Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Oops, yesterday was International Walk and Bike to School Day

which I usually take as an occasion to write about the issue.

-- International Walk and Bike to School Day

I was reminded because yesterday afternoon I was sent a copy of a Bicycling Magazine article ("Why Johnny Can't Ride") from 2012 about resistance in school systems to supporting biking to school.

Although recently, DC has announced that all second graders will be taught safe biking skills ("All D.C. public school students will learn to ride a bike in second grade," Washington Post).  And the city's transportation department has supported walking and biking to school programs for a number of years, although I don't think that every school participates.

(The "Why Johnny Can't" narrative is a riff on an earlier effort by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to encourage school systems to retain neighborhood schools, which increasingly have been abandoned in favor of much larger school campuses, usually located on the outskirts of cities. See Why Johnny Can't Walk to School: Historic Neighborhood Schools In The Age Of Sprawl.)

The Bicycling story is pretty disheartening, then again, it kind of reminds me of letters to the editor in yesterday's New York Times in response to a recent article on improving school lunches/difficulties of improving school lunches.  The article asserted it was a lost cause, while the letter writers disagreed.  I laughed to myself, because improving the nutritional elements of school lunches was an issue that I worked on a little bit almost 30 years ago.

A program/structured approach is necessary.  The story reiterated for me the necessity of a structured approach to biking as transportation, one aimed at moving social change forward, but at the same time, when leaders are resistant, the quest is much more difficult.

Ironically, adjacent to the city where the school is located, Saratoga Springs, New York, two other communities served by the same school district promote biking to school, have built trails and paths between neighborhoods and schools, etc.

Still, according to the article, few students are riding to school in those other communities despite the presence of infrastructure, which is more evidence of the need to promote biking to school systematically, that infrastructure on its own isn't enough.

The national Safe Routes to School program encourages structural changes, and some federal transportation monies are directed to these programs at the state level.  In turn, state departments of transportation support the program at the local level.

A campaign approach.  Many efforts are done at the school level.  But while these can be quite successful, they aren't necessarily institutionalized and can languish as the children of involved parents graduate from the school, principals change, etc.

One of the best examples of taking a community campaign approach, fostered by a local group, is the Starkville in Motion sustainable mobility advocacy group in Mississippi.  A big focus of the group has been on Safe Routes to School.

Locally, even though the City of Takoma Park, Maryland doesn't have direct input into the countywide school system, it pays for a Safe Routes to School coordinator to work with the public (and private) schools in the community to promote walking and biking to school.

The best way to effect change: changing rules for school systems at the state level.  By and large, the school transportation infrastructure is focused on busing students to school when they live more than one mile from school, and having students walk or bike to school when they live within one mile from school.

Few school districts have systematic programs for sustainable modes--walking and biking--instead they focus on busing kids to school, spending millions of dollars on buses, personnel, and fuel each year.

What I suggested when I worked in Baltimore County was that the State of Maryland's educational regulations needed to be changed with regard to transportation of students in K-12, that the school systems should be required to do "balanced transportation planning," providing programming and other assistance to walking and biking as well as to busing.

That's what's done in the State of Washington.  They don't require school systems to promote walking and biking exactly.

But (1) public and private elementary schools must create safe routes to school maps;

(2) it is recommended that all school districts have committees focused on school transportation safety;

(3) school districts are allowed to use state monies appropriated for "transportation" to be used on infrastructure improvements for walking and biking--before the monies had only been authorized to fund school bus transportation;

(4) the state transportation department funds the Safe Routes to School program and provides a wide variety of resources to school systems on walking and biking

(5) including the comprehensive guide, Walk and Bike Routes: A Guide for Planning and Improving Walk and Bike to School Options for Students, which is one of the best guides available nationally;

(6) Separately the state department of education funds bike and pedestrian education in middle schools.

Boulder Valley School District.  While the State of Colorado doesn't require that school districts do balanced transportation planning, the school district serving Boulder, Colorado--one of the nation's leading biking cities, a community that has been investing in creating walking and biking infrastructure for 40+ years--supports walking and biking to school as the primary way to get to school, with bus transportation secondary.

At a number of the schools half or more of the students get to school via sustainable modes.

-- Alternative Transportation TO (Transportation Options) School program, BVSD

The BVSD is one of the best examples of why a structured approach is best, and suggests that focusing on changing state requirements to change the way school districts address transportation to and from school to include walking and biking is the best way to accelerate change at the school and school district scale.

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Urban bets on Walmart are probably a losing wager

From the Harvard Business Review article "Outsmarting Wal-Mart":
The Wal-Mart threat shrinks into proper perspective when you segment the market along the lines of quality, service, convenience, selection, and price and then look closely at where the retail giant really dominates. Wal-Mart clearly wins on price and, to a lesser degree, selection—but nowhere else. Price isn’t everything. Two-thirds of shoppers find Wal-Mart’s assortments, middling product quality, and limited services not worth the savings. That means, regardless of Wal-Mart’s proximity, there are plenty of customers looking for alternatives.
I wrote a lot about Walmart in 2011 and 2012 when DC went all in on supporting the company's move to put 5-6 stores in the city.

I got involved "in my community" on the issue because it's likely to be one of the only places in the US with two Walmarts within a couple miles of each other, and one is about 3/4 mile away from us and we were worried our street would function as a major through corridor to the store.

-- "Lessons from Walmart's foray into Washington, DC"

(To be fair, it hasn't had much of an effect on us personally, and I suppose when I am really lazy and right next to it, a couple times a year I buy a couple of items from the store.  For various reasons I don't shop at Walmart, but I don't feel a need to impose my choices--at least with regard to Walmart--on others.)

