Shirlington sky in the Flickr pool

Enjoy a few of our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of urbanism and the Washington, DC region.

Union Station. Image by ameschen used with permission.

Conowingo Dam, northern Maryland. Image by Ethan Miller licensed under Creative Commons.

Federal Triangle. Image by kellybdc licensed under Creative Commons.

Why Not Boutique, U Street. Image by Mike Maguire.

Have you snapped a photo of the region worth sharing? Upload it to the Flickr pool for an opportunity to be featured here on Fridays and on any other posts!

Top image: Shirlington & Baileys Crossroads skyline from Four Mile Run trail. Image by Erinn Shirley used with permission.

Comment on this article

Shirlington sky in the Flickr pool

Enjoy a few of our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of urbanism and the Washington, DC region.

Union Station. Image by ameschen used with permission.

Conowingo Dam, northern Maryland. Image by Ethan Miller licensed under Creative Commons.

Federal Triangle. Image by kellybdc licensed under Creative Commons.

Why Not Boutique, U Street. Image by Mike Maguire.

Have you snapped a photo of the region worth sharing? Upload it to the Flickr pool for an opportunity to be featured here on Fridays and on any other posts!

Top image: Shirlington & Baileys Crossroads skyline from Four Mile Run trail. Image by Erinn Shirley used with permission.

Comment on this article

Gov. Hogan’s plan to widen the Beltway, I-270, and BW Parkway won’t make traffic better

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan wants to spend billions to widen Maryland's highways in hopes of bringing congestion relief. While that may sound impressive, past experience shows it simply won't work. There's nothing to indicate this time would be any different from all the other times highways were widened, and then failed to make a dent in traffic.

Toll lanes won't help with congestion

Hogan touted the plan yesterday as "massive and unprecedented". That is certainly true. The current plan is to add four new lanes to the entire length of I-270, I-295, and the portion of I-495 that runs through Maryland. These lanes would all be tolled in hopes of attracting private financing to defray the estimated $9 billion cost, which is almost certainly far lower than the actual final price tag. Ben Ross, chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, estimates the final price tag will be closer to $30 or $40 billion. 

Widening highways rarely leads to permanent congestion relief because it causes more people to drive than before. In fact, this has happened on the very same roads targeted for widening in Maryland. Widening parts of I-270 to 12 lanes in the 1990s almost immediately failed to work. The mistake was repeated again ten years later when new highway capacity exacerbated the region's east/west jobs and housing divide rather than making anyone's commute easier. 

For some reason Hogan seems to think the third time is a charm, and that 16 lanes will do what 12 couldn't.

Image by David Alpert.

All evidence shows that new lanes won't do much to relieve congestion. We've known this for a long time, but that hasn't stopped politicians from pushing forward huge highway projects – then new ones when the first projects don't deliver as promised.

Some think since the lanes will be tolled, the normal pitfalls won't happen. But as Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth points out:

"For such expense and damage, expansion is only a short-term fix, as experience shows that even with HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes, traffic will return to the general purpose lanes, and attract even more travelers. Even with HOT lanes the number of vehicles on the combined HOT and general purpose lanes would expand and those additional vehicles would then exit onto already overloaded connecting arterials. That’s why we have to look at alternatives that provide options to driving for so many trips.”


The price to avoid congestion is already steep. Fees have already spiked into double-digit figures for a one-way trip on I-66, and new tolls won't remotely pay for this new project. In fact, the fee would have to be around $38 during rush hour to pay for the $4 billion widening from Frederick to Shady Grove alone. That would be a tough sell for any politician, particularly a governor who campaigned on lowering toll rates across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

There's no space for new toll lanes

Toll lanes may be slimmer than general ones, but there is absolutely not enough space on the Beltway to add four new lanes, as well as ramps at interchanges. In fact, when the Maryland State Highway Administration last considered a proposal like this, they decided the only way to add four lanes to the Beltway was to have at least two of them elevated. Four additional lanes would dwarf the amount of property that was ultimately condemned to build the Purple Line.

Then there's the environment. Doubling the width of 270 through Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve would have profound environmental impacts in a sensitive area.

Meanwhile, land needed to expand the beltway in Montgomery and Prince George's counties means land that can't be used to house people closer to existing transit. Doing so means more people will live in places where driving is the only option meaning – you guessed it – roads will become congested again.

What about transit?

This plan shows how little Hogan cares about public transportation, and that he doesn't understand that transit can do what highway widening cannot.

Hogan's original press release doesn't mention transit at all. It's much different from widening proposals in Virginia such as Transform 66, which has explicit plans to add new transit, pedestrian, and bicycling routes in conjunction with the new lanes. 

