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.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Parking under the National Mall should be part of an integrated approach to visitor services and management

National Mall, from the Lincoln MemorialI don't know how I missed the Washington Post editorial sanctioning the idea of creating parking under the National Mall ("Imagine Parking Under the Mall"). Given my pro-sustainable transportation bent, people would think I would naturally be against such a suggestion.

It happens that I am not, provided that it is merely but one element of an integrated approach to visitor services and management for the core of the city. The letters to the editor in support of the concept don't offer much in the way of a broader approach.

Using an underground parking structure as a way to move National Mall utility services underground 

Another reason that I think an underground parking structure under the National Mall could be interesting is that it is a way to completely re-engineer serving the Mall above-ground.

I remember at a conference on rethinking the National Mall--gosh, it might have been as much as 7 years ago, and one of the speakers was from Disney, how someone in the audience suggested that like at Disney World and Disneyland, it could be possible to re-engineer and re-configure sanitation and other services so that they could be provided underground.  ("Under the Magic Kingdom," "Utility Corridors")

The original proposal apparently covers a bit of this, but not all of it. From the piece:

And why stop there? Promoters of the idea, who include the philanthropic president of Southern Engineering Corp., Albert H. Small; the architect Arthur Cotton Moore; and coalition chair Judy Scott Feldman, point out that such an underground space could include washrooms for tourists, shower facilities for tour bus drivers and underground connections among the museums and Metro. Fees and parking hours would have to be thought out carefully. But if the internal roads of the Mall could be freed up for pedestrians and cyclists, maybe along with a Circulator bus, the visiting experience would be more pleasant for everyone.

The NCPC Draft Visitor and Commemoration Element

I did not put into a blog entry the comments I submitted on the National Capital Planning Commission's draft of the Visitor and Commemoration Draft Element of the Federal Elements section of the DC Comprehensive Land Use Plan. In February there was a "hearing" on the draft (it was more informal, like a roundtable, and I didn't have prepared testimony, but talked a lot) and many interesting points and suggestions were offered by attendees, some of which I used as jumping off points for the comments I offered.

This parking proposal would be much better in the context of a more robust NCPC Visitors Element, especially one that would include the points I made, which include:

Creating a City Visitor Center at Union Station

1. Union Station should be marketed as the city's primary staging point for visitor information services, parking and ground-based touring. This would provide access to a great deal of structured parking, without requiring additional on site parking elsewhere in the city. Parking validation by touring groups could give patrons a slight price discount on parking. (* See recommendation in Visitor Information Services element) It already serves this function in terms of being an embarkation point for all of the major ground-based touring services operating in the city.
Baltimore Visitor Center, Maryland
Baltimore's primary visitor center is located on the Inner Harbor.  A similar facility could be incorporated into Union Station, especially given the proposals for expansion. 

Creating an infill Metro Station and Visitor Center at the Jefferson Memorial

2. Creating an infill Yellow Line Station serving the Jefferson Memorial. This station could be combined with a visitor center and staging facilities for bus touring services. This station would reduce the amount of automobile traffic to the National Mall, and would provide a superior site for serving the mall.

(A combined transportation management district, funding both the underground parking and the new Metro Station, could be created.)

Creating a surface transit service along the National Mall, with Union Station and the proposed Jefferson Memorial infill Metro Station visitor center as staging points

3. In the 1940s, DC Transit, which was then privately owned and the "public transit" provider in DC, provided Summertime bus services to Hains Point (reference, 1942 DC Transit bus and streetcar schedule) from a staging point at West Potomac Park.

This could be a model for a similar service today, serving the National Mall.  The Park Service does provide a shuttle during the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Although previous experience with a tourist season Circulator bus service demonstrates that such a service needs to be well and constantly marketed.

Ideally, the start and end points of this bus line would be the proposed Jefferson Memorial Metro Station and Union Station.

The buses used for this service should have special livery and branding. DC Transit had a specially branded streetcar (later bus) called the Silver Sightseer.
DC Transit Silver Sightseer streetcar
Note that the report done on urban visitor transportation services by the Volpe Transportation Center for the 2003 NPS Washington DC Visitor Transportation Study should be referenced for additional ideas. It discusses how cities like Savannah have created integrated visitor management programs that link parking, free bus shuttle services in the historic district, water taxi service, and a visitor streetcar on Water Street into one easy-to-use system.

Some people suggest a streetcar service for this.

That could be ideal, but at this point I am agnostic about it.  It would be expensive to create, others would argue it wouldn't be historically accurate.  (Although there were plenty of things on the Mall in the past that are gone now and weren't worth saving.)

On the other hand, it would be perfect for a heritage streetcar operation, especially in the summer with open air cars.

Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, being so large, had its own independent streetcar system to connect the various elements of the park.  The service shut down in 1946.

Deal with adding parking and marketing existing parking better

4. The Element should provide more specific guidance with regard to the provision of parking facilities. Attractions located within walking distance from subway stations should be discouraged from encouraging driving to the site. They should not be required to provide parking facilities. Federal agencies with excess parking resources could also be tapped for parking provision to serve visitors to adjacent federal attractions. RFK Stadium parking lots could serve as a satellite parking area. Planning for Union Station expansion should include the provision of additional tour bus capacity.

(Although the proposal referenced above does this too.)