I co-chaired a committee of our Advisory Neighborhood Commission which produced a report (ANC4B Large Tract Review Report on Walmart) aimed to shape how the city and elected officials dealt with the proposal to build a store on Georgia Avenue NW.

Why elected officials were so hot for Walmart is beyond me--well, they see the value in providing low skilled jobs--because Walmart usually results in the business failure of many local retailers ("A paper on Walmart that I wished I'd been aware of back when DC was happily recruiting the company to the city").

Although lack of certain retail options in the city meant that probably there'd be less impact than normal, compared to other places.

Furthermore, it was mostly b.s. that Walmart's entry into the city would address "food desert" issues and the lack of conveniently available supermarkets.  In every area where the company is putting stores, there are nearby existing supermarkets within 1 to 2 miles.

Sadly, the recommendations in the report--focused on making a better project--were ignored, because the Office of Planning and other city agencies weren't ordered to make the project(s) better, they were ordered by the elected officials to make the Walmarts happen (Temper Walmart Glee with Planning," Washington Business Journal.

After I submitted the report, I kicked myself, because it didn't address Walmart's customer service issues.

While the company may offer low prices, the reality is that it comes at a cost--the stores have a limited selection, can be dirty and messy, tend to be under- or out-of-stock on many items, and are understaffed.  Does DC or any other city want to make commitments to a company that is on the decline?

And nationally, unfortunately, pro-urbanists and smart growthers have used the company's foray into the city as a way to claim that national retailers are now pro-city, when that is an overstatement, as many of the stores, including some of Walmart's stores in DC, are single use buildings, not mixed use.

-- "Walmart: in the city vs. of the city"

Frankly, while the Georgia Avenue store--open for almost two years now--isn't dirty, it is quite messy, frequently understocked and out-of-stock, and doesn't have enough staff so lines are long and slow, etc.

Since that store and one other have opened in the city, Walmart has announced wage increases, and various other initiatives, but frankly, the company continues to decline and most retail analysts don't see the company turning around any time soon ("Aldi's on point, Walmart's not: Part 3 of SN's roundtable series," Supermarket News).

That a Walmart is coming to DC's Skyland Center (D.C., Safeway ink Skyland deal. Here's what that means for the Wal-Mart-anchored project,") as was reported yesterday by the Washington Business Journal is hardly cause for celebration, even if that area has been under-stored in terms of apparel and hard goods (furniture, appliances, electronics) since stores like Sears shut down.

Not to mention that the store, which will gross about 55% of its revenue from groceries, is within two miles of both a Safeway store at the Good Hope Marketplace shopping center, and a Giant Supermarket at the Congress Heights Shopping Center.

How much demand is there to support three full-line supermarkets in that area?

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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Newmarket Railway Station, Auckland New Zealand

While looking up something else, I came across this.  The station was rebuilt in 2008-2010, and won an Auckland Architecture Award for 2010. .

It'd be another example of how to make a statement in design of a transit station and would have been another reference for the aesthetic approach to creating the design of the facades for the Silver Spring Transit Station.

First three photos by Patrick Reynolds, for "Newmarket Railway Station Redevelopment, Auckland," E-architect.  The fourth photo is from Wikipedia.

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Transportation bridges as an element of civic architecture, urban design and placemaking

I use the example of the Tempe light rail bridge a bunch as an example of how transportation infrastructure can be an element of civic architecture rather than merely an enabler of conveyance.

In the DC context, spurred on by my involvement in the 11th Street Bridge Park project, I wrote a piece ("Anacostia River and considering the bridges as a unit and as a premier element of public art and civic architecture") suggesting that DC Department of Transportation consider the city's bridges in unison and make aesthetic attractiveness a key element in the design and construction of the city's bridges.

Now that bridge design is the precinct of the local department of transportation, DC doesn't take this kind of approach, which was typical during the time when the federal government ran the city.  By contrast, in cities like San Francisco and New York City high quality bridge design has become a key element of community visual identity and brand--the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Brooklyn Bridge are in fact internationally known landmarks.

Connecticut Avenue BridgeFlickr photo of the Connecticut Avenue Bridge by Jon D.

DC has a mix of bridges in terms of their contribution to civic architecture.  The older bridges constructed to cross city parks and rivers generally were constructed in a time when design mattered.

An example would be the Memorial Bridge between DC and Virginia or bridges crossing Rock Creek Park, especially the Connecticut Avenue Bridge.

The newer highway related bridges are utilitarian, and that includes the newest bridges, such as the 11th Street Bridge or the New York Avenue bridge across the Union Station railyard in Northeast DC.  The latter bridge has a particularly hideous piece of "public art," at least compared to more signature design elements of bridges constructed elsewhere.

Dublin Docklands - Samuel Beckett BridgeDublin Docklands - Samuel Beckett Bridge. Flickr photo by William Murphy.

In terms of modern bridges, many cities are choosing to build new bridges that are visually distinctive, many designed as it happens by Santiago Calatrava.

The lighting company Philips works with communities in creating cost effective but stunning architectural lighting projects on bridges and one of the company's websites features some of these projects, including the Dragon Bridge in Da Nang, Vietnam, which is becoming a key element of the city's identity and a tourist attraction.
Cầu Rồng Đà Nẵng
Dragon Bridge, Da Nang.  Flickr photo by Nghi Nguyen.

Similarly, Philips has produced a great video on the relighting of the Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi, Texas and how this is creating a new focal point and placemaking element within the community.