When Hogan canceled Baltimore's Red Line and dithered for months on whether to continue with a shovel-ready Purple Line, he said the state couldn't afford big-ticket transportation items. Here, nine billion dollars is the *starting* point for close to 100 miles of massive highway expansions. That's enough money to build the Red Line three times over. That nine billion could easily climb as details of the plan are ironed out. 

The Action Committee for Transit noted the bus routes that run along 270 are in danger of being cut, meaning Hogan's inattention to transit is putting more cars on the road even before one inch of new pavement has been laid:

The Action Committee for Transit is extremely disappointed that Governor Hogan has chosen to turn back the clock to fix 21st century problems with the failed solutions of the 1950s.  Experience has proven that increasing the number of lanes on I-270 and 495 encourages more people to drive and more miles will be driven to fill that road space.  As bad as this proposal is for traffic – it is worse for the neighborhoods along 495 and 270.  Eighty miles of neighborhoods will be directly affected by the widening of the roads. This proposal is being made without the benefit of enhancing the programs we know keep drivers off the road: better MARC train service and express bus service.

The most galling part? There are transit options along each highway corridor. MARC runs between Washington, Baltimore, and Frederick, but failure to do more than the bare minimum year after year has led to limited service for most of the system. The Purple Line will bring much-needed east/west travel relief to Maryland that hasn't happened with the expansion of 495 or the building of the inter-county connector.

Transit can provide a huge economic return to the state without the need for extremely high tolls. It's nothing but imprudent to spend billions solely on expanding highways without more nuanced considerations.

Maryland could do better 

There are times when toll lanes can be useful, such as those on the American Legion Bridge that could be part of a solution for congestion in Maryland and Virginia. But a blanket widening of three major highways without even a hint of transit, pedestrian, or bicycle improvements is a very bad start to the plan. Montgomery County transit advocates have long opposed widening the Legion Bridge, and will assuredly continue to fight efforts to do so. 

Governor Hogan needs to look at the facts: a mobile Maryland needs more than highway lanes widened as far as the eye can see.

Top image: Traffic on I-270. Image by formulanone licensed under Creative Commons.

Comment on this article

The zoo says it needs more parking

The National Zoo wants to build a five-level parking garage in place of one of its parking lots. Good idea or bad?

The zoo is accessible by Metro at Woodley Park and Cleveland Park (they're actually about equidistant, despite the word "Zoo" being attached to Woodley Park). It's also reachable by buses, Capital Bikeshare, the Rock Creek bike trail, walking, and driving. But the zoo says fewer people are taking transit and more are driving, so it needs more parking.

In a 2008 master plan, the Smithsonian proposed having 1,620 parking spaces across the zoo property. But the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) only allowed 1,285 spots in the plan. To its credit, NCPC has been a strong force pushing federal agencies not to build too much parking, ensuring they don't spend as many taxpayer dollars subsidizing driving to the detriment of walking, biking, and transit. (For example, in 2015, NCPC successfully pushed the National Institutes of Health to scale back a plan to add a lot of parking at its campus right at Medical Center Metro.)

Now, the zoo is asking NCPC to raise the ceiling to 1,451 spaces including the new garage. 

Concept drawing of the garage.

Metro service drops, and other reasons people may be driving

Sadly, Metro's maintenance woes likely are driving some of this effect. On weekends, when the greatest number of families want to go to the zoo, Metro is quite infrequent. SafeTrack made that worse last year, but even without it, WMATA needs to have more maintenance shutdowns and has cut regular service levels.

Michael Neibauer at the Washington Business Journal wrote that despite the presence of a Metro station within walking distance of the main Connecticut Avenue NW zoo entrance, more visitors drove to the zoo in 2016 than in any of the previous five years. According to a transportation study, Metrorail and bus usage fell to 29 percent during the study period from 47 percent in 2015 and 35 percent in 2014.

"The Smithsonian doesn't know why Metro ridership to the zoo is down," Neibauer continues, "but it suggests a combination of the transit system's SafeTrack maintenance surge, weather, and 'major crimes on the Red Line' may be at least partly to blame." 

Unfortunately, while I hate to say it, getting to the zoo by transit with small children also quite a hassle. The nearby stations at Woodley Park and Cleveland Park aren't all THAT close (0.43 miles from the Woodley escalator, 0.35 miles from the elevator, and 0.45 miles from the Cleveland Park escalator). The Woodley elevator is very crowded and slow with all the people with strollers or disabilities who have to use it, and with those who ride it to save the extra walk from the escalator.

Tracy Loh wrote, "My kid is tiny but insists on walking everywhere herself. To increase her trip distance I got her a scooter, and I'm not hauling that thing up and down the Metro and then having her scoot half a mile before we even get to the zoo. That is a recipe for not seeing lions."

