Tag Archives: autocentrism

Local planning

The 1970 study that said DC’s zoning is obsolete

In a post today on Greater Greater Washington, about the third delay of the Zoning Update, David Alpert and I mentioned a report from 1970 that called the 1958 zoning code outdated. 

That was in response to Mayor Gray’s announcement that the Zoning Commission would not close its records until September 2014, so we weren’t able to share as much as I wanted. Here’s more:

Barton-Aschman were hired by the pre-home-rule Walter Washington administration to examine the code after the MLK assassination riots, Urban Renewal, the Metro, and freeway revolt. Not all of their comments were negative, but the technocratic, autocentric attitude that ran through the 1958 process was nowhere to be found. 

These events had big impacts in the ideologies of the planning community. So, just 12 years after the code was passed, they saw a code that was plagued by assumptions that no longer applied and solutions that only seemed to make things worse:

A considerable number of provisions are archaic or substandard and need to be systematically reviewed and modernized. New techniques should be developed to accommodate changing market demand, technological advances, and new social conditions and programs.

Some things changed after this report was published. Parking minimums got lower. Much of the city was downzoned. Overlays were used to make custom tweaks. A more general PUD was introduced. And certain downtown zones became more open to residential uses, making it less of a nighttime wasteland.

Still, some of the ideas these planners found outdated in the Nixon years are still are at the root of the problems the city faces today.  read more »

Local planning

When the future was Cleveland PARK

I do love the neon signs, though!

I think a number of people are perplexed as to why Sam’s Park & Shop in Cleveland Park is landmarked. Aside from the political pressure of a well-connected population dead set on preventing the density that would actually save their failing retail strip using historic preservation laws, the site does have some significance.

The Park & Shop was point along the trend to adapt retail architecture to modern conditions. In this page from the May 1932 Architectural Record, the author praised the Park & Shop in contrast to a traditional main street retail strip. He might as well have been describing the service lane block.

If only they'd bulldozed those awful storefronts the strip wouldn't be faltering!

I think a lot of people look back on the beginnings of autocentric planning  and think that the people who conceived it must have been deluded, but to them these choices seem eminently rational. A lot of people also seem to pin the autocentric turn on the Modern Movement and Le Corbusier in particular. This issue of the Record points in another direction: it is unequivocal about the need to redesign retail for the automobile, and merely reports on the International Style as an interesting trend in Europe with good goals.
If anything, Modernism was just a way to aestheticize the rationalist fixations of Modernity like efficiency, objectivity, or hygiene. After all, the first auto-oriented shopping malls were executed in historicist styles. The movement away from urban life began well before that, although Modernists certainly took it further.
It’s a complicated story, one that I don’t really know much about. Luckily, one of my professors, David Smiley, wrote a book about it. Pedestrian Modern, how the desire to accommodate the automobile and pedestrian safely crossed with American modernists’ interest in retail, before 1960s radicalism made that contaminated.
Our Park & Shop comes in towards the beginning of the story.
Russia

Moscow’s lost trees

I love Moscow, but its downtown is barren of trees. Even when you get a prerevolutionary or constructivist break from the Stalinist promenade down Tverskaya, it’s just a little lifeless. But check out Ilya Varlamov‘s collection of photos of what Moscow looked like before its streets lost their trees. So much better.

Why, you might ask, did the trees all go? Well, zyalt says that the official answer is that they couldn’t take the pollution – but this is nonsense after the financial crises of the 90s.

At the end of the day, the answer is autocentrism. Trees interfered with parking, they posed security risks, and they took up potential lanes. Under the 1990s program of incoherent highway expansion, the last remnants of downtown greenery were torn up. If, on the other hand, Moscow had pursued a sustainable transportation policy before Sobyanin, the trees would have survived to serve the 80% of Muscovites who take public transport.

Maybe now is different. Check out the whole set, it’s remarkable what a difference there is.

planning Russia

In Moscow, a revolution for transportation

Велодорожки МГУ from Alexander Tugunov on Vimeo.

The city of Moscow opened its first on-street bike path in September. It’s a small sign of a strategic change in the urban development of a city that has become legendary for bad traffic.