They have done many many great projects, including in Little Rock, Arkansas and Louisville, Kentucky among others.

But check out the Meydan bridges in Dubai.


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Travel writing as a resource for applied placemaking: Today's Toronto Globe & Mail Life section

As an example of how I say it's important to read travel sections in newspapers and travel magazines as a way to learn about other places as it relates to urban planning and community development, today's Toronto Globe and Mail Life section has four travel stories all relevant to placemaking or transportation.

I avidly read newspaper travel sections for this reason.  The NYT Travel section is particularly good. The Boston Globe has a feature on regional tourism as part of its Travel section.  Sadly, budget cutbacks have shrunk the Washington Post Travel section and it seems as if the regional tourism feature it ran every week is no more, along with fewer articles and more graphics that don't communicate much but cost less to run than an article.  (Maybe the Post could start running AP Travel articles and features to restore the value of the section but at lower cost.)

Discovering George Orwell’s Barcelona

London’s Mondrian hotel offers nautical vibe on banks of the Thames

Vast wetlands, wide open spaces: Explore Japan’s most laid-back island

The first article covers Barcelona, the second the new 606 shared use trail in Chicago, the third an art and nautically themed hotel on the Thames River in London, and the fourth is on "nature" but to get to the island the writer took a Japanese Bullet train.

Although as charlie reminded us a week ago, too much tourism and tourists can overwhelm and reshape communities for the worse.  See the TGM article, "Barcelona reeling from its own popularity as top travel destination."

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October is National Community Planning Month: APA Great Places designations for 2015

The American Planning Association, the association of planning professionals and stakeholders, designates October as National Community Planning Month.

While we can think of "community planning" as overall planning for a village, town, city, or county, typically "community planning" refers more to planning at the sub-city level, of "districts," "sectors" and neighborhoods.

In 2007, the APA initiated the Great Places in America program as a way to call attention to those elements that characterize "great communities."

Each year communities are designated as great places in three different categories:

-- Master list of honorees, 2007 - 2015

Gastrofest in Hemming Park is a food festival that brings people into this recently renovated public space on Laura Street. Photo Ennis Davis, AICP, City of Jacksonville.

These are the kinds of places that serve as examples of the kinds of places we might like to have in and can work to create in our own communities.  They are also places that we should consider visiting while we travel.

The places selected represent communities of various sizes, which is an important reiteration of something that I've always believed: that you can learn from any community, regardless of its size or the size of your community.

For example, I found when I was involved in the Main Street commercial district revitalization program that people from center cities tended to believe that they didn't have much to learn from smaller cities.  

Since in the "center city" in fact we are working at the sub-city level at the scale of a neighborhood or commercial district, the reality is that a "small town" may be as big or bigger than our center city revitalization effort.

Similarly, even sprawling places like Phoenix have examples of superior urbanism and community planning that we can learn from too, as the designation of the Roosevelt Row Arts District in Phoenix proves (I know, it happens I visited it once during its monthly art walk event...).

Each listing for this year's honorees has a short case study covering those qualities that makes them special:

Great Neighborhoods

Phoenix, Arizona
Miami, Florida
Kansas City, Missouri
Plano, Texas

Great Streets

Los Angeles, California
Jacksonville, Florida
Asheville, North Carolina
Dayton, Ohio
McMinnville, Oregon

Great Places

San Diego, California
Boulder, Colorado
Chicago, Illinois
Flint, Michigan
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Houston, Texas

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Brief follow up on the Silver Spring Transit Center

It's already a very long piece ("Multiple missed opportunities in the creation of the Silver Spring Transit Center") but the comment thread etc. makes me realize I missed a couple things.  And note that I did write about some of these issues 8 years ago ("[Bus] Transit Centers"). In that piece I wrote:
I don't think there's a good example in the DC region of a bus-oriented transit center that is both attractive and capable of accommodating a large amount of bus service. Most of the centers I am familiar with are attached to subway stations.

And judging by the renderings, the coming Silver Spring Transit Center looks to be a behemoth with no comparison to the grand (train) stations of old, despite the comparable size.
This addendum is organized in order of increasing importance.

1.  Biking.  GGW mentions as did I, that a bike station is planned for a site adjacent to the SSTC.

While I think having a bike repair place etc. in the core of the business district is important, and there needs to be secure bike parking at the Metro station as a matter of course, these days I am less enamored with "bike stations" compared to what I thought 5-7 years ago, as discussed in "Ideas for making bicycling irresistible in Washington DC" from 2008 and the bike plan I did for Baltimore County in 2010. In my definition, bike stations have lockers and showers and usually offer repair services + secure bike parking.

It would be very interesting to do some research on the people who are using such stations in DC, Chicago, Long Beach, Indianapolis, and elsewhere, to get a better sense on the nature of the demand.

I think that cyclists prefer to park their bikes and shower at their final destination (work, school, etc.) rather than shower and park potentially a considerable distance away.  That fact limits the utility of these stations, especially when they aren't located within central business districts as much as they are adjacent.

Note that a secure bike parking facility, such as those at the College Park and Wiehle Avenue Metrorail stations is not a bike station, but a form of secure parking.

In terms of defining bike facilities at a transit station in terms of what we might call levels of service, I see at least seven levels: bike parking and posted bikeways map signage; repair stands and air pumps; secure bike parking; bike equipment vending machine; on-site repair; showers and lockers; and bike sharing systems and rentals.   The first three should be basic components for every major transit station.