Plus, once you get to the Connecticut Avenue entrance, you're just at one end of a long zoo walk. My daughter's favorite part of the zoo is the carousel, which is at the bottom (Harvard Street end) of the zoo path.

The zoo does run a shuttle bus between the upper and lower ends. According to page 72 of the NCPC submission, the zoo is considering extending its shuttle bus to Cleveland Park Metro per a DDOT recommendation.

Other ways to help people get to the zoo

Metro or driving don't have to be the only options. Besides the shuttle to Cleveland Park, the presentation says the zoo has talked to WMATA about adding bus stops in the park and discussed with DDOT extending the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square Circulator to the zoo. (That idea is not in DDOT's Circulator plan though, and the Circulator is not likely to be able to add service anytime soon with its maintenance challenges and lack of enough buses). 

There's more to do for bicycle access too. One contributor, who couldn't speak on the record, talked about a recent bike trip where they entered on the Mt. Pleasant side. There were no bike racks so they secured the bikes to railings in a parking lot, worrying they'd be removed. When leaving, they didn't see any signs to the Rock Creek Trail and got stuck behind some fences, then in some parking lots, before finding it.

Bicycling to the zoo isn't going to be a good option for many of the families who go there. Nonetheless, it is right on a major trail and more people may bike if that connection were better.

People park in the neighborhood

One parking problem, Smithsonian planners say, is patrons trying to park in nearby Lanier Heights or Mt. Pleasant and then walk to the zoo. They argue the new parking "would significantly reduce the likelihood of zoo visitors searching for off-site parking in the adjacent neighborhoods on approximately 15 additional Saturdays or Sundays compared to the previously approved parking total."

That might be true of zoo members who get free parking (more on that later), but for casual visitors, street parking has a huge advantage over zoo parking: money. Parking costs $22 for the day, versus zero on city streets.

Image by Wayan Vota licensed under Creative Commons.

DDOT could fix this problem by adding a pay-by-phone requirement for all non-Zone 1 (or ideally, using a smaller zone) parkers. Instead of two hours free weekdays (or Zone 1 only weekdays) and unlimited parking weekends, require anyone without the resident sticker to pay a few dollars an hour using the pay-by-phone system. To let residents have visitors without them needing to pay so much, print up one-day coupons and give some to immediate residents.

Some people might still park on the street if it's cheaper than the zoo, but DDOT can use the price to keep the parking from getting totally filled up. The neighborhood is still a longer walk than the zoo lot, so that's a deterrent. 

The idea that if people are parking elsewhere you just build so much parking to meet even the highest levels of demand is bad policy. Pricing, carefully designed, is the right policy.

Who gets free parking?

Some of the spaces, according to the presentation, are for employees and visitors. As part of its recommendations to mitigate the effects of more parking, DDOT recommended the Smithsonian "eliminate free parking for zoo employees (parking for volunteers, official SI vehicles and official guests would remain free; volunteer parking would not be reserved)."

The presentation (page 72-73) says:

The Smithsonian is working on developing a parking policy slated for implementation in conjuction with the new Parking Garage project. An [National Zoological Park] Employee parking committee was formed and is working towards a policy and implementation. We will charge for parking at similar rates to what SI charges downtown and there will be a points system for eligibility based on seniority, vehicle fuel type and carpooling, combined with consideration of special needs.

Sounds good. It's not clear why volunteer parking should remain free, but that's probably minor.

Free parking also is available to anyone who joins as a zoo member at $80 a year or more. Any policy that gives people unlimited free parking induces more driving. In 2011, the Smithsonian's Inspector General suggested restricting the parking benefit such as giving members a fixed number of free parking days instead of unlimited. Or, perhaps just as $60 members get a 60% discount, $80 members could get a steeper but not full discount. That way, there's always some economic value of choosing not to drive for an individual trip.

Another factor: At least some people park at the zoo on weekdays not to see animals, but as commuter parking to get to a job. 

The presentation says the Smithsonian did explore – but rejected – ideas like offering overflow parking at nearby hotels. Unfortunately, those garages are heavily used on weekends and charge even more for parking (the Marriott Wardman Park charges $45 a day; the Omni Shoreham, $49 for 2 hours or more.) Large office buildings with garages tend to have space on weekends, but Woodley Park isn't an office district.

What else do you think the zoo could do to help with access? What do you think of the parking garage plan?

Comment on this article

Under Armour’s light rail extension excludes South Baltimore

After much debate, Baltimore is funding a massive, mixed-use $5.5 billion development on a formerly-industrial waterfront area called Port Covington. Sagamore Development Co., the real estate arm of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, is building out 260 acres of hotels, shops, restaurants, and apartment buildings around a new corporate campus in the southern part of the city.

