Marc Elrich compares Purple Line development to “ethnic cleansing”

As the Purple Line begins construction, many are worried about the potential impact on working-class immigrant neighborhoods. How can we ensure that people can afford to stay in their neighborhood as the land around the line grows in value?

Two candidates for Montgomery County executive presented wildly different visions at a recent forum, with one accusing the Planning Board of promoting "ethnic cleansing" along the corridor. 

The 16-mile light rail line, which broke ground in August, will run between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. Its 21 stations will serve a series of inner suburban neighborhoods with large working-class, minority, and immigrant populations including Long Branch, which is located near the border of the two counties in Silver Spring.

Marc Elrich, a candidate for county executive, made the accusation while speaking at a candidate forum earlier this week hosted by liberal group Progressive Neighbors in downtown Silver Spring. Elrich appeared alongside his opponent George Leventhal, who is also a Democrat and an at-large county councilmember. (There are four other candidates, but they didn’t show up.)

Blogger Ryan Miner recorded this video and shared it on his site, A Miner Detail. Moderator Joan King asked the candidates what they can do to help make Montgomery County an affordable place for renters to live. Elrich replied:

“I support rent stabilization, and I think we need to be honest with ourselves about this. We threw up our hands and said, ‘The market will determine the price of housing, and the market alone will determine that.’ And we are going to wipe out neighborhood after neighborhood in Montgomery County.

You can bet, if we don’t do rent stabilization at the Purple Line stops for example, the neighborhoods around the Purple Line will not continue to exist. It will be bought, it will be repurposed, it will go to other people. When we did the Long Branch plan, and Park and Planning came in and said we want to rezone all of the existing housing in Long Branch, I accused the Planning Board of ethnic cleansing. Some people do it with a gun, you are doing it with a pen. But the truth is those folks will be gone, and they will be gone forever.”

And Leventhal said:

So, Montgomery County is very successful. It’s very desirable. We have an excellent school system, we have safe neighborhoods, we have thriving urban centers like Silver Spring and Bethesda, and we’re trying to improve our peacemaking and the excitement and urban life in places like Wheaton and, we hope, Glenmont. We do have market affordable housing in places like Wheaton and Glenmont. In Bethesda, we have just adopted the highest price control mandate in the county’s history. Fifteen percent of all new housing that comes online in downtown Bethesda will have to be price controlled below market rate.

The reality is that housing prices are controlled by supply and demand, and as long as there is high demand for housing here, prices will be high. There are communities that have very low housing prices, and those by and large are places you don’t want to live. So, we are investing $51 million this year in our Housing Initiative Fund, more than ever before in the county’s history.

The best way to get more affordable housing is to allow more housing, and that addresses the supply side of the equation

This is not ethnic cleansing

Let’s be clear: ethnic cleansing is the systematic expulsion or killing of members of a specific ethnic or religious group. It’s how the Sudanese government oversaw the killing of 300,000 people in the ongoing conflict in Darfur, or how Myanmar has driven more than 600,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic group out of that country over the past year.

This is not that.

Marc Elrich voted against preserving affordable housing in Long Branch

The Long Branch Sector Plan, passed in 2013, is a vision for long-term development near the intersection of Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road where two Purple Line stations are being built. In recent years, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have crafted similar plans for other communities along the Purple Line corridor including downtown Bethesda, Chevy Chase Lake, Lyttonsville, Takoma-Langley, College Park, and New Carrollton.

In many of these communities, there are real concerns that the Purple Line could increase the demand for homes and drive up prices, potentially pushing out lower-income people.

The Long Branch plan, like these other plans, addresses that by allowing the building of new homes and apartments in that neighborhood in anticipation of more people wanting to live there. It also plans a variety of new amenities for residents to enjoy, including new sidewalks and bike lanes, expanded parkland and recreational facilities, and the preservation of the historic Flower Theatre.

Dancing at a Long Branch block party. Image by Dan Reed licensed under Creative Commons.

The plan’s zoning will restrict most new development in Long Branch to replacing the area’s strip malls and parking lots, many of which haven’t seen significant investment in decades. Even so, the area could accommodate more than 3,200 new homes, 400 of which would be set aside for low-income families. That’s on top of the existing 1,800 garden-style apartments in Long Branch, which were built in the 1940s and 1950s and comprise most of the area’s low-cost housing.

The County Council chose to preserve these apartments, and it’s something Marc Elrich pushed for during the planning process. Leventhal was one of the eight councilmembers who voted in favor of the plan, while Elrich was the lone vote against the plan, claiming it didn't do enough to support local businesses.

If we’re serious about keeping people in their neighborhoods, here’s how to do it

Building new homes isn’t enough to preserve affordable housing in Long Branch and other communities along the Purple Line.

Over the past several years, the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland has pulled together over 150 labor, environmental, civic, and business groups, as well as local officials, to form the Purple Line Corridor Coalition. The coalition's mission is to develop a strategy for ensuring that the people who live near the Purple Line today can stay and benefit from it.

Their recommendations include everything from subsidizing the creation and preservation of affordable housing, to providing business loans and training to small businesses to help them survive Purple Line construction, to workforce training for current residents, to encouraging public art around Purple Line stations. Some of these things are already happening, while others need political support to actually get enacted.

We need political leaders who can actually do that. Montgomery County's primary election is June 26, 2018 and as the race heats up, it's important for voters to consider who's serious about supporting these neighborhoods and the people who live in them, and who compares those efforts to a war crime.