TTC Deputy CEO and Chief Customer Officer Chris Upfold and TTC Chair Josh Colle try out new bike repair stand, Davisville station, TTC, TorontoTTC Deputy CEO and Chief Customer Officer Chris Upfold and TTC Chair Josh Colle try out new bike repair stand, Davisville station,  Photo: Stefan Novakovic, UrbanToronto.

The Toronto Star reports ("TTC offers bike repairs on the go") that in the past couple weeks, the TTC in Toronto started installing repair stands and air pumps at 10 stations, with plans to have such facilities at all the stations eventually.

2.  Placemaking.  I didn't discuss the "placemaking element" as it relates to the SSTC enough although I did reference the public realm framework concept and cited the post "The layering effect" which happens to discuss the topic at length, using as it happens, Silver Spring as the primary example.

I should have referenced the past entry, Transit, stations, and placemaking: stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods." but that was somewhat deliberate because that piece discusses transit stations as neighborhood gateways, therefore a smaller scale than the Silver Spring Transit Center, which is a station at a different position on the station hierarchy, serving a large district/conurbation.

Port Authority Bus Terminal Flyer - Inside Spread
Modern service elements common to major bus terminals.  Flyer for the new Port Authority Bus Terminal, New York City.  Circa 1950.  You could think of these items as "placemaking elements" within a transit station.

3.  Inter city bus terminals as a building type to reference for transit station design.  The discussion in the comment thread on the SSTC post made me realize that because of the place that the Silver Spring Transit Center occupies in the hierarchy of transit stations in the area, region, and state, combining a Metrorail station with a higher quality bus station, even though that building type was developed to serve a different kind of user and trip, the inter-city bus terminal, usually serving longer distance trips, is another transit station type that should have been referenced in considering how to design the station inside and out.

The example stations that were mentioned, in Lancaster, PA and Rochester, NY, do reference that type, but I neglected to call that out.

Greyhound was known for its use of the streamline modern art deco architectural style for its stations, which was a dominant style during the period when the bus line was expanding rapidly across the nation.

Inter city bus terminals that would have been a good reference source in considering a design for the SSTC, in historic or modern styles include:

Greyhound Cleveland Bus Station (1948).  Wikipedia photo.
Greyhound Cleveland Bus Station

Victoria Coach Station, London (1932).  Brochure circa 1935.  The station is still in use and run by Transport for London, the regional transit agency.
"Comfort & pleasure by coach" - leaflet issued by London Coastal Coaches (Victoria Coach station) c1935

Preston, England Bus Station (1969).  Flickr photo by Robert Wade.  The station is a historic landmark and is slated to be converted into a youth center.

Preston Bus Station Lancashire

ZOB Hamburg Central Bus Port, Germany (2009).  Photo from ZOB.  Second photo from CITA. This station is located within a block or two of the main train station and has a subway station across the street.
Hamburg Bus Port, ZOB

Hamburg Bus Port ZOB

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Monday, October 05, 2015

Chicago Tribune investigation on state tax incentive deals with corporations

The Chicago Tribune is known for important and pathbreaking investigative reporting projects on local and state issues (demolition of historic properties, aldermanic involvement in property development approvals, red light cameras).

They have just completed and published an investigation ("Illinois businesses get lucrative EDGE tax breaks, fall short of job goals") of the $1 billion worth of the tax incentive deals made since the 1999 commencement of the Illinois EDGE fund. From the article:
In the first comprehensive analysis of 783 EDGE agreements, the Chicago Tribune found that two of every three businesses that completed the incentive program failed to maintain the number of employees they agreed to retain or hire.

State officials can't say how many jobs have been created through the job program; nor can they say how many jobs EDGE companies have eliminated. The Tribune, however, found that 79 current or former EDGE recipients have reported eliminating 23,369 jobs through layoffs and closures since entering the program. ...

the Tribune's analysis suggests that tax credits often do little to help companies expand or create sustainable jobs. A pattern of deals emerges in which businesses lobbied for maximum rewards and minimum requirements — and the state said yes.
It's pretty damning. Many of the agreements don't require an increase in the workforce, merely maintaining existing numbers, and each business site is treated independently for calculation purposes, so that a corporation could overall reduce employment while still receiving incentives.

Separately, Crain's Chicago Business has an op-ed ("State subsidies are wasted on ConAgra") criticizing the recent agreement to provide tax incentives to ConAgra to move its headquarters to Chicago from Omaha ("Experts say ConAgra's move to Chicago is about tapping young, hip talent pool," Omaha World-Herald; "ConAgra to Cut 1,500 Jobs, Move Headquarters to Chicago," Wall Street Journal).

The piece makes the point that many corporations, including large corporations like Boeing, have moved to the city without incentives.  From the article:
Chicago no longer needs to bribe companies to come here. Our bona fides as a corporate headquarters were confirmed when Boeing came from Seattle in 2001. Waves of headquarters have followed, drawn by Chicago's global transportation connections, talented workforce, world-class universities and rich cultural amenities. ADM, Motorola Solutions, ThyssenKrupp and Mead Johnson decided to move here without a dime of taxpayer money.

“We've learned not to run where the incentives are or where there is the lowest tax rate,” ThyssenKrupp North America CEO Torsten Gessner said when Chicago beat 20 rivals for the German manufacturer's North American headquarters. “We need the overall picture."
While I am not against tax incentive programs and funding to stoke needed developments and projects, it's vital that a strong lens/framework be developed and employed for the evaluation of potential deals, and for ensuring the deals bring significant economic and other returns to the government authorities providing the incentives.