Debate has raged locally over many aspects of the plan, including its government funding streams and worries that the project to do little to benefit some city residents. However, comparatively little attention has been paid to Sagamore’s transportation requests: the expansion of I-95 exits, and a spur from the central light rail line.

Image by Sagamore Development Company.



What is Port Covington? 

Over the next two decades, Sagamore's ambitious plan would completely transform the 260-acre area around its new campus. Supporters say the project will help city residents by creating thousands of jobs and revitalizing a new section of the city's waterfront.

Critics point to the massive subsidy given to Sagamore, arguing the funds are much more needed in other areas and predicting the project will exacerbate the economic divide in Baltimore. The company has requested a total $1.1 billion from local, state and federal governments to boost infrastructure in the area, including the $660 million bond deal from the city.

The Port Covington plan calls for veritable skyscrapers and the creation of whole city blocks in an area with practically zero existing density, so transportation improvements are a necessity. Building rail transportation is often a lengthy process, and the city spent over a decade planning the canceled Red Line. However, the light rail spur appeared on last year’s Port Covington masterplan without much fanfare and is now on its way to finding federal funding.

Crabbing off an old dock near Port Covington in 1936. Image by By Jim Pickerell licensed under Creative Commons.


Image by Sagamore Development Company.



The problem with the light rail extension

As planned, the line dead-ends in the middle of the company campus without any sort of big-picture connection to other city transportation plans – neither the 2002 Baltimore Regional Rail System Plan nor this year’s BaltimoreLink system launch contain any reference to it.

The existing light rail spur to Penn Station opened a few years after the system’s initial launch with a federal grant, much like this new proposal. It is used to run a short-distance shuttle to Camden Station and serves a crucial role in the system. However, it was constructed on a single track and reaches a dead end inside Penn Station, making extending it further north (to serve say, Johns Hopkins University or Towson) difficult without a complete reconstruction.

The Port Covington extension appears primed to mirror the same problem, terminating on the campus well to the south of the existing population centers in Federal Hill, Riverside, and Locust Point, and without the potential to serve the rest of the peninsula in the future.

Proposed light rail extension in dark blue. Image by Sagamore Development Company.


Over 1,500 completed and proposed additional housing units are represented in yellow (not to mention the proposed 7,500 at the Port Covington campus), while major attractions are denoted in red. The proposed light rail spur (light blue) wouldn't come close. Image by the author.



What Baltimore could do instead 

Happily, the right-of-way to complete a more extensive South Baltimore light rail spur already exists, including a Conway Street and Key Highway alignment. The latter separates the neighborhoods from the Inner Harbor with up to seven lanes in some spots, and the existing light rail cars could easily fit within a median. This extension would help to serve some of the densest and fastest-growing areas of the city.

Harborplace, the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore Museum of Industry, and the Maryland Science Center are nearby, as well as massive mixed-use developments including 414 Light and 1100 Key Highway. The area is already a overwhelmed and will likely become more so with Under Armour setting up a more permanent shop.

If stops at the Inner Harbor, Cross Street, and Fort Avenue were created along with the two planned stations using the McComas Street alignment, thousands more people would have improved transit access to this burgeoning area, and the entire peninsula would be less reliant on parking.

Under Armour has promised to reach out to the communities across the Patapsco River to the south and west during the planning process. A full build-out would be more useful and engaging than the proposed spur, which hits  a separate dead-end in Port Covington. An alternative could continue through the existing stations in Westport (where Under Armour head Kevin Plank also owns a large plot of land) and Cherry Hill on the way to BWI Airport. With a pedestrian bridge already planned, adding light rail could produce something akin to Portland’s innovative Tilikum Crossing, which allows access to transit vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians but not to private cars and trucks.

Let's do this right the first time 

A complete South Baltimore light rail spur may be necessary to manage the growth that Under Armour will likely bring to the peninsula. Here’s hoping the city, state, and federal governments consider how the project fits into a long-term vision before funding another top-down corporate decision. If there’s going to be a light rail extension, let’s do it in a way that encourages inclusive growth.

Top image: Baltimore light rail.  Image by AndrewHome licensed under Creative Commons.