According to the article, behavior on the trail isn’t perfect: people are parking in the bike path! Unthinkable! But, also unthinkably, the police has promised to enforce the laws and educate drivers. Now, when I lived in Moscow, I saw the city rip up Leningradsky Prospekt to convert it into a highway. That remains unchanged, but now dedicated trolleybus lanes will run along the highway. The entire transportation and land use strategies are being upended because the mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, and the Kremlin have realized that you cannot build yourself out of congestion with still more roads.

If there’s any doubt as to whether this is a token effort, Sobyanin’s comments here and there are explicit commitment to a complete transportation strategy. Take this interview on Lenta.ru:

SOBYANINThe easiest option we could offer is: “Let’s build more roads and interchanges, at two levels, three levels, and, sure, everything will be wonderful.”

Lenta.ru : Yes, like in Tokyo, Beijing and other Asian cities.

SOBYANIN: Yes, but it’s a dead end. It is impossible, even if we had a lot of money. And, there can never be enough money, because the building of highways and interchanges costing absurd sums.

That is just the beginning. There’s trams, trolleys, and a hundred miles of metro construction after the break.

read more »

Local planning

East Campus is Still a Good Idea

American University’s campus plan goes before the Zoning Commission on June 9th. It’s imperfect, but the plan still deserves support.

Last May, I wrote in support of the plan to build a residential complex across Nebraska Avenue from AU’s main campus at Ward Circle. Over that time, the design has changed significantly. In response to overarching objections raised by some neighbors, the design has taken on less of an urban character than it originally had, which reduces its potential. Nonetheless, with architectural alterations, it will be one of the most important developments in Ward 3.

As part of a larger strategy for growth and consolidation of its school, American will replace a parking lot with six buildings of two to six stories. 590 beds, a bookstore, admissions offices, classrooms, administrative spaces, as well as some retail. The benefits for AU have been argued over many times; I’ll let AU speak for itself. But the benefits of the expansion to the neighborhood and the city are public business.

The new facilities will bring students out of neighborhoods. Currently, AU undergrads are spread out, with roughly 2,000 of 6,000 living off-campus. Some of those students do so by choice, but AU only has room to house 67% of its students. Many juniors and seniors have to look to the neighborhood for a place to live. The East Campus would pull students from the neighborhood and the Tenley Campus. Better residential facilities would mean fewer students spread out in the neighborhood, fewer noise disruptions, and less of a demand for vehicular commuting.

That reduction in traffic is no small thing. The new facilities adjacent to the central campus mean fewer trips for students and faculty alike. AU is also reducing the total number of parking spaces on campus, and has promised to expand its existing transportation demand management program. Even so, AU’s transportation study found that its users

The rest of the vehicles are commuters passing through the ward circle area. The three avenues in the area, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Massachusetts currently serve primarily as automobile routes. The new buildings offer the potential to reorient the circle for those who live and work in the area.

Rather than gnarling traffic, as opponents have insisted, the slight uptick in pedestrian activity caused by the new buildings will force drivers to pay better attention to their presence on this urban street. The potential for more stoplights and a redesigned circle opens the opportunity to reduce speeds and dangerous behavior, likewise making the area safer for residents of all ages.

Through commercial frontage and foot traffic, Nebraska Avenue would become a pleasant place for locals to enjoy. Leaving the interior of the campus for students, a commercial perimeter would become another node in the geography of Upper Northwest. It would never become as dense and vibrant as Bethesda, let alone Tenleytown, but as a tertiary urban center, it can merge into the neighborhood.

Finally, the scheme laid out in the university’s plan continues to facilitate the economic activity of American and its affiliates, estimated at $415 million,. Although academic institutions do not pay taxes for noncommercial properties, the Examiner reported last week that students and faculty bring money and talent to the area when they come to the region’s universities. By building on its land efficiently, AU will be making an optimal contribution to the city and enlivening the streetscape through the benefits of density.