Tax incentive financing districts can be problematic too because typically, special funding districts such as schools and parks also lose funding as part of the deal and over time, significant revenues are lost.  All the more reason to ensure that a careful consideration is made.

Then there are the deals for sports teams and stadiums and arenas and film and television incentive programs.

I was impressed by an article ("'Nashville' gets $10M incentive deal to film locally") in the Nashville Tennessean on the Nashville tv show, which distinguished between "local employment effects" vs. the payroll for the shows regular cast, and the impact on local tourism.

I recently discussed ("A new requirement for local governments to disclose tax abatements a step forward, but weak and minimal") the new Government Accountability Standards Board rule for disclosing tax incentive deals.  But the rule is very gross, and won't provide the kind of detailed information, business by business, deal by deal, compiled by the Chicago Tribune in their investigation.  The CT was forced to create its own data set using multiple sources in order to compile a master list and an accounting of each deal.

The CT investigation demonstrates the need for a much stronger GASB rule on compilation and disclosure of tax incentive deals by local governments on an annual and running basis.

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Multiple missed opportunities in the creation of the Silver Spring Transit Center

Silver Spring Transit Center
Pictured above, the Paul S. Sarbanes Silver Spring Transit Center is a bus (+ taxi and a bit of bike accommodation) station built next to the Silver Spring Metrorail and MARC train station in Montgomery County, Maryland.

The SSTC opened on September 20th (many years behind schedule, because of various problems with the design and construction of the structure).  The station was built by Montgomery County for operation by WMATA.

Creating a major bus station of this scale is a step forward in the definition of nodes and the service footprint of the metropolitan transit system.  Generally, transit stations help to grow ridership by providing more amenities and better service.

The Silver Spring Metrorail station is the terminus for two of DC's bus lines including the 16th Street S line, which is the highest ridership route in the Metrobus system, and for some of the highest ridership Metrobus lines within Montgomery County, and is a major hub for the Montgomery County RideOn bus system, which is one of the nation's most successful suburban bus system.

Station map, Silver Spring Transit CenterThe station is a bus station, complementing the Metrorail station next door. To enter the SSTC, subway riders have to exit the Metrorail station on the ground floor.

The three-floor station dedicates the first two floors to bus service--Metrobus, Montgomery County RideOn, and the University of Maryland Shuttle bus service.  The third floor provides some dedicated parking for the disabled and Enterprise Car Share, a taxi stand, and bike parking.

The second floor of the station includes the TRIPS transit information center and public restrooms that don't require asking a station manager for permission to enter.  This floor has a direct connection to the MARC platform.

The station has been organized as a set of bus bays with coordinated wayfinding signage throughout the station, using the design conventions for the Metrorail signage system. Each bay has a digital screen presenting bus arrival and departure information.

Inter city bus station, Fenton Street, Silver SpringThe original plan included moving the inter-city bus services currently located on Fenton Avenue (pictured at right) to the station, although that has not yet occurred.

A bike station was never part of the design of the facility but such a facility is anticipated to be developed nearby.

Connections to the future Purple Line light rail and the Metropolitan Branch Trail will be integrated into the station complex as those projects are completed.

Unfortunately, the building's delivery was many years behind schedule because of problems with the facility's design and construction ("Cost of Silver Spring Transit Center repairs jumps another $21 million" and "Montgomery, Metro sue 3 firms over troubled Silver Spring Transit Center," Washington Post) and this has impacted people's confidence in the ability of government and collective action to execute major construction projects.

(Although by contrast the new Silver Spring Library was successfully completed on deadline, also by the County, with few problems.)

Missed opportunities.  Regardless of the problems related to the station's construction, I am more disappointed in what the design of the Silver Spring Transit Center hasn't accomplished in terms of the opportunities that were presented by the project to:
  • further the success of Downtown Silver Spring; 
  • generate revenue for the transit system; 
  • improve the quality of the passenger experience;
  • make it easier to link modes with the aim of improving the effectiveness of transit use by created a sustainable mobility system.
The station design is banal

DC's Union Station is a big deal architecturally, but it is one of the area's most significant elements of transportation infrastructure as a major portal into the region (along with two airports, and small extant suburban train stations), and alongside the Metrorail system, the freeway system and the network of major arterials.

Public Realm as an Interconnected system, Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David BarthConcept of the Public Realm as an Interconnected System by David Barth.

From a design standpoint, SSTC should have been conceived as a significant civic asset at at least four scales, as a transit portal significant within the DC regional transit network and the network of significant transit stations in Maryland; as a prominent element of Montgomery County's public realm framework and portfolio of civic assets; and as an anchor of the Silver Spring downtown.

The SSTC was conceptualized as a way to spur investment in Silver Spring at a time when the district languished compared to other activity centers in the Washington metropolitan area, and lagged "west county" too, compared to the Rockville Pike-I-270 corridor, at a time when other proposals to stoke improvement in Silver Spring failed to gain traction.

Unfortunately, it was decided that size and placement of the station were more important than the attractiveness of its architecture, despite the significance and multiple roles of the station as a transit station, civic asset, and anchor for the business district.

Anaheim's transit center is outfitted with LED lights and a night-time architectural lighting program.  Flickr photo by Roving Vagabond.

The SSTC was designed to be a drab concrete parking structure for buses, only distinctive in its ordinariness, size and location.

That is the case even though the facility is now a major node in the regional transportation system, second only to Union Station as a station in the area's public transit network, and within Maryland as one of the state's most important transit stations, alongside Penn Station in Baltimore and the BWI Rail Station and transit center serving the Baltimore airport.