(Full disclosure: I worked in George Leventhal's county council office seven years ago.)

Top image: Elrich at the Progressive Neighbors forum. Screenshot from a video by Ryan Miner.

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Vinyl wraps won’t make Back2Good better, but these fixes will

Metro has announced a new pilot program that will wrap the exteriors of older train cars in vinyl sheeting to mimic the look of the newer 7000-series trains. Additional changes will include the removal of the interior carpets for non-slip flooring and new blue seat covers to make the older trains look like the new ones.

This pilot is part of Metro's Back2Good program that aims to create a "safe, reliable and customer friendly transit system." Improving the rider experience when using Metro is a worthy goal and I am glad that WMATA is actively looking to make enhancements to help win back customers.

However, some of Back2Good's initiatives make me question Metro's priorities, and these wraps are the latest example.

Vinyl wraps are not a great use of Metro's resources

What problem are the vinyl wraps trying to address? If customers felt the train exteriors look dirty, then perhaps Metro could wash them more frequently. A vinyl wrap isn't a replacement for regular train washing, because without that, these trains will soon look just as dirty as they did before.

Metro has said the wraps are cheaper and more environmentally-friendly compared to repainting a train. But they offered no cost-benefit analysis supporting this, nor specific detail on the durability of the wraps versus painting. It'd be great if Metro could "show its work" on these potential positives.

Metro has also claimed the wraps will help give the system a sleeker, more modern look which riders prefer. While that may be true, is anyone choosing to ride Metro based on the look of its trains? After all, more people were riding Metro in 2008 (when all trains had the old, brown stripe) than in the years since the new trains were introduced in 2015.

I'm all for a modern look for Metro, but its given reasons don't justify wrapping trains.

Metro has implemented some great ideas

The Back2Good program has the potential to make very real changes. When it was announced one year ago, I wrote that aspects of the program, particularly the station cleaning, were worthwhile goals.

To Metro's credit, there are projects they've undertaken that make a welcome difference. Replacing carpet on the trains with non-slip flooring is one example, as is tunnel cell service and upgrading the Passenger Information Display System (PIDS) to better show train waits and 8-car trains. Other improvements, like new station lighting and more platform markings to denote where to board six-car trains, are in the works. 

Station PIDS now display 8-car trains in green and wait times up to 40 minutes. Image by the author.

These are the kinds of small changes that make a big difference. Reliable cell service, new lighting, and non-slip floors all help make Metro safer, and the new platform markings and PIDS changes keep riders better informed.

Other projects are missing the mark

But other Back2Good projects have left me scratching my head, like painting Union Station white. Slapping white paint over still-dirty walls doesn't fix the problem of inadequate station cleaning. Until that is addressed, the station walls soon look just as grimy as they did before. 

The painted vault at Potomac Ave looked great in July 2016 (left) but is now covered in brake dust in November 2017 (right). Left image from Twitter, right image by the author.

Metro has also been testing background music at Gallery Place and Judiciary Square. Based on the mixed (though admittedly unscientific) reaction on social media and in comments sections, I'm not sure "more music" was high on riders' list of needs for stations.

Even changing the platform edge lights from red bulbs back to white ones could have waited. For years, riders have complained about dark stations, so perhaps Metro could do more to keep the main vault lighting in good shape before worrying about the less essential blinking platform lights.

Broken vault lighting along the lower level of Metro Center on November 13, 2017. Image by the author.

Back2Good could be greater

The projects I've outlined here — silver train exteriors, blinking platform lights — are not what the "Back2Good" fixes should be. Instead, here are some ideas that could have a bigger impact:

  • Do a better job limiting service disruptions from weekend track work, particularly since off-peak and weekend ridership continues to decline. Metro can, and should, schedule train service to keep disruptions as isolated as possible.
  • Instead of painting stations, regularly cleaning them will help Metro improve safety and system reliability. The same is true of railcars. Silver wraps and air fresheners are not replacements for consistent, thorough maintenance.

  • Rather than testing background music, Metro could test new station signage so that people can quickly and easily make transfers, locate the elevator, or find their way to the exit they need. Confusing and lackluster signage has been a problem for years, and taking steps to fix it could help minimize station bottlenecks and show that Metro is listening to complaints from its riders.

  • The same holds true for lighting. Contributor Payton Chung outlined ideas Metro could test to improve lighting levels at its stations. If ideas like these were successfully implemented, they would go beyond mere cosmetic change and improve a whole host of metrics at once (station safety, lighting efficiency, and customer satisfaction to name a few). 

  • Finally, the agency must do more with its public communication. This could mean staffing WMATA’s social media feeds whenever the system is open (currently it’s only staffed weekdays from 7am-7pm) or providing detailed information about initiatives the agency is undertaking (for example, a cost-benefit summary on those train wraps). Critically, it must improve outreach during service disruptions. Waiting until the end of rush hour to release a statement about delays, even though Metro staff knew there was a problem much earlier, is an insult to riders.

I'm all for WMATA testing and experimenting with new ideas, but let's make sure they fix underlying problems instead of just improving appearances. The best projects will help create a system that is safer, more reliable, and that keep riders better informed. Let's expedite changes that do those things first.

Top image: This is a screen shot from Metro’s video discussing its revamp of older train cars, displaying new seats and flooring that make it look more like the newer 7000-series trains.  Image by WMATA.

