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, August 16, 2011

"Nimbyism" on commercial corridors in DC and Prince George's County (+ Fort Meade)

In 2005, at the Preservation Maryland conference, I went on a walking tour of Annapolis, and we went past a big mixed use project--office, housing, hotel, some retail--under development on West Street, and the tour guide discussed the public opposition to the project.

It made me appreciate better the difference between putting up development in places in DC, where, at least at sites with robust transit service, the impact on the generation of car traffic is much reduced.

But in a place like Annapolis, virtually every trip generated by a new development is going to be made by a car, and therefore the impact is much different, more negative, and "nimbyism" isn't merely reflexive, a reaction against any sort of change at all, but maybe is a reasonable response, depending on the state of the transportation infrastructure, in particular the road network, to accommodate the changes.

Now, you read crazy s*** in newspapers like the Examiner, "BRAC road Band-Aids needed now," which blames Montgomery County for not widening Wisconsin Avenue/State Road 355 to accommodate new trips to the expanded and consolidated Walter Reed Military Hospital in Bethesda (formerly the Bethesda Naval Hospital), when anyone with sense knows that the ability to widen that road is extremely limited, and to do so requires a massive amount of land takings, which the Examiner doesn't favor either.

Note that Northern Virginia Congressman James Moran says equally moronic things about the need to widen 14th Street NW in DC for his constituents so that they can get home easier from their federal jobs. The only way to do this is to tear down dozens of buildings. See "Va. congressman upset at D.C.'s lack of communication" from WTOP Radio.

2. Calling attention to failures to provide adequate transportation infrastructure. Meanwhile the Washington Post writes about the transportation fallout from consolidation of military installations at Fort Meade, in "Fort Meade BRAC moves bring uncertainty to surrounding communities." From the article:

When the federal government announced in 2005 that thousands of military personnel and defense contractors would be transferred to Fort Meade, local officials drafted a list of $1.1 billion in roadway improvements needed to accommodate the growth.

In 2009, the Department of Defense identified six of those projects, totaling $671 million, as “critical and immediate” needs because of Base Realignment and Closure restructuring. But as the Sept. 15 deadline nears for the BRAC personnel moves, most of those projects have been delayed at least until 2020 because of a lack of funding. Federal and state governments have contributed just $46 million for improvements.

The insanity of the BRAC process was that the Commission was charged with making decisions without taking transportation impact into effect, and the charge for the reconsolidation process specifically repudiated federal government responsibility for dealing with paying for the construction of new transportation infrastructure necessary to accommodate the changes.

3. Nimbyism in response to inadequate transportation infrastructure. But at the same time today's Post editorializes against "nimbyism" in Prince George's County, in the Riverdale Park area, concerning the development of a mixed use project on Route 1, another state road like Wisconsin Avenue with extremely narrow portions that can't easily be expanded. See "Progress, pushback in Pr. George's."

From the article:

The objections are predictable; they’re also wrongheaded. They ignore the experience of other close-in suburbs in the region — think of Arlington and Bethesda — that have added dynamic commercial centers without adverse impact on established residential neighborhoods. They disregard the fact that the location of the proposed project — inside the Beltway, close to a Metro station and barely eight miles from Capitol Hill — would attract just the sort of well-educated and relatively affluent residents who can support businesses and amenities such as those Cafritz envisions. And they are heedless of what has become known nationally as the Whole Foods Effect — the grocery chain’s potential as a catalyst for redevelopment and higher property values.

Note that I probably think this site can handle the increase in traffic, but there is no question that there will be an increase in traffic, and that travel times will increase generally in that area, even if the Post is right in assuming that not having to drive farther away for premium retail will have some positive impact on reducing vehicle miles travel overall. Even so, that might be great for getting to and from Silver Spring, but doesn't help Route One all that much...

4. Using right and wrong examples. But the Post is wrong to equate the Cafritz site in Riverdale Park to a site in DC, Arlington County, or Bethesda immediate proximate to a subway station.

I was in upstate New York this past weekend, and there was an article in yesterday's Daily Gazette about the significant improvement to Downtown Schenectady (unlike what is going on in nearby communities like Troy and Albany). This is the article, "The NEW Schenectady (Part 7): New look, new residents make downtown vibrant," but it requires payment to access the article.

One major complaint by residents is the lack of retail. The director of the Metroplex organization that has led the revitalization compared Downtown Schenectady to Hudson, in Columbia County, as an example of how to drive retail improvement.

But Hudson has become a satellite of New York City, where people have acquired and outfit second homes, and vacation on the weekends. It's not unlike how the Hamptons in Connecticut have been reproduced to serve as a New York City weekend and summer vacation center but Hudson is for people who don't want to go to the beach. So what is driving retail improvement in Hudson is completely different from what is possible in Schenectady.