However, it must be acknowledged that by hiding the surface bus station behind concrete walls, the visual blight that was once present--the site was the Metrorail station's bus facility--has been eliminated.

Yet, this is a only a marginal improvement in the visual qualities of the site, because while the extent of the visual blight has been reduced, the parking structure-like transit station is a different form of unattractiveness.

Fortunately, more recent Silver Spring projects including the Downtown Silver Spring retail venture on Ellsworth Avenue and the Whole Foods strip shopping center on Fenton Street, along with significant public buildings, the Silver Spring Civic Building fronted by a well-used plaza and winter-time ice rink ("The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example") and the new Silver Spring Library, and cultural facilities including relocation of the AFI Film Theater to a renovated Silver Theatre, other playhouses, and the privately managed Fillmore concert hall--have been wildly successful, making Silver Spring a leading destination in Suburban Maryland and for DC residents living in Upper Northwest.

Examples of what could have been achieved with the SSTC

By default, the Metrorail station is the new center of Silver Spring, complemented by the retail and entertainment district that lies a few minute walk away from the station.  As discussed, the architectural, design, and aesthetic opportunities present with the station went unrealized.

By contrast, for about 20% more in cost, the recently opened Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC) is far more distinctive with a much greater visual and branding impact than the SSTC--and visual and branding impact were originally significant outcomes expected from the creation of the SSTC.  ARTIC is an example of using new materials and treatments to update the idea of a "train station" for the 21st Century.

Anaheim is not Los Angeles, but as the home to Disneyland and professional baseball and hockey teams, it is a major city in the metropolitan area, and the city's elected officials deemed the station worthy of the extra expense in creating a civic asset worthy of the city's prominence.

OTOH, compared to the SSTC+Metrorail+MARC, the station in Anaheim will experience far fewer riders on a daily basis.  See "Meet ARTIC, Anaheim's $188 Million Station to Nowhere," Orange County Weekly.

Queen Street Transit Station, Lancaster.  A liner building and structure hides the bus yard from the street and maintains the integrity of the streetwall.

Other recent examples of new bus-focused transit centers across the country show another way that transit stations are being designed, as a context sensitive insertion into the Downtown building stock.

For example stations in Lancaster, PA and Rochester, NY ("Touring Rochester's shiny new transit center," Rochester Democrat & Chronicle), serving smaller transit systems compared to the SSTC, have facade treatments that are designed to appear more like a portal transit station with a sense of civic authoritativeness, fitting in seamlessly into the Downtown fabric.

The back side of the Queen Street Transit Station.  The building has the ticket office and heated waiting area, and restrooms. Signage in and around the station presents local transportation history.

Parking structures can be beautiful

Given that the SSTC looks and functions like a parking garage, it's fair to compare it to other examples of that type.  While rare, attractive parking garages do exist.

Comparable to the Queen Street transit station in Lancaster, there are dozens of examples where the exterior facade mimics functional buildings, to maintain the integrity of the streetwall.  A parking structure in Staunton, Virginia is well known for such a treatment.

Given Silver Spring's art deco architectural heritage, it would have been interesting to look to examples of art deco parking structures as a source of design cues for the transit station.

5500 South Lake Park Avenue: Ritz-55th Garage, now Deco Arts BuildingOne example of an art deco parking garage at the neighborhood scale is in Chicago, a building originally constructed for a Chevrolet dealership.
On the ground floor, the dealership and 8 other storefronts lined the structure with entry and exit ramps behind, and space for 400 cars on two floors above.

Flickr photo of the Ritz-55th Street parking garage by David Schalliol. 

But Silver Spring deserves more of an office district treatment were such a design to have been employed for the SSTC.   Although the buildings are no longer extant (see James Goode's Capital Losses), DC had some good examples of well-designed parking structures that were designed to complement the existing building stock Downtown.

One example is the Capital Garage, pictured in a cartoon drawn by Patrick Reynolds from his comic strip about Washington-area history, as published in the Sunday edition of the Washington Post.

Such a treatment for the SSTC would have been beneficial by reiterating the importance of the district's historical architecture as an element of Silver Spring's identity.

However, reaching back to historical architectural styles isn't the only way to design distinctive parking structures.

Some parking structures fit in by standing out and that could have been the direction taken in designing the single use bus station that is the Silver Spring Transit Center.

Car Park 3 at the Chesapeake Energy Corporation campus in Oklahoma City was designed by Rand Elliott & Associates Architects to be an attractive node in the city's transportation infrastructure in city where the car dominates.
Car-Park-3, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, Oklahoma City, by Rand Elliott and Associates, architects
Each floor of Car Park 3 is marked by a different color, produced via specially colored and engineered polycarbonate panels manufactured by Duo-Gard Inc.  Photo: Scott McDonald/Hedrich Blessing Photography.

Santa Monica Civic Center parking garage

Flickr photo of the Santa Monica Civic Center parking garage at night by Andrew Boscardin.

The Santa Monica's Civic Center Parking Structure, designed by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects, is attractive day and night, and demonstrates that a community doesn't have to accept that parking structures must be built to be dull and boring, merely because parking is a secondary function of automobility. The architects write about the project:
In order to establish a strong presence within the city’s cluster of civic buildings, this structure was conceived as much more than a traditional parking garage—rather, a functionally dynamic celebration of civic life. The 300,000 sf parking structure effectively provides not only 882 parking spaces (accommodated in six levels above grade and two below grade) but also a wide variety of amenities to the community. Serving as an easily identifiable marker for the entire civic center, the building affords spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the city from the upper levels, while a café on the main plaza terrace animates the pedestrian traffic flow.
Santa Monica Civic Center Parking Structure
Santa Monica Civic Center Parking Structure in daytime.  Photo: Moore Rudle Yudell Architects.