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Breakfast links: The Purple Line offers a unique chance to study the health effects of public transportation

The Purple Line could incentivize healthy decisions

Because individuals are more likely to walk or bike to a transit stop, it's possible that the Purple Line will make residents healthier. Because of Maryland's diverse demographics, there's a unique opportunity to study this effect across populations.  (Katherine Shaver / Post)

Urban wildlife really is wild. But, like, a citified wild

When it comes to urban wildlife, the adage 'Adapt, Migrate, or Die' remains true. Animals in cities adapt to their urban environments but still depend on a network of green spaces to thrive, and even small blocks of habitat can be essential.  (Steve Holt / CityLab)

DC’s rat problem isn’t going away

DC has received over 4,000 complaints about rats this year,which is 500 more than in 2016. This is despite serious efforts taken by the city to combat the issue, including new grants for businesses and high tech removal techniques.  (The Kojo Nnamdi Show / WAMU)

Metro’s on-time commutes are up, but it’s complicated

While 88 percent of metro customers’ rail trips were on time in the last quarter, that doesn't always mean they were fast. Metro measures trips based on an average window of time it takes from gate to gate. A trip could be "on time" but also unsatisfying.  (Martin Di Caro / WAMU)

Changes are coming to Massachusetts Avenue

DC will modify Massachusetts Avenue from Waterside Drive south to 20th Street in response to unsafe conditions and increasing crashes. The city will reduce the lane sizes and add a pedestrian refuge to encourage drivers to reduce speeds.  (Zoe Morgan / Current Newspapers)

Brookland is nixing its shipping container house plans for a strip mall

A proposed shipping container housing development near Rhode Island Metro didn't come to fruition, after new stormwater regulations raised costs. The replacement plan calls for a retail strip mall with an asphalt parking lot.  (Michelle Goldchain / Curbed)

A new Building Museum exhibit highlights modern housing solutions

The National Building Museum has a new exhibit that showcases emerging housing trends that respond to the needs of modern life. It features a model apartment which will morph throughout the exhibit, demonstrating the versatility of the designs.  (Nena Perry-Brown / Urban Turf)

Top image: Dupont Circle metro stop. Image by angela n. used with permission.

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Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 114. How’d you do?

On Tuesday, we featured the 114th challenge to see how well you know the Metro system. Here are the answers. 

This week, we got 22 guesses. 14 of you got all five. Great work, Alex B, Peter K, cceval, Greg Jordan-Detamore, PLKDC, ArlFfx, David Duck, Solomon, animannyac, Stephen C, JamesDCane, Peter K is a nice guy don't be hatin' on him!, J-Train-21, and AlexC!

Image 1: Foggy Bottom

The first image shows a view up the street escalator and stair shaft at Foggy Bottom. From the visible buildings, you could have surmised that this is a Metro entrance in an urban area. Few of those entrances have stairs and escalators (most are escalator-only). So that narrowed the field down. We also featured a similar view in Week 111

17 knew the right answer.

Image 2: Crystal City

The second image had a bit of the name visible as one of the clues. If you guessed Crystal City, you got it right. There are two stations with "City" in their title, which you should have been able to guess from the letters visible on the pylon. Both stations have side platforms, so that didn't help. Knowing the escalator configuration was the key you needed.

At Pentagon City, the sole mezzanine is at the far north end of the station, with the entrance through the end wall above the tracks. It has three escalators lined up on each side, all facing the same direction. That doesn't match the picture here.

At Crystal City, there are three escalators on each side of the tracks, but two face railroad south and one faces railroad north (the station is actually oriented roughly east-west). The entrance to the mezzanine is near the center of the station, instead of at one end, like at Pentagon City. And that's what you see in this image.

We discussed the mezzanine layouts of Crystal City and Pentagon City in Week 105. To recap, Pentagon City looks like this: [:::::::::::>>>] and Crystal City looks like this: [:::::>><::::::].

17 guessed correctly.

Image 3: Forest Glen

The third image shows the exterior of the mezzanine structure at Forest Glen. This brick structure housing the station entrance is fairly unique in Metro and is a result of the elevator hoistway equipment above the partially below-grade mezzanine. This station doesn't have escalators, only six high-speed elevators linking the platforms more than twenty stories below ground.

I also carefully cropped the image to leave just the edge of a Maryland state highway shield at far left. The square signs are unique to Maryland within the region as Virginia's are either circular or acorn-shaped and DC only has one numbered "state" highway. You should have been able to discern that the last digit was a "7", and that may have led you to guess that the road in question is Georgia Avenue / MD 97. There are three Metro stations located directly adjacent to MD 97: Forest Glen, Wheaton, and Glenmont. Using Google street view was one way to narrow this down if you didn't recognize the structure or surrounding buildings.

18 gave the right answer.

Image 4: National Airport

National Airport is our next photo subject. This image shows the southern (Terminal B) mezzanine. I expect that many of you have used this station and probably recognized elements of the design. Some of the clues include the unique signage indicating which platform is for downtown and which platform is for trains headed south, the glass mezzanine walls, and the girder carrying the center trackway above the station manager's kiosk.

One additional clue is that all the visible faregates are entry gates. The absence of exit gates indicates that those gates are out of frame on the other side of the station manager's booth, and that should tell you that the station is wide enough to have another platform and set of escalators to the left.

18 guessed National Airport.