5. Why aren't newspaper editorial pages and elected and appointed officials advocating for improvements in transit, to parallel and accommodate development? (Remember how the Post recently editorialized against a streetcar in Arlington and Fairfax Counties, not because it's a bad idea, but because they think the governments should spend money on other things? )

The problem with Rte. 1 is not unlike the problem with Upper Georgia Avenue in DC, and getting around generally in Upper Northwest DC, which has limited east-west connectivity because of Rock Creek Park--Military Road-Missouri Avenue-Riggs Road is the single through east-west road north of Michigan Avenue.

There isn't much road capacity, and much of the area isn't directly served by high quality transit (subway service), but is served by bus. Some of the heaviest used bus lines travel Wisconsin, Connecticut, 14th Street, 16th Street, and Georgia Avenue, but the typical trip from the top of the city to downtown takes one hour, because of the number of stops. There is Express service on many of these lines now, but even so, it's a long trip.

Adding a Walmart and other retailers at the Walter Reed site will cause great problems, unless transit infrastructure is improved simultaneously.

The Riverdale Park location has minimal bus service (the 86/83 buses come about twice an hour), and is a hike from the College Park and the Prince George's Plaza Metro Stations. And nearby East-West Highway is pretty full of traffic too.

On Georgia Avenue, proposals for redevelopment of the Walter Reed site will further add traffic to the corridor. The Examiner story quoted in the previous entry, "Residents vow to stop Wal-Mart on Georgia Ave.," stated that:

In June, a Ward 4 local Advisory Neighborhood Commission report slammed Wal-Mart's traffic plan. Still, DDOT has approved revisions to the site plan.

Morris called the traffic fears an "overreaction" said the company has reached out to the community. "We've held no less than 50 to 60 meetings with local residents, business leaders, faith-based leaders, the ANC ... and throughout that process we've really taken time to listen," he said.

Reaching out to the community means zilch as far as road capacity is concerned. Our recommendations for shuttle service between the proposed Walmart and the Petworth Metro Station were ignored. So was the very urban idea that if people spend at least $50 on a transaction, that they should be able to get the products delivered.

The thing to do is lobby-advocate for improved transit service, such as the streetcar for Georgia Avenue, which is not anywhere near entering planning phases. But no one in a position of authority is advocating for the streetcar.

Instead they are cheerleading. From the Examiner article:

Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser said Mayor Vincent Gray is working on a community plan requiring Wal-Mart to participate in job training efforts and support businesses in the Georgia Avenue corridor. Wal-Mart last week donated $3 million to a citywide job training program.

"We're talking about 300 jobs just on Georgia Avenue, plus [the upcoming development at] Walter Reed," Bowser said. "What's very exciting about this is that for the first time in many years a lot of developers are interested in the corridor."

Similarly, in the mid-1990s, the Maryland Transit Administration produced a plan for streetcar service on Rhode Island Avenue/Route 1.

Granted, the focus for transit improvement in Prince George's County has shifted to the Purple Line, but in this area of Rte. 1, there won't be light rail service. (Map of the proposed Purple Line and station locations.)

Stakeholders have to acknowledge that if you want to "urbanize" more parts of the core of the region, you need better transit service. Otherwise all you are doing is making gridlock more likely.

6. "The Arlington way, green and lean." Dr. Gridlock's Sunday feature does discuss the integration of land use and transportation planning, infrastructure, and process. From the article:

Leach, who has been in that job for seven years, thinks the county has done pretty well in using the transit and land-use strategy developed decades ago to create communities that work, but "we're never done." He foresees at least four decades of retrofitting and refining.

This view treats the Orange Line and the Blue Line as a great start, then adds sidewalks, bus hubs, bike routes and enhanced travel information to the getting-around strategy. It looks at how people move, not just vehicles.

Leach also knows that the county government needs to have the data when its own communities look over new development and transportation plans: "We need to be able to tell the story of how these neighborhoods perform, how do people travel, in addressing people's concerns about change."

Often, the transportation and land-use plans increase density. Is that going to create a better place, or just add traffic? ...

The county's physical environment and its transportation policies encourage residents to leave their cars at home.

Driving: Arlington residents make 40 percent of daily trips by driving solo, a rate lower than that for any part of the region except the District. When they drive alone, it's most often for work, commuting or shopping. They drive alone for 33 percent of trips made within the county.

Alternatives: They make a larger share of daily trips by transit and walking than do residents in any part of the region other than the District: 16 percent of trips are on foot, 11 percent are by train or bus, about three in 10 trips are by driving or riding with others.

DC has the right spatial pattern, and in many parts of the city, robust transit infrastructure.

But too often we ignore these real life examples of what works (and what doesn't).

Over the long term, that will cost us all greatly.

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