Comment on this article

Breakfast links: DC falls short in designing for the deaf community

DC’s deaf community design shortcomings

DC group Deaf Urbanism says the city's development does not take into account its deaf residents until after a design is finished. The group would like to see greater communication between the deaf community and planners.  (Nena Perry-Brown / UrbanTurf)

London won’t renew Uber’s license

In another blow to Uber, London's private hire vehicles and taxis regulator said they were not going to renew the company's operating license. Transport for London cited four specific violations they say show Uber's lack of corporate responsibility.  (Matt Burgess / Wired)

Sky-high rent is hurting the economy

The National Equity Atlas estimates the average renter would have saved $6,200 a year if rents were affordable, saving consumers $124 billion to reinvest in local economies nationwide. DC renters would save roughly $8,600 a year. Alas.  (Tanvi Misra / Citylab)

Twitter bot (literally) names your city as it sees it

A twitter bot that uses Microsoft's AI software can analyze a photo of your city and create a description. While San Francisco may be more than "a group of people on a beach," the captions are a fun reminder that there are many ways to view your city.  (Tanvi Misra / Citylab)

Your vacant property could cost you (or not)

The DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has lost revenue of almost $1 million by loosely enforcing a law imposing greater taxes on vacant or blighted buildings. The law charges higher property taxes and fines on homes vacant for more than 30 days.  (Martin Austermuhle / WAMU)

Your furry friend can stay in style

A luxury dog hotel is opening in Adams Morgan. The hotel, called Life of Riley, is the second location to open in the DC region. It occupies a 3,500 square foot row house on 18th street.  (Andrew Giambrone / City Paper)

DC’s health systems get a check-up

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser released the District's Health Systems Plan, which highlights the city's health systems needs and capacities. The report recommends increasing access to primary care to reduce emergency services, and removing barriers to hospital or acute care.  (Tina Reed / Business Journal)

Top image: Gallaudet University.  Image by M R licensed under Creative Commons.

Comment on this article

Hogan: Privatize & toll 270, 495, BW Parkway

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is proposing to widen and add toll lanes to three of Maryland's biggest highways: I-270, the Beltway, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. To do so, he'd turn management over to a private company, and the US National Park Service would have to abandon the parkway as a national park. 

Hogan announced the plan at a press event this morning. This map, photographed by NBC's Adam Tuss, explains the proposal: 

Widen, toll, and partially privatize

According to the plan, Maryland would widen the three highways by four lanes each, presumably with two new lanes in each direction. The new lanes would be tolled "express lanes," meaning drivers could likely continue to use the existing lanes for free, but would pay a toll to use the new lanes. A private company would front some of the construction cost, and would manage the lanes once open. 

The three highways would ultimately look and function similarly to how Virginia's existing express toll lanes work on their side of the Beltway. It's not clear yet whether carpoolers and buses would be able to use the lanes for free, as they do in Virginia, or would have to pay a toll.

The existing express toll lanes on Virginia's portion of the Beltway. Image by the author.

If all goes according to Hogan's plan, construction would begin in 2019, and would cost $9 billion.

Close a national park?

Maryland already controls I-270 and its portion of the Beltway, and can therefore move this plan forward on those roads. But south of Fort Meade, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway is owned by the National Park Service, which complicates this proposal tremendously. For widen-and-toll to happen on the parkway, Congress would have to pass legislation abandoning national parkland.

And regardless of the transportation planning questions involved here, the prospect of the Trump administration turning over federal parkland to state highway departments or private toll companies raises serious concerns. 

Whether or not BW Parkway and its peers like the George Washington Parkway really belong as parks is a legitimate policy question. They may have been originally built for pleasure drives, but they've clearly evolved to become commuter and through highways not much different from any Interstate.

A public debate about how to treat these parkways is probably overdue.  

Replace the Legion Bridge

The existing Legion Bridge. Image by Kit Case on Flickr. licensed under Creative Commons.

According to Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, this proposal also includes replacing the American Legion Bridge, which carries the Beltway across the Potomac River between Virginia and Montgomery County. 

That's a huge project on its own, hardly a tiny detail. But the bridge is now over 50 years old, and will be due for some form of reconstruction soon regardless.

Get used to talking about it

No matter how this proposal shakes out, it's going to be a major topic of debate in the Washington region for years to come.

Is widening and tolling worthwhile? Will NPS give up its land? How big a political fight will widening a highway in Bethesda be? Once all these toll lanes are in place, why wouldn't DC toll its highways too? What sort of bus connections should there be? 

There are a lot of questions. Get used to talking about them.

Top image: Original image by NPS.

Comment on this article

DC mulls scaling back TOPA rights

If you rent in DC and the building owner decides to sell your building, you have powerful rights to negotiate during the sale. But, critics say, some tenants are abusing these rights. Two bills this fall would change the way the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) works for some renters.

TOPA is a law that gives tenants a chance to buy their residence before the owner sells to a third party. Carolyn Gallaher, a Greater Greater Washington contributor, wrote a TOPA overview and how it can be a tool for tenants who want to continue renting in a pair of stories last year.

Image by Jean & Oliver licensed under Creative Commons.