Image 5: Fort Totten

The final image shows the kiss and ride and bus loop at Fort Totten. This wide road area underneath the north end of the platform is fairly distinctive. The overpass structure is indicative of the elevated stations along the shared WMATA/CSX corridor between Brookland and Silver Spring. Brookland station isn't elevated, so that leaves three stations: Fort Totten, Takoma, and Silver Spring. The shared corridor has the two Metro Red Line tracks sandwiched in between the two CSX/MARC tracks, and the result is the large-girder CSX bridges flank the Metro tracks. Here, the undercrossing is especially long because of the four tracks and the width of the Metro platform as well. 

21 came to the correct conclusion. 

Great work, everyone. Thanks for playing! We'll be back in two weeks with challenge #115.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at

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The best way to improve transportation in our region is…

What kind of transportation changes will give people shorter commutes, less time in traffic, and better access to jobs and airports? Which are the worst?

A study by the regional Transportation Planning Board, which is made up of governments from across the region, says... well, I'm going to keep you in a bit of suspense, but the answer, as they say, may surprise you.

That's because the one that won in the most categories is not even really a transportation improvement. (Mind. Blown.)

Ten contenders vied for the title of "best transportation improvement"

The analysis considered 10 packages, from express toll lanes on major roads to Metrorail in the core to getting more jobs and housing on the east side of the region. They were:

  1. Express Travel Network: Express toll lanes (free for HOV, toll for non-HOV) on almost all of the limited-access highways, express buses every 10-20 minutes on those highways and other arterials, and two more express lanes on the American Legion Bridge
  2. Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief: Technology like overhead signs and variable speed limits to manage traffic, some spot widenings and ramps at congested spots, and reversible lanes on more roads
  3. Additional Northern Bridge: A new bridge and three-lane highway from I-370 in Maryland to VA-28 at Dulles, with some buses every 20-30 minutes on the highway
  4. BRT & Transitways: Bus Rapid Transit and other dedicated lane transitways all around the region

New toll lanes from Express Travel Network (left) and transit corridors from BRT & Transitways (right). All images by TPB unless otherwise noted.

  1. Commuter Rail: More frequent MARC and VRE service (every 20-60 minutes), including service both directions and off-peak, and through-running MARC to Alexandria
  2. Metrorail Core Capacity: A new Metro loop line in the core between Rosslyn, Union Station, and Pentagon, along with 100 percent eight-car trains and some improvements at congested stations
  3. Transit Rail Extensions: Extending all Metro lines except Silver farther out, the Purple Line to Tysons on the west and around to Alexandria on the east end, and light rail to Waldorf

Metrorail Core Capacity (left) and Transit Rail Extensions (right)

  1. Regional Land Use Balance: Steering more of the jobs and housing growth (especially jobs) to the east side of the region (like east of the Anacostia River, eastern Montgomery, Prince George's, Alexandria, and Route 1 in Fairfax) and putting more of that growth near transit
  2. Transit Fare Policy Changes: Cutting off-peak Metro fares and fares for people with low incomes
  3. Travel Demand Management: Employers encourage more teleworking, provide transit and vanpool benefits, and charge for parking or offer a parking cash-out

All of these were compared to a baseline, where the region builds the projects already planned between now and 2040, and growth patterns continue as they are.

Image by kalhh licensed under Creative Commons.

And the Oscar goes to...

Here were the winners.

In the category of Best Way To Reduce Traffic, the winner is...

  • Travel Demand Management, cutting "daily vehicle hours of delay" by a whopping 24 percent! Runners-up are:
  • Regional Land Use Balance, at 18 percent
  • Express Travel Network, 11 percent

The Oscar for Putting The Fewest Vehicles On The Road (or as planners say, "lowest vehicle miles traveled per capita" goes to...

  • Regional Land Use Balance, reducing by six percent, and tied with
  • Travel Demand Management

The highway projects—Express Travel Network, Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief, and Additional Northern Bridge—all increased the amount of driving. Other options decreased it by 1 percent or less.

What about Average Car Commute Time, which after all is what most people really care about: how fast they get where they're going. The winner is...

  • Regional Land Use Balance, cutting average single-passenger car commutes by three minutes and HOV trips by four. Honorable mentions to:
  • Travel Demand Management
  • Express Travel Network
  • Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief

Others saved just one minute or had no effect.

A related category, Average Transit Commute Time:

  • Metrorail Core Capacity was tied with...
  • Regional Land Use Balance, both saving three minutes.

The Jobs Accessible In 45 Minutes By Transit award goes to Metrorail Core Capacity (19 percent of jobs). Tied for second at 10 percent is Transit Rail Extensions and ... you guessed it ... Regional Land Use Balance. 

The related Jobs Accessible in 45 Minutes By Car is a tie between Regional Land Use Balance and Travel Demand Management, both at 10 percent; runners-up are Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief at eight percent and Express Travel Network at five percent.

You might be noticing something: Regional Land Use Balance is cleaning up here, coming in first or second in about every category. It's third in the contest for Access to High-Capacity Transit, or how many households are near Metro, BRT, etc. And it's tied with Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief and Travel Demand Management in the category of Average Best Travel Time To Intercity Hubs, which is how long it takes to get to Union Station or one of the three airports. 

Comparison of the options among various factors. Click to enlarge.

What's the best?

The TPB did not pick a Best Picture, aka "What We Will Actually Do" yet, but they agreed to pick one or more winners later in the process. "Winning" here doesn't mean that suddenly the region's policy transforms to implement the plan, but it will make that a significant part of ongoing discussions about regional transportation that can steer future decisions in a certain directions.

Just as we get a sense for the Academy's views on Oscar night not just by who wins Best Picture, but who gets the most awards, that seems to clearly be the oddball picture here, the one transportation project among the ten which is not a transportation project at all: Regional Land Use Balance!

