show that a Pedestrian traveling on the southern side of Pennsylvania Ave would have to walk an extra 70 feet (~400 ft vs. ~330 ft) to cross from one side of the square to the other. When presented with reasonable alternatives, as we see from various other squares and circles in DC, pedestrians will take them.

All things considered, I fail to see what the commissioners are concerned about.  This concept takes the current arrangment of public space and prioritizes pedestrians over cars.  I’d prefer to see the iteration from the MAC plan, making this square a more accessible place with four crosswalks rather than two, but the general concept is solid.  Jaywalking at this intersection is rampant.  It’s both a safety hazard and an indicator of a poorly designed space.

On the other hand, the opportunity to vastly improve the safety of this intersection, as well as provide a new public space for the neighborhood is too great to simply dismiss.