TOPA has preserved affordable housing, but has created headaches for some homeowners​​​​​​

While this process has helped to preserve over 1,400 affordable homes and apartments in the last decade, TOPA can create headaches for sellers, particularly when it’s a single-family home. The DC Association of Realtors (which has campaigned against TOPA for yearscreated a webpage listing some TOPA single-family home horror stories, like:

A man was renting the basement of a home. The owner agreed to a contract to sell the home, and the contract allowed the tenant to continue renting the basement at the previously agreed-upon rate of $1,600 per month. The tenant refused to accept the deal and threatened to drag out the sale for as long as possible, before he was finally persuaded to sign off on it — for the price of $30,000. He stayed on as a basement tenant, and he was able to extort the homeowner for the cost of more than 18 months of rent

Or in one case, where the tenants were a pair of attorneys,

The tenants took the full 60-day negotiating period but never came to a meeting with the owner, then they took the full 15-day period to match the offer, which they did not. They were then given 90 days to bow out of the transaction for good, and after holding out for 88 of those days, they finally bowed out.

There’s a big difference between a company that owns a large residential building that wants to put it up for sale and a couple living in a rowhouse with a tenant in the basement. Everyday people who are trying to sell their house don’t have the same level of experience and sophistication in real estate as companies that are in the business of buying and selling buildings.

TOPA requires someone who has a tenant and wants to sell their property to give the tenant a chance to buy it. First the owner finds a buyer and agrees on a price and other sales terms. Then the law gives tenants time at each of several steps so they can register interest in buying, line up financing, and do other things needed to buy the property. This also has the effect of delaying the sale by several months. If the tenant ends up not going through with the purchase, the seller can sell to the original buyer, who might not be interested any more because of all the delays.

Image by Aimee Custis licensed under Creative Commons.

Two councilmembers try to reform TOPA

The difficulty TOPA can cause for single-family home sellers is why Councilmembers Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) introduced separate bills that would limit TOPA’s application in these situations. Bonds’ legislation would exempt a second unit in a building, such as a basement, carriage house, or garage apartment, as long it takes up less than a third of the building the owner lives in the main unit. It would also shorten deadlines that tenants in single-family homes must meet in order to take advantage of TOPA.

“Analysis shows that single-family home TOPA offers of the past several years only very rarely resulted in tenant purchases of homes,” Bonds said June 6 when she introduced the TOPA Accessory Dwelling Unit Amendment Act. “Significant controversy has arisen over whether TOPA is being misused by some tenants to exact large amounts of money from housing providers in exchange for the tenants agreement to not necessarily drag out the TOPA process,” she added. “We know that this was not the intent of the law, and so we have to address it,” Bonds told NBC4 in May.

Nadeau’s bill, the Home Sale Facilitation Amendment Act, would bar tenants in owner-occupied single-family housing from doing what’s called “assigning” their TOPA rights and shorten deadlines for single-family home TOPA actions.

Under TOPA, tenants can assign their right to purchase to a buyer that plans to make money by selling or renting the property. In exchange, the tenants may negotiate favorable terms such as renovations, limits on rent increases, or a cash payment.

Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Nadeau’s bill would prohibit tenants in all owner-occupied single-family home situations from assigning their TOPA rights. They could still exercise the right to purchase on their own behalf, however. Bonds’ bill, on the other hand, exempts residents in certain units from TOPA entirely. That means they can’t assign TOPA right to a third party and they can’t exercise TOPA rights on their own behalf.

“If you look at the purposes of the act, one of the purposes was to increase bargaining power for tenants,” Rick Eisen, a D.C. real estate and housing attorney who wrote TOPA for the Council in 1980, told me. “Having the right to assign your rights increases bargaining power.”

“Their ability to assign their rights at least gives them some control over the situation and what happens going forward so they can use their assignment rights to negotiate a continued tenancy, rent freezes, or cash buyouts” they can use to find a new place to live, said Andrew McGuire, an attorney who represents tenants and tenant assignees in TOPA situations. “The reality is it does give the tenants some amount of leverage.”

Bonds couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, but an aide told me her approach to TOPA has shifted since she introduced the legislation. The bill she introduced in in June was a starting point for discussions Bonds has held with stakeholders in the housing community, which led to changes she will propose to improve the legislation, the aide said. The aide declined to elaborate, saying the proposals will be laid out at a Sept. 21 hearing. Nadeau’s bill hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing, though it’s possible some of the ideas would make it into Bonds’ revised bill.

Comment on this article

Making car-free zones work

Streets in the United States are ubiquitous with car use, but the idea of car-free zones is making a resurgence. Governments around Greater Washington are proposing to increase the number of car-restricted areas around the region, including certain hours on 18th Street Northwest in Adams Morgan, 18th Street North in Rosslyn, 7th Street Southeast near Eastern Market, and The Wharf in Southwest DC. As the region considers more car-free zones, we should consider what other urban areas have done.