(And the crowd goes wild!)

The east-west divide and Metrorail crowding. Image by WMATA.

Yup, basically, the best solution to transportation problems is not building transportation, but rather, adding new residents and jobs in areas that already have the transportation. This scenario didn't force anyone to move their existing house office from Tysons to New Carrollton, but rather, just allocated more NEW jobs and housing in places like eastern Fairfax, eastern Montgomery, Prince George's, and east of the Anacostia in DC, and near Metro stations in those areas.

This also does well in a number of less quantitative factors, like:

  • Cost: It's really cheap to solve transportation problems without building big transportation infrastructure.
  • Affordability: It costs less to travel when you don't travel so far.
  • Equity: A more balanced east-west land use pattern is far more equitable.
  • Placemaking: Growth around transit stations helps create good places.
  • Environment: Wetlands and farms are not destroyed. There is less sprawl.

This doesn't mean that is the only one we should do. The region can do more than one, like Travel Demand Management which had a hefty haul of Oscars as well. 

Among the truly transportation improvements, BRT & Transitways had the most positive effects, the fewest negative ones, and isn't that expensive. So how about a combo of BRT & Transitways, Regional Land Use Balance, and Travel Demand Management for the low-cost big win? 

Who predicted this?

WMATA planners came to the same conclusion in a study called ConnectGreaterWashington, which looked at a number of projects to improve Metrorail, including some of the options in this analysis. They discovered that rebalancing the region between west and east would also make Metro profitable or even run a surplus of $270 million a year.

That would wipe out all the costs local and state governments incur for Metro today. It turns out, basically, they're paying not for Metro so much, but an unbalanced Metro system in an unbalanced region. That study looked at somewhat more aggressive rebalancing than I think the TPB one did, but still — even some is good enough to beat out all of these transportation projects.

Image by WMATA.

This report was also little surprise to Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, who has been saying exactly this for over 20 years. He said, "This report once again confirms the case CSG and our predecessors have made since 1991 that better land use and transportation demand management will make the biggest difference for improving our transportation network for all users including drivers."

Schwartz is hoping that this time, the TPB will actually follow through on this idea. He said:

Previous scenarios by the TPB and by CSG founders showed transit and transit-oriented development perform very well but we’ve been frustrated again and again that the TPB officials keep stapling together project lists instead of making a fundamental shift to put land use (TOD, fixing the east-west jobs-housing balance) that would reduce vehicle miles traveled, improve access to jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

CSG has engaged with [the Council of Governments] and TPB now for 21 years. With the findings of this report in hand, the urgency of climate change, and the demonstrated competitive advantage of TOD (Marriott, Amazon) it’s time the region adopted a long range plan that puts transit and TOD first.

Will it happen?

Doing Regional Land Use Balance will require making some decisions. More than that, it'll require not putting all the new housing and jobs in the same places on the west side of the region which have been already winning such things for years. (Site near Dulles for Amazon HQ2: Very bad for transportation. Within Virginia, Crystal City is much better.)

So perhaps in the competition for the forthcoming Golden Globe for What Transportation Improvement Isn't Politically Difficult, Regional Land Use Balance will be an underdog. But if you really want to make transportation better, it seems we know what to do. Or already did.

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Prince George’s County now requires too much parking, but that could soon change

Traditionally, communities have approached parking by building so much that it never becomes an issue for a driver looking for a space. Generally, this is a very political response. Residents contact their elected leaders to complain when they cannot find parking, and the elected officials respond by mandating that more parking be built.

Unfortunately, this approach is very detrimental to when it comes to building walkable, dense, and economically productive places. As Prince George’s County increases in population and becomes more urban, these impacts become much more apparent.

However, as the county overhauls its zoning code, they now have the opportunity to enact more forward-thinking parking regulations.

Commercial parking lots, shown in red, are detrimental to dense walkable development in Largo. Image by the author.

Here's why the current parking regulations can be detrimental

The physical space that parking lots take up ensures that no building is ever convenient to walk to. Parking lots also take up space that could be more productively used as housing, shops, offices, community parks, or just open natural areas.

Parking is also expensive. A parking structure built alongside an apartment building means that each apartment costs a little more because it must absorb the cost of the parking. A vast parking lot in front of a shopping center requires repaving, lighting, security, and cleanup — all which make the goods in the store more expensive so that the store can afford to maintain parking.

This isn’t to suggest that all parking should be removed. However, we should readdress the regulations that mandate an oversupply of parking.

Except in a few locations like Prince George’s Plaza and College Park, where recent Sector Plans have reduced parking minimums and allowed shared parking, the county follows the old model in requiring all developments to provide a high level of parking regardless of expected use.

Under the current ordinance, a retail establishment requires one parking space per 150 square feet of the building’s Gross Floor Area (GFA) for the first 3,000 square feet of space, and then an additional one parking space per 200 square feet of GFA after that. This means that for the first 3,000 square feet of store, the County requires 3,610 square feet of parking, which doesn’t even include the driveways and the parking aisles. That’s a lot of space.

(The City of Ottowa made this great video when they were reviewing their minimum parking standards back in 2015 that neatly explains the issue.) 

Here's what could change in Prince George's

Right now Prince George's is rewriting its entire zoning code, including the laws that deal with parking. Under their proposed new parking ordinance, both the location as well as the use of the retail establishment will determine how much parking is required. (Previously only the use was considered.) 