With vision and a sense of the value of civic architecture in terms of Montgomery County's public realm and as an element of the transit infrastructure, the dull result achieved by the Silver Spring Transit Center could have been avoided, had the structure been designed to be a distinctive anchoring element of Silver Spring's core and built environment.

Wasting the opportunity to build above the station--why wasn't a mixed use program developed for the site?

The design of the building is one thing, the opportunity costs present within the project is something else entirely.

Judging by the height of office buildings in the vicinity of the Silver Spring Transit Center, a building of significant height could have been constructed above the station.
Third floor of the Silver Spring Transit Center with buildings in the distance
This would have produced--depending on the final design--a building that could have been much more significant architecturally, visually, and financially.

Suburban Station-One Penn Center, Center City Philadelphia.  Wikipedia photo.

One station that should have been used as a model for conceptualizing and designing the SSTC as a station and office building is the Suburban Station in Philadelphia, which happens to be in the art deco style.

Built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1930s, the station is called Suburban Station to distinguish its service footprint of local commuter lines from the 30th Street Station, which service to regional and national destinations.

Today, the station section of the building is owned by the local transit authority and includes retail spaces, while the 20-story office building, titled One Penn Center, is under separate ownership and management.

While attempts to build office as part of the new transit center in Rochester, NY failed because of the weakness of the commercial real estate market there, the Silver Spring real estate market is stronger comparatively, and a signature building, at the right price, located immediately adjacent to a Metrorail station, likely would have been quite successful.

Instead, Silver Spring's position as a location for commercial office has continued to decline vis-a-vis other employment centers, even though its position as a retail and residential center continues to strengthen.

Massive failure to realize opportunities presented by the Silver Spring Transit Center to generate ancillary income for the transit system

In most places, transit systems don't own their major stations, so they don't benefit from the revenue potential that high use stations offer.  One exception is Grand Central Station, which is owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the MTA has therefore developed a sophisticated real estate management function and rigorously manages and constantly improves the retail offer there. Similarly, the Denver Train Station is owned by the local transit authority, and after a recent renovation and expansion, has a top notch array of retail and restaurant offerings.

(DC's Union Station is owned by a public authority, but not by either Amtrak or WMATA, so revenues don't pass through to those transit agencies.)

Given that the Silver Spring Transit Station was created on publicly controlled land and designed from the ground up, there were no limitations on taking advantage of opportunities to develop significant and additional revenue streams for the transit system.  Revenue streams could have included (1) rentable office (or residential) space; (2) cafes and other retail; and (3) digital advertising.

No building above--either office or residential or both.  The biggest failure was to let the air rights of the building go unrealized.  The failure to create a mixed use building instead of settling for a single use staging garage for buses represents hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue.

Millions of dollars of annual rental income could have been generated from an office building on the site and could have led to a shift in how WMATA considers revenue maximization from transit station development.

No liner building means no retail.  Irrespective of the decision to not to develop above the station, there was a failure to develop "around" or in front of the station. A liner building around the bus structure could have included cafes and other retail.  By being constructed in front of building openings on the first and second floors would have been covered, providing more protection inside the structure from weather effects.

Bus bay transit information sign, Silver Spring Transit Station
No (digital) advertising.  At the same time, while the SSTC shows an advance in the presentation of transit information with bus bay specific schedule information in attractive displays (compared to the hideous "ticker tape" displays installed in DC bus shelters), a digital advertising network could have been developed as part of the deployment of the screen system, and it wasn't.

The digital screens displaying transit information at each bus bay were developed by Redmon Group.

Other opportunities to deploy digital information and advertising programs could have been created elsewhere in the SSTC and the abutting Metrorail station (and eventually throughout the Metrorail station network).

Digital screen displaying news and ads in the Hamburg U-Bahn
Large digital screens display news and ads in many of the stations in the Hamburg U-Bahn.  

The experience for riders and the integration of sustainable transportation modes while improved could have been a lot better

After Union Station, the Silver Spring Transit Center is now the second most prominent dedicated station structure in the Metrorail network, and is the most prominent station structure within the Metrobus network.

Steps forward in rider services and station amenities.  The station does have restrooms and has incorporated the TRIPS transit information center that had been a couple blocks away from the Metro station.  This area will share a heated lobby with a counter for inter-city bus service, although there is no seating area.

Plantings in some areas of the station are a quantum leap beyond the minimal landscape treatments elsewhere in the Metrorail system, although the area between the SSTC and the sidewalks along Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue is grass only currently.

An attractive plaza-like design treatment was created between the Metrorail exit and the SSTC entrance and is much nicer than the typical Metrorail entrance.

Compared to bus shelters on the street or on the grounds of a regular transit station, a majority of the bus bays are under ceilings, reducing rain, sun, and snow effects.

The digital information displays at each bus bay are a big improvement in the presentation of arrival and departure information at bus stops.

But while these are visible improvements which all should applaud, much more could have been done.

Bus line arrival information display in a DC bus shelter.

(1) Limited protection against the weather. Parts of the structure, including the third floor, are fully open to the elements, because the building's "window" openings are uncovered, which means that most riders won't be fully protected from wind, rain, sun, and snow while waiting in the station.