7th Street Southeast next to Eastern Market. There is a proposal to make it a permanent
pedestrian zone during the weekends. Image by NCinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

American pedestrian malls: A history of mixed success

A number of American cities have incorporated pedestrian-oriented streets into their central business districts. These “pedestrian malls” are closed to car traffic, but they have a variety of storefronts and housing that are reachable on foot, as well as by bike or sometimes transit. Many cities with pedestrian malls integrated them into their historic downtowns. In most car-dominated cities, street access and parking is often available surrounding the malls, allowing automobile users to park and continue to the malls on foot.

Pedestrian malls in America are controversial. Dozens of cities tried to incorporate them into their central business district during the middle of the 20th Century to revitalize downtown areas, but most failed. Accordingly, many cities returned cars to downtown streets, and the idea is not nearly as popular as it used to be.

Regardless, many advocates maintain that  the chief problem with failed pedestrian malls is mainly due to poor design, zoning restrictions, and the larger trend of 20th Century urban decay. Following this logic, pedestrian malls should be able to work under the right circumstances. Here are some examples of where they have worked:

College towns have had success

Of the approximately 15 remaining pedestrian malls, a number are in college towns.

Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall on Main Street. Image by Malcolm K. licensed under Creative Commons.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, the city’s downtown has been positively shaped by the presence of an eight-block car-free zone. Lawrence Halprin & Associates designed the retrofitted Main Street to revitalize the downtown area. Opened in 1976, the street is sixty feet wide and laid with brick, extending to storefronts, trees, and groups of inviting seating. The pedestrian-friendly  Charlottesville Mall has been a vital anchor for uniting the community.

One year later on the other side of the country, Boulder, Colorado opened its own four-block long pedestrian mall on Pearl Street. As in Charlottesville, downtown Boulder faced great economic distress during the 1970’s. Luckily, in 1970, the state of Colorado passed the “Public Mall Act,” allowing cities such as Boulder to close off streets to automobile traffic. Today Pearl Street serves as the cultural and commercial center of the city.

Pedestrian Malls can work in large cities, too

Pedestrians and buses share the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver. Image by David Wilson licensed under Creative Commons.


Other Colorado cities, such as Denver, also took advantage of the state’s Public Mall Act. Denver opened its own 16th Street Mall downtown in 1982. Renowned modern architect I.M. Pei designed the mall, which also includes a number of trees and outdoor cafes. The 16th Street Mall is built for pedestrians, but it also incorporates transit with a free bus which runs up and down the street every few minutes. Although the route is primarily aimed at transporting people within the mall rather than to or from it, it demonstrates how non-car modes of transit can be integrated into a pedestrian street.

Sixth Street in Austin caters to large crowds late at night. Image by Ed Schipul licensed under Creative Commons.

Austin, Texas – both a college town, and a large city – has also had a great success with Sixth Street downtown. Unlike the previous examples, Sixth Street is open to car traffic most of the time, and only functions as a pedestrian zone during the weekends. Sometimes called ‘Dirty Sixth,’ the downtown street is known for its nightlife and (to the dismay of some locals) reputation for college student debauchery. Nonetheless, Sixth Street has gained an international reputation for nightlife, and its integration of pedestrian-only traffic during the weekend is certainly one reason why. Sixth Street’s college student character has some parallels to 18th Street Northwest in Adams Morgan, where the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission is considering various options to partially close the street off to cars during certain hours.

Seattle also recently concluded its 2017 “People Street” program for the Pike-Pine area. Following a series of pilot runs in 2015 and 2016, the city decided to close a six-block area to car traffic for 10 Saturdays this summer. Notably, Seattle is continuing to look for feedback in order to decide how to plan the future of People Street.

The redesign of Times Square has created much more space for pedestrians. Image by melfoody licensed under Creative Commons.

A final example is New York’s Times Square, which created a large, permanent pedestrian zone in 2014 after it temporarily removed cars from part of the intersection due to safety concerns in 2009. As is happening now in Adams Morgan, transportation officials looked at reducing the use of cars in the area following a number of traffic accidents in the area. Although the measure was meant to be temporary, the popularity the pedestrian zone led Manhattan to create a new design for the square. Echoing Sixteenth Street in Denver, a world class modern architectural firm – Oslo-based Snøhetta in this case – created the design, which added over 100,000 square feet of pedestrian space.