For example, if the store is an Activity Center Zone, the parking minimum is one space per 500 square feet of GFA. If the store is in any other zone inside the beltway, the parking minimum is one space per 333 square feet of GFA. Finally, if the store is outside of the beltway — traditionally the more suburban and rural parts of the county — the parking minimum is one space per 250 square feet of GFA.

Best of all, if the store is located in core of the Transit-Oriented Zones which are generally a quarter mile from the Metrorail station, they have no parking minimums. This will allow new businesses and homes to fully leverage their proximity to transit. This does not mean there will be zero parking spaces, but it does mean that business owners can choose the amount of parking that is best aligned to their business.  

The proposed ordinance considers location, as well as use, when determining parking minimums. This makes intuitive sense, as different places in the county have different transportation needs and options. Zones that are designed to encourage walking, bicycling, and dense activity (like Transit-Oriented Zones) have the lowest parking requirements. Developments inside the Beltway, where there is less available land overall, have a lower parking requirement than developments outside the Beltway.

The parking lot at Capital Plaza. Image by the author.

The proposed ordinance also includes several measures to better address parking management. Developments can use off-site parking, street parking, or share their parking with nearby buildings in order to reach their minimums. Overall, the changes mean lower minimums, allowing builders to spend more effort making the development as good as possible and less time fitting in all that parking.

Developments can further reduce their required parking minimums by implementing a Transportation Demand Management Program. These programs include incentives like parking cash-outs, where employees who choose not to drive are given financial compensation. Other examples include unbundling parking from leases (where the cost of a parking space is removed from monthly rent and leased separately,) prioritizing carpool and vanpool parking, and instituting off-peak work-schedules.

If you care about these changes, make your voice heard

The proposed ordinance is still a draft and has not yet been adopted by the County Council, nor endorsed by the Prince George’s County Planning Board. Both the Council and the Planning Department are soliciting comments and suggestions from the public until mid-December.

To weigh in on the proposed ordinance, you can add your comments directly on the project website, or you can contact your county councilmember.

Top image: A typical vast parking lot at a Forestville, Maryland shopping center. Image by the author.

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Breakfast links: Triathletes raced each of DC’s new bikeshare cycles

Triathletes raced all of DC’s bikeshare cycles — guess who won?

Express wanted to try a different kind of test of the bikeshares that have been cropping up around the District lately. They recruited six triathletes with comparable times, put them each on a different bike, and had them race across town.  (Sadie Dingfelder / Post)

Fairfax is aiming for a walkable future

Fairfax is looking to go all in on walkable areas in the near future. According to their latest plan, while 90 percent of the land mass will remain suburban, 99 percent of retail, industrial, office, and hotel development will be in walkable areas.  (Fairfax)

BWI tries new tactics to combat holiday congestion

For the next month, BWI airport will be offering time-limited free parking and restricting Uber/Lyft's pickup/dropoff area to help reduce BWI holiday time traffic jams.  (Jeff Clabaugh / WTOP. Tip: "Our readers")

Alexandria continues to hold ‘top ten’ status of US tech cities

For the 13th year running, Alexandria has made it into the top 10 tech cities in the US for its population category (125,000-250,000). The tech-savvy city is planning to spend another $52 million on IT over the next 10 years.  (James Cullum / TechnicallyDC)

Columbia Pike is seeing returns on its funding boost

After securing additional funding back in April, the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization has been able to do more of what they set out to do originally — support more community events and help bring businesses to the Pike.  (Chris Teale / ARLnow)

Crystal City is a strong contender for Amazon’s new headquarters

While DC proper might not fulfill all of Amazon's needs for their new headquarters, Crystal City can offer the benefits of the greater Washington region along with lower taxes, and the room necessary to house Amazon's big plans.  (ARLnow)

Major Maryland water utility explores new rate structures

WSSC, a water utility that provides for around two million people, has recommended a trio of proposals aimed at reducing the cost on larger households (by up to $114 quarterly savings) and helping ensure more predictable bills.  (Katherine Shaver / Post)

An apartment complex and tunnel updates are coming to College Park

A 440-unit apartment complex southeast of the College Park Metro Station has just been approved by Prince George's planning board. The project also includes updates to the bike and pedestrian tunnel as well as a bikeshare station.  (WashCycle)

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WMATA tightly leashed its watchdog for years, a new report says

WMATA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has been under tight management from WMATA and stripped of power for years, and is largely toothless to recommend changes, according to the Washington Post.

This is all detailed in a letter from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.

The control was so pervasive that, about five years ago, keystroke logging software was installed on OIG keyboards to improperly monitor OIG employees’ communication. WMATA’s statement, released today, blames a single, rogue employee.

The Senate committee’s letter also says that because the OIG’s computer network is not separate from WMATA, high level employees could potentially see the OIG’s work and findings.

The letter concludes, “WMATA’s apparent control over the OIG appears to limit the OIG’s ability to act independently and may ultimately hinder effective oversight and transparency of the agency.”

GGWash Editorial Board member Stephen Repetski tweeted a summary of the Senate committee’s findings:

This is extremely concerning for several reasons. The OIG is supposed to be an independent investigative body that can assess policies and performance without WMATA’s influence. It is responsible for rooting out bad management, poor practices, and corruption. In fact, the OIG is currently investigating falsified overtime reports.

While the keystroke monitoring ended before Paul Wiedefeld began his tenure at WMATA, the current IG Geoffrey Cherrington indicated to WMATA’s Riders’ Advisory Council (RAC) that a recent report was heavily redacted by WMATA lawyers, to the point where it became “useless.” He went on to question if he could be an independent IG given such constraints.