Besides improving the attractiveness of the building, incorporating polycarbonate treatments comparable to those used at Car Park 3 at the Chesapeake Energy campus ("CAR PARK THREE & FOUR AT CHESAPEAKE," Architect's Newspaper) would have better protected patrons from weather.

Only  one bench at each bus bay at the Silver Spring Transit Center(2) Minimal seating.  There is just one sitting bench at each bus bay, providing 3 to 4 seats depending on how close people are willing to sit to each other.

Many more benches could have been installed along the walls of the bus bays. (Or in an example of creativity and public art, seats and benches could have been built into the walls by specially forming and shaping the concrete.)

(3) Failures in the wayfinding system.  While conforming to the Metrorail system's design framework for station signage, the bus bay signs are extremely muted and could have been designed differently to incorporate a significant pop of color.  Bus stop signs on the street are much more visually distinctive.

While there are bus maps at each bus bay for its routes, even though it's a bus station, maps of the complete bus system aren't displayed in the SSTC, even though the comprehensive bus system maps for the Silver Spring area are displayed in the Metrorail station.  But, bus maps and route schedule brochures are available in the transit information center on the second floor, and signage and a brochure specifically for the SSTC have been created.

Occasional MARC riders aren't given enough signage assistance to know which platform--east or west of the tracks--they should be on in order to catch the right train.  I talked with one person who had been on the wrong platform and therefore had to wait two hours for the next train to Brunswick. MARC rail maps could also be posted to better effect.

(4) No cafes or retail on the station grounds.  Even though Metrorail, Metrobus, and RideOn forbid eating and drinking on the subway and bus, adding cafes, a small food market-cafe, and other service retail would enliven the transit station and better serve riders.  (That being said, there are a number of quick service restaurants and a Giant Supermarket within a one to two block radius.)

However, nothing prevents a liner building from being constructed to wrap around the station along the Colesville Road and Wayne Avenue elevations of the building.

To add such functions sooner, kiosks and temporary buildings could be located on the site in the interim, while longer term options are considered.

The photo at right shows a cafe (with a splash fountain) fronting the green and cinema building in the Mosaic District in the Merrifield area of Fairfax County.  The SSTC grounds don't need a splash park, but could be considerably enlivened.

(5) The taxi stand is not located adjacent to the stairwells and escalators providing access to the third floor, but is positioned across the lot.

People have to walk across moving traffic--or the long way around on the sidewalk--to get to a taxi.  This is a safety issue too as people are likely to walk across the parking lot, amidst traffic, because it is the shortest route.

(6) Car sharing access is limited to Enterprise Car Share.  In keeping with WMATA's exclusive contract with Enterprise Car Share, only Enterprise Car Share vehicles are parked and available on the structure's top floor.

I'd argue that the SSTC, befitting its position as a major transit portal, should have been conceptualized as the one exception to the exclusive contract, with space made available--at a price--to all car sharing services wanting to be represented there, given the station's place as a key inter-modal node in the regional transportation network.

Going forward, nodes/portal stations in the metropolitan transit network be configured contractually to provide access to all car sharing firms that want to be present, for the same reason.

Electric air pump produced by Bike Fixtation for NYC.

(7) Bike accommodations are mostly an afterthought.  Racks are present on the top level (and between the bus and rail stations on the ground floor) but are uncovered.  Secure bike lockers are also made available, but a secure parking area comparable to recently constructed bicycle parking facilities at Metrorail stations in College Park or on the Silver Line wasn't constructed.

The racks on the third floor are placed in an area with minimal foot traffic, which creates security issues.  (The racks on the ground level are more secure because of their high visibility location.)

Bike racks, third level, Silver Spring Transit CenterBefitting the station's new position as a major node in the transit network, it is unfortunate that premier bike service facilities, in particular air pumps and bike repair stands, were not installed as part of the project, which could have been done for an insignificant amount of money in the context of the $150 million cost of the station.

Such amenities should have been installed adjacent to both sets of racks at-grade and on the third floor.   (Note that the pump shown above is more expensive than the standard but high grade hydraulic pump.)

A bike share station has been installed some distance away from the Metrorail and bus stations on Ramsey Street, the road serving the third floor of the transit station.  It is not particularly convenient, but is close by.

This map sign showing the Silver Spring and DC bike maps is posted at the self-service bike station at The Blairs apartment-retail complex in Silver Spring.  Similar kinds of maps should be posted in Metrorail and other inter-modal transit stations throughout the metropolitan area.

No bike network maps are posted in the bus (or rail) station nor in the areas where the bike racks have been installed.

However, area bike maps and a special Silver Spring bikeways map and brochure are available at the transit information center, which is a welcome step forward.

(8) Inter-city bus services have not yet been moved to the SSTC and too few bays--only one--have been allocated to these services.   More direct interconnection of this mode with Metrorail and more buslines would better serve transit users.

Service drive at the top level, Silver Spring Transit StationTo accommodate likely demand for inter-city bus service and overlays, Ramsey Street (pictured at left) which functions as a service drive adjacent to the station complex, could be used for staging inter-city bus service, although it would be nice to construct some more waiting facilities for riders.

WMATA and its transit screen information display contractor should work with the intercity bus services so that departure information can be displayed on screen displays at bus bays.  (This is a failing of the intercity bus set up at Union Station as well.)

(9) No car rental services have been incorporated into the station. If a fourth floor had been constructed, preferably beneath the at-grade first floor, rental car services (and more car sharing spaces) could have been located in the station also.

Demand likely would have been much lower than at Union Station, which features multiple rental car counters, but the option should have been considered as part of the design of a fully intermodal station complex.

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