Considerations

Since a majority of American pedestrian malls failed, it is important to consider why before promoting them in our own area. Public space advocate Adam Greenfield points out that planners did not tailor the designs of these pedestrian zones to accommodate the areas they served, leading to their eventual demise. Greenfield likewise notes that businesses affected by the street design changes must be involved in the dialogue in order to make the idea work. In practice, pedestrian malls must incorporate business-friendly design elements such as allowing early morning delivery trucks to park on the mall.

Flexibility was also key in the cities listed above where pedestrian zones were successful. In many of these cases, streets were only closed to automobile traffic during certain times. New York and Seattle also tested the pedestrian zones as trials before making them permanent.

Not every place is ideal for a pedestrian zone. Areas that are pre-existing gathering places are more likely to succeed than single-use commercial districts. Higher population density is also a major asset, since people are already likely to naturally gather in these areas.

Another consideration is equitable access. Pedestrian malls that are isolated from transit are not as accessible to lower-income individuals, or to those without a car.

In successful cases, creating pedestrian zones has been a boon for local businesses and the community. These examples show that car-free streets – perhaps even 18th Street Northwest, 18th Street North, or 7th Street Southeast – can be even more appealing to cities than they were before.

Comment on this article

Amazon, national writers: Don’t forget what’s outside DC

News that Amazon is interested in locating a second headquarters in some city has sparked a fascinating set of comparisons and urban planning analyses of cities across the nation. It's also become an opportunity to see how national writers view the Washington area, including many who live here. 

Downtown DC, or even anywhere in the District west of the Anacostia, indeed seems like an unlikely place for a new Amazon headquarters. Most notably, there just isn't a whole lot of empty space, especially not with  transit, ready infrastructure, and zoning for a large office complex, Office space is expensive and has to compete with the high demand for new housing.

East of the Anacostia River, though, might be more of a possibility, as it still has a few large, mostly-empty areas planned for new development like Poplar Point and Saint Elizabeths (if Amazon goes there, expect a lot of Alexa queries for "why isn't there an apostrophe in Saint Elizabeths?")

There's more to Washington than DC

Also, the District is not the entire Washington region. It's not even the entire walkable urban part of the region. It's been interesting to see how many national analysis comparing Washington to other areas forget about areas like Arlington, Alexandria, Silver Spring, or Prince George's County.  

One of the most obvious potential Amazon sites is Crystal City, a very large, very dense, walkable neighborhood of primarily office buildings, right near metro and an airport, which is (unfortunately) largely vacant thanks to federal officeholders leaving. 

Image from a video by the Crystal City BID.

Crystal City has been working hard  to remake it's image and attract new, private office tenants, but there is still an enormous amount of space for a potential Amazon campus. And, it's all controlled by one property owner, formerly Vornado, now JBG Smith.  

Prince George's County has many areas right at Metro stations which could make an excellent new tech campus with, with the added benefit of helping to alleviate the regions significant east-west divide. So would a cite in eastern Montgomery County, like White Oak, though that does not have a Metro station.  

Washington shines in walkability outside DC

Whether Denver, or Philadelphia, or another metro area with also a strong contingent of tech workers and other educated potential tech workers, is a better site is certainly worth debating. But many of the analysis simply do not consider sites like this.  

It's important to make this point, not so much because I am pushing so hard for Amazon in our region, but because the existence of walkable urban places with transit outside the center city is actually a major defining factor of our region.  

A 2016 report from Christopher Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez from the George Washington University School of Business and Smart Growth America ranked the Washington area #2 in walkable urban places, largely because of the many "WalkUPs" outside DC.

Image from Foot Traffic Ahead: 2016.

Why our suburban jurisdictions are (and aren't) walkable

This is thanks in large part to foresighted planning decisions by Arlington and Montgomery county in particular. Arlington moved the planned Orange Line from a highway median to under Wilson Boulevard specifically to create places for new transit-oriented villages. Montgomery County also planned extensively around several stations to create new urban centers.  

Fairfax County missed this chance, and had to build a new (Silver) line to bring transit to its office centers and create walkable urban places. Nodes like the Mosaic District, which is just one huge boulevard too many away from Dunn Loring Metro, suffer for it, but to its credit Fairfax really trying hard to make Tysons walkable.

Relative walk sheds (red outline) of Landover and Takoma. Image from PlanItMetro.

Prince George's County did a particularly poor job of locating its metro lines in areas right for urban growth, or planning urban growth where possible around Metro stations. Now, it is hamstrung by metro stations hemmed in by rivers and low-density single family neighborhoods.

But it, too, is trying. More than most other US cities, elected officials at least pay lip service to walkable urbanism. That means any analysis comparing Washington to other cities needs to look just a bit farther than "blocks from the White House."

Top image: Image (of the Washington Post article) from DC Mayor Muriel Bowser's promotional video pitching DC as a site for Amazon's HQ2.

Comment on this article