Colin Reusch, the member of the RAC who shared this information, felt that such actions against OIG make him question WMATA’s commitment to having an independent inspector general at all. Certainly the fact that the current inspector general says he feels constrained is a worrying development.

But wait — that’s not all. It’s been long reported that journalists have a hard time getting Metro employees to go on the record about problems at the agency. Employees are also afraid to be whistleblowers.

WAMU's transportation reporter Martin Di Caro tweeted about the culture of paranoia and retaliation at WMATA:

This paranoia isn’t limited to employees dealing with journalists and WMATA’s OIG. It has a trickle down effect. Federal Transit Administration inspectors also encountered pushback and lack of cooperation from Metro employees when they were called to evaluate safety.

In this context — the OIG lacks power to investigate and publish its findings independent of WMATA’s influence — it’s not hard to interpret WMATA’s neglect to increase the OIG’s budget as a way to undermine the OIG’s work.

The Senate committee is requesting a followup meeting to address questions outlined in its letter no later than December 5. They also asked Wiedefeld for the following information:

  1. Copies of all guidance, memorandums, or directives to WMATA personnel concerning interactions with the OIG.
  2. Please explain how you have sought to ensure the WMATA OIG's independence since you were appointed General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of WMATA in November 2015. 
  3. Please explain wether WMATA requires or expects the Inspector General to share his responses to Congressional inquiries with the Chariman or the Board of Directors before transmitting a response to Congress.
  4. Please explain the responsibilities for WMATA's Office of Quality Assurance, Internal Compliance and Oversight (QICO) and whether this office duplicates the responsibilities of the WMATA OIG.

You can read the full letter here. 

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DC’s thirtysomething office buildings stare down mid-life crises

Many cities are well-known for their abundance of one kind of building — think of Miami Beach and its Art Deco hotels, Brooklyn's brownstones, or Los Angeles' mid-century dingbat apartments.

Greater Washington has its own claim to architectural fame: no other region can match our density of 1980s and 1990s office buildings. That’s right: when it comes to ribbon windows, aluminum facade panels, pink marble and brass lobbies, beige carpet, and fluorescent tube lights, we're number one!

The "toilet bowl" in Tysons Corner.  Image by Derek Kastner licensed under Creative Commons.

Besides blessing our region with postmodern architectural curiosities such as the "toilet bowl building," this also means that greater Washington, more so than any other region, faces a challenge now that these buildings are facing mid-life crises. Many require substantial additional investment, as key building systems (like air-conditioning, plumbing, elevators, and roofs) require overhaul or replacement.

At the same time, office tenants have become much choosier. They've dramatically reduced space per employee by almost half in the past decade, and increasingly demand more from their buildings: easy access to transit and restaurants, brighter and more flexible interiors, and plenty of trendy amenities.

This smaller and choosier pool of office tenants means that not every building is going to survive an increasingly competitive marketplace. Already, commercial real estate broker NGKF estimates that up to 22 percent of America's suburban office buildings may be “obsolete": unsuitable for continued use as offices in their current form. Many of these may not have a future as offices — but complications await.

Many other metro areas, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, have seen hundreds of older commercial buildings adaptively reused in recent decades. Yet as GGWash editor Dan Reed wrote, "Washington has never had a lot of old industrial space to convert. Instead, it has a lot of office parks like Corporate Drive [in Hyattsville].”

We haven't had as much adaptive reuse, and our building stock faces appreciably different challenges.

Image by Daniel Lobo.

Forget malls, the 80s were really about office parks

Perhaps because these buildings are so architecturally innocuous, it's easy to forget the unprecedented scale of the building boom that took place in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s — largely creating from whole cloth the suburban business clusters then termed "Edge Cities."

As Tyson Freeman recounts, “The 1980s were dynamic and a lot of fun for many real estate professionals… The development boom in between was the largest in our history: office space doubled to 2.5 billion square feet.; the number of shopping centers rose 57 percent; and hotels surged by 43 percent."

All of this was made possible by a debt bubble whose spectacular burst caused a national recession in 1990. Freeman continues, "The amount of outstanding debt on commercial properties was close to $250 billion in 1980 and by 1989 had nearly tripled to a staggering $745 billion."

Yet this construction wasn't evenly distributed across the country. I came across an interesting dataset, in Robert Lang's 2003 book "Edgeless Cities." Lang is now a professor at UNLV but previously taught at Virginia Tech's Alexandria branch. He compiled statistics from the 1980 and 1999 editions of Black’s Guide, a commercial real estate market data vendor who ceased publication in 2010, and whose appropriate successor is DC-based CoStar Group.

The sheer scale of construction between those years is mind-boggling. Six metro areas built more than 125 million square feet — the equivalent of replicating Chicago's Loop or Lower Manhattan, or enough space to house 500,000 cubicles (at 250 square feet per employee, a common metric at the time.)

Three metro areas (New York, Los Angeles, and Washington) built a million (or more) cubicles apiece — enough to house every single paper-pusher in either metro Boston or Philadelphia. In Washington and Los Angeles, Reaganomics' supply-side tax subsidies were matched by a demand-side boom as defense contractors filled legions of offices and factories.

Image by the author.


Yes, even though greater Washington is only the country's sixth-largest metro area, we're number three in terms of the volume of '80s and '90s office buildings — behind metro areas that have two to three times as many residents, and sprawl over much greater expanses.