Creating an integrated system of visitors centers

5. In addition to the recommendations for visitor centers at Union Station and the proposed Jefferson Memorial infill Metro Station, we recommend integrating these centers and federal visitor centers into a seamless network. Visitors don't care that NPS runs a visitor center for the White House and that the Smithsonian runs a visitors center in the Castle and that Destination DC has a visitor information desk in the Convention Center. And the Capitol Visitors Center does its own thing as well. Etc.

These institutions should agree to work together. NPS will not provide access to non NPS publications in its visitor service centers. This policy does not help visitors, but makes it harder for them to get the information they need, and should be changed. DC should work with the suburban jurisdictions to develop coordinated visitor information services at National and Dulles Airports. Because MWAA is an affiliated federal-local agency, it is reasonable for the NCPC element to weigh in with a recommendation for this.

Needed: a broader discussion justifying a comprehensive approach to visitor services and management

Just as the proposal for a parking structure under the National Mall isn't laid out in terms of a true master plan for visitor services in the city, I argued that the discussion in the Visitor and Commemoration Element needs to be broader and cover more issues, to set the context for why addressing this subject is necessary and why the way we are doing it now is inadequate.

Here are comments from the submission:

While these comments are pointed, recognize that we appreciate the fact that the Federal Elements include a Visitor element, while the Local Elements do not. (We recommended during the 2004-2006 Comp. Plan Revision process that a Tourism Development and Management Element be created as part of the local elements, but this was not done. Instead, the Economic Development Element has a couple paragraphs on tourism.)

The process for updating the element would be better with a more robust (breadth and depth) discussion of current conditions, provision of more detailed statistics, and a survey of best practices, including park policies (see this blog entry for more on this topic).

The current conditions overview could include discussion about the tourism tax revenue stream in the city, CFA funding to cultural institutions, and other sources, and how it might be better utilized to support visitor information services in the city.

While controversial, the current state of public opinion with regard to federal institutions (Congress, the President, federal agencies) should be discussed, and provision for better and more coordinated information, services, and programs should be considered in that context--to improve public opinion and attitudes about the federal government, its institutions, and agencies.

The revision of this element is also timely given the increased recognition that the US needs to market itself (e.g., as discussed in the recent Washington Post article, "Selling the U.S.A.," and general concerns about public diplomacy and what Simon Anholt calls "Brand America").

It's not helped by the fact that most members of Congress are more focused on their districts/states and less concerned about how DC and the Federal Interest is presented, managed, and marketed. E.g., the discussion about difficulties in getting Federal legislators committed to funding improvements to the National Mall in the AP story from a few years ago.

Cultural and park assets planning

There should be an sub-element ("section") on cultural attractions planning. For example, DC doesn't have a cultural plan. There should be one, and it should integrate planning and recommendations for all cultural institutions in the city. It should probably be either the first or second section in the element, after Visitor Information Services and before Visitor Transportation.

CFA should be involved with NCPC and DCOP and DCCAH in such planning. The Arts and Culture Element in the DC Comp. Plan is not particularly robust.

Separately, DC lacks a coordinated parks plan and for similar reasons, needs one. By not offering guidance concerning federal park lands in the city, DC resident interests, concerns, and needs go unrepresented. And because the park lands in the city are urban, they are different and require different treatment than the more traditional parks that the NPS typically manages. The Trust for the National Mall initiative is important, but in and of itself, isn't enough.

This recommended sub-element should include guidance on the need for a parks master plan (see the blog discussion about this topic).

The Capital Space planning initiative does not operate at the level necessary to deal with the problems that result from the lack of an integrated and robust parks planning process in the city.

Heritage Areas and Scenic Byways as another organizing concept

Another way to think of organizing visitor services in the city is to use the heritage area planning and management concept. DC does not necessarily need to become a designated national heritage area, but there is no reason why the city and federal government cannot plan these functions along those lines.

- NPS Heritage Areas website

Similarly, the Byways and Historic Roads program offers another way to organize visitor services and interpretation opportunities.

- Heritage Roads website
- Scenic Byways website

Interestingly, heritage corridor cultural and tourism planning in Passaic County, New Jersey is focused not just on roads, but also rivers, canals, and railroad lines.

Both programs and the concept of the cultural landscape as an organizing concept should be discussed in an overview document to this element.

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At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great posting in light of our recent email discussion

At 12:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to see more commerce- eating and drinking options- on the Mall- as of now- tourists have to pay a huge amount for crummy food and there are no outdoor cafes or sit down places to take advantage of the views- we also need to get over prohibition type sanctions and hang-ups from another era and allow more alcohol and emphasize relaxation. The NPS is way too fascistic about controlling commerce on the Mall and they need to loosen up.
A streetcar system that is simple to use that goes to all of the Mall sites would be fantastic.

At 6:05 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

"It's not helped by the fact that most members of Congress are more focused on their districts/states and less concerned about how DC and the Federal Interest is presented, managed, and marketed"

Very untrue. Every member of congress that I've met has a very powerful interest in making sure they get tickets to constituents. Framing this as constituent service as opposed to DC rights is the way forward.

If you can get people to come in and park all day -- again, like Disneyland -- you have a much better chance of moving them around the city in a different manner.

At 10:41 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Good point about positioning. And wrt the park once get around another way the rest of the day point, that's exactly what I believe too.

Union Station needs to be marketed that way too. But also Metro shouldn't cost so damn much for a group to use in getting around.

I just got a ratty a** copy of the 1946 transit map and between 1942 and 1946 the Hains Point bus service was extended from Sunday only to include Saturday and holiday service and the line was retitled H9.

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