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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Demanding excellence in public projects is too rare a phenomenon: #1 the subway station at Dulles Airport

1. The subway station at Dulles Airport.

A couple weeks ago, Robert McCartney, the Metro columnist for the Washington Post, was a keynote speaker at the Washington area Urban Land Institute conference. Basically, he argued for equity in smart growth development.

But I blurted out, loudly, after his talk something to the nature of "you're saying that the area should step up and do great and important things, yet the editorial page of the Washington Post constantly advocates for the mediocre, such as its opposition to doing an underground subway station at Dulles Airport."

He went on to say that the editorial page does its own thing.

I have been meaning to write about this issue, whether or not to do an underground subway station at Dulles Airport, and the negative response by politicians and the press to this choice, because yes, it is more costly than the alternative.

I think that the biggest lesson from the development of transit systems in the 1970s and 1980s around the country is that if you satisfice on routing, station placement, and whether or not the stations are integrated into activity centers, you seriously compromise the likelihood of success for the system.

But we don't have to look at the failures in other systems (although it is helpful), because we have at least five examples of this lesson just with our own subway system, WMATA, in the DC region:

1. At the core of the city, 29 stations serve about a 15 square mile area, with stations serving the central business district and downtown, and the most successful stations are integrated into activity centers-neighborhoods, virtually all of the neighborhoods served by these stations are well on their way to revitalization success.

2. Arlington County got the alignment of the Orange Line changed from the I-66 median, to Wilson Boulevard, and four stations on Wilson Blvd., along with the Rosslyn Station, have augured billions of dollars of redevelopment.

3. Montgomery County has fewer subway stations than Prince George's County, but many of the stations have been placed to serve extant commercial-residential centers (Friendship Heights, Bethesda, White Flint, Rockville, Takoma [arguably], Silver Spring, and Wheaton) and even if the areas are in the midst of revitalization, and it's a long way to the end, the fact is that because the stations are located in communities, the communities have the ability to revitalize.

4. By way of comparison to Arlington County, Montgomery County, and DC, with the exception of the Prince George's Plaza station, PG County subway stations are not situated in extant places (it's a long story about the PG Plaza station which I won't go into here), and it shouldn't be a surprise that the subway stations have had minimal positive impact on land use, property values, and transit oriented development.

5. Not to mention those of us who remember using the subway to get to National Airport when it was a major pain in the a** to get to and from the airport by subway, before the station entrances were reconfigured and a new terminal, which opened in 1997, was built to better leverage proximity to the subway.

Now it's a relative dream to use the subway to get to and from the airport. But I don't know how much the new terminal cost, and how much of this cost we should ascribe to the original poor placement of the subway station.

All of these lessons, not to mention the relative failure of the subway and light rail in Baltimore, which satisfice on routing, station placement, and integration of stations into activity centers, seriously compromising the ability to create network effects and advantages from transit, ought to make every politician and appointed official in the Washington region focused on building a great transit system.

The fact is that most of the people appear to be narrow minded, not recognizing that these are infrastructure investments of major proportions, that will last decades, and that if you do it wrong from the outset, either it will be wrong forever, or it will be more costly to correct the error in the future, when because of the ongoing operational failures deriving from the compromises, new infrastructure will be built.


1. Yes, I think that serving this area by railroad rather than subway (heavy rail) makes more sense.

2. Maybe the John Cambron proposal for a split-level Metro station at Dulles makes more sense than the fully underground station as it allows for cost savings without seriously compromising the efficiency of the transit link. See "A split-level Dulles Metro stop would be best" from GGW.

Still, I think it is ironic that the National Endowment of the Arts is holding a conference in Chicago starting tomorrow, "Celebrating 25 Years of City Design: Mayors to Identify Challenges, Opportunities and Funding Sources Through Summit on Smart City Design, Honor Design Legacy of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley," focused on high quality urban design and placemaking in cities.

- Case studies, Mayors' Institute on City Design
- Mayors' Institute on City Design

Sure, Dulles isn't a city, it's an airport, but the transit system here, and at the places where people are introduced to the city, such as at National and Dulles Airports, communicates to the region and to the world how we value transit, how we value ourselves, and how we value visitors.

This by the way is something that Tyler Brule of Monocle Magazine writes about all the time, especially in his weekly column in the Financial Times, where he has been very negative about Dulles Airport. Now while this is mostly about the experience of going through customs and immigration, it does not speak well of the experience. From "Let’s play ‘Guess where I am?’":

I’ve just come off an airliner and it’s absolute pandemonium. There are gate agents screaming for transfer passengers, there are sniffer dogs, there are loads of immigration officers and there’s a general sense of disorganisation. My fellow passengers look bewildered and flustered after their eight-hour, 45-minute flight from Frankfurt, and there’s a lot of huffing and puffing as we’re divided up into groups of arriving passengers and “connectors”. ...

[description of 1,000 people waiting to go through ICE at shift change, when many people leave their posts, with the result that even fewer agents are there to work with the passengers.]

As I approach the desk, I feel like giving the young gentleman a lecture about how bad this whole performance is for Brand USA – particularly on top of a whole week of television reports about the new fee that visitors will have to pay to get a visa and how these funds will be used to create a campaign to encourage more tourism to the US. I want to ask him if he (and his bosses not far away in the District of Columbia) think a 90-minute wait in a dumpy airport is any way to welcome the world and if his department is really that interested in having people visit the US.

Combine this experience, plus the then less than sterling experience of getting to the city from the airport, by transit or other forms of ground transportation, and then think about what this says not only for BrandAmerica, but BrandDC, and is it any reason that the number of international visitors to the US is falling?

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