Chances are, your office was built in this era

Interestingly, by 1999 most regional office markets were dominated by 1980s and 1990s construction -- with the sole exceptions of Chicago and New York, historically the giants in the office world. That even holds for such polar opposites as Philadelphia and Dallas, or Boston and Atlanta, which studies have paired as paragons of Frostbelt old urbanism and Sunbelt new suburbanism.

Image by the author.

Since Black's Guide stopped updating its databases early in the 2000s, it would be impossible to carry a truly longitudinal comparison forward to the present day, but given the relatively more measured pace of office construction nationwide in the 2000s, it's a good bet that the majority of offices in these markets were still built in the 1980s and 1990s.

Other cities let their downtowns and warehouse districts slowly empty out over decades before they took action and encouraged their adaptive reuse with new uses. Since our region's office building stock is younger, we haven't yet had that problem — and luckily, our region seems to be acting on the opportunity now.

Next: Not every obsolete office building is cut out to become apartments.

Top image: A view of some of DC's office buildings from behind the J. Edgar Hoover building bars. Image by Brian Allen used with permission.

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Prince George’s County could soon embrace accessory apartments

Right now in Prince George’s County, it’s nearly impossible to build new accessory apartments (such a basement apartment or converting a garage into home). Changing those rules and allowing more accessory apartments could create more flexible and affordable housing in the region.

The county has an opportunity to do just that as it creates its comprehensive housing strategy.

Accessory apartments bring a lot of benefits

Accessory apartments, also known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs, are a hot topic in urban planning all over our region. DC, Montgomery County, and soon Arlington County are all implementing new accessory apartment regulations.

In addition to providing comparatively affordable housing for renters, these kinds of multi-family living arrangements can make homeownership accessible to more people. Renting out an onsite apartment allows for supplemental income for the homeowner, or allows a downsizing owner to move to a smaller unit on their property and rent out the larger home to family or someone who needs the space.

This makes accessory apartments an important tool for keeping people in their homes. By creating an income stream for homeowners struggling with rising assessments in a changing region, accessory apartments can potentially help keep long-term residents from being priced out of their neighborhoods, while also creating affordable options for new residents.

It’s important to understand that an accessory apartment is not a boarding house or a group home, where four or more unrelated people are sharing the same living space. An accessory apartment either creates a second unit within a single structure or adds a second detached housing unit to the same property. Both add people to a neighborhood without fundamentally changing the look and feel, or creating a curb parking crisis.

When accessory apartments are banned outright, people often create them anyway. This means that landlords and tenants end up in situations where existing state laws to protect them do not apply, and the units are not licensed and inspected to ensure health and safety.

Accessory apartments can also include basement units. Image by Ted & Dani Percival licensed under Creative Commons.

Prince George’s County is rewriting its zoning code, so what’s the deal with accessory apartments?

If you look around Prince George’s County today, you can already find existing accessory apartments. Basement or attic conversions and separate structures like carriage houses that were created before 1949 are grandfathered in and can be legally rented out.

However, constructing new accessory apartments is mostly illegal throughout the county. Some zoning overlays, such as the Gateway Arts District zone, also allow conversions by permit and accessory structures by right. For the most part, however, unless it already exists you can’t build these in Prince George’s County. This seems particularly illogical since, under current law, it’s legal to have up to three unrelated roommates in a house: why license group houses but not accessory apartments?

Prince George’s County is currently modernizing its zoning code, with comments on the second comprehensive draft being taken through mid-December. Notably, the proposed new draft does not include accessory apartments.

Since one goal of the zoning rewrite is to simplify the code, most overlays are being eliminated. Since the only new accessory apartments you can build now are in these overlays (and accessory apartments are prohibited in all residential base zones) the current proposal would eliminate any possibility of building new accessory apartments in the county. The baby is going out with the bathwater.

Carriage houses can be converted into homes.  Image by Warming Up A Little licensed under Creative Commons.

Fear not, there’s a chance to save accessory apartments in Prince George’s new comprehensive housing plan

Against the backdrop of a zoning code rewrite, Prince George’s County is also working to create a Comprehensive Housing Strategy (CHS). The plan is currently in Phase 1 and focuses on analysis of existing and future conditions along with initial community engagement. The CHS reflects the county’s growing realization that changing economic conditions necessitate taking stock of the housing needs in the county.

Initial findings indicate that Prince George’s may not have enough housing options to accommodate the needs — in terms of range of income levels, preferences, and phases of life — of current and future residents.

Since 2000 the cost of housing has risen in Prince George’s by about 30 percent while household income has remained flat. This is creating a growing affordability crisis, because some residents cannot keep pace with rising housing costs.

Despite this trend, Prince George’s has some of the region’s lowest home values and rents. Adding housing stock in the form of accessory apartments creates value for property owners and affordable options for tenants.

What is more, the the county particularly lacks smaller apartment units and rentals for extremely low income residents. This is a gap that accessory apartments could help to fill.

Right now, the county is asking residents and non-residents who work in the county to participate in the CHS process, which will have multiple phases and fully wrap up in September 2018. As a first step you can take this short survey, but what we really will need is to push planners and officials during this CHS process to make sure that accessory apartments are incorporated and are made legal in more areas.

If you want to get more involved, consider joining a housing focus group (let us know if you do!) You can also sign up here to follow this issue with GGWash more closely.

Sign up for updates!

Top image: Today in Prince George's County you can't build detached accessory homes like the one in the back. Image by lisamenard licensed under Creative Commons.

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