There are potential negatives, which AU needs to mitigate. However, in their effort to compromise on objections, AU has layered the new buildings in greenery and minimized certain urban features, compromising potential, while still not satisfying opponents’ demands.

For example, a 40′ buffer of greenery adjacent to Westover Place feathers the campus into the neighborhood, but it’s not good on all four sides. Adding a similar barrier of impenetrable greenery along Nebraska Avenue will separate the campus and retail from the sidewalk. It requires creating a second, separated walkway that will reduce the very urban characteristic of unplanned interactions. It is no small leap to see this buffer as segregating the school from the city.

Worsening the Nebraska Avenue elevation, the most recent plans call for a roadway to be punched through building #1 to the interior campus. A roadway in that place would disrupt the crucial urban space at the sidewalk. Instead, the plans should return to the right-in, right-out entrance on Massachusetts Avenue presented in the March 18th Final Plan. This is similar to the one at Westover Place, the Berkshire, and other nearby driveways.

At the least, the university could build on their plans for the Mary Graydon Tunnel and design the proposed road as a woonerf, prioritizing pedestrians in a roadway that runs through what is the students’ front yard.

Likewise, AU should not be advocating for a new actuated signal on Nebraska Avenue. Instead, it should build timed signals that guarantee AU students the opportunity to cross as frequently and in rhythm with the city’s traffic. A new stoplight, combined with the recommended changes to Ward Circle, would make the area safer than any phystical barrier by limiting the incentive to jaywalk. If a physical deterrent is necessary, planters between the street and the sidewalk should be sufficient, as at Bethesda Row.

Finally, the project should serve as a catalyst for alternative transportation in the area. Bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue would mean better safety and better quality of life for students and neighbors alike. On campus, the administration already promotes a progressive Transport Demand Management plan, with dedicated ZipCar spaces, Capitol Bikeshare, carpooling assistance, shuttles, and SmartBenefits. But without adequate facilities, the full benefits of cycling and bus transit will not be realized.

Smart Growth refers to planning that is appropriate not only at the local level, but across multiple scales: architectural, local, metropolitan, and regional. AU’s expansion plan, which would consolidate students, tame traffic, and create a new node of community, works at the larger three scales. Where it fails is in the way that it addresses the street and human scale, compromising enormous potential for solutions that will please no one and will require remediation in the future.

The Zoning commission should endorse AU’s 2011 Campus Plan with alterations at the architectural scale.

Local

“Stop AU” Protest Tomorrow, Parking Provided

Westover Place residents will be protesting the presence of pedestrians at Ward circle Thursday morning during rush hour. But I don’t want to speak for them. Here’s the call to arms they left on the AU Park Listserv:

TRAFFIC IMPACT DEMONSTRATION

A coalition of neighbors surrounding American University will be gathering
together this Thursday morning, May 26th from 8:30 am to 9:00 am to walk around
Ward Circle, crossing Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues several times to
physically demonstrate the impact 600 or 700 students will have on traffic, if
AU puts the number of beds it wants on the Nebraska Avenue parking lot.

Almost 21,000 vehicles use Mass. Ave. daily and about 24,500 use Nebraska. And
yet, AU’s flawed traffic study, which they are presenting to the Zoning Office
to get approval for their beds, claims that adding to the pedestrian traffic
load will have no impact on traffic at the circle.

Help us show the city AU is wrong.

If we can get a large number of residents to walk around the circle several
times, wearing buttons that say “Stop the AU Campus Plan” and have a couple
more stationed on the sidewalk with signs that say “AU Plan Causes Gridlock”
“Honk if You Hate Gridlock” and put large “Stop the AU Campus Plan” in the
center of the Circle, our case will be self evident. Everyone will see
firsthand the traffic gridlock and noise pollution that will result if AU gets
its way.

We need your commitment now. Join with your friends and neighbors to really do
something to get our plight noticed and have a little fun. We’re not just paying
lawyers to make studied arguments. We’re standing up for ourselves and using
our feet to fight for our neighborhoods!

We’re meeting just inside the gate of Westover Place, in the front courtyard of
4300 Massachusetts Ave, behind the guardhouse at 8:30 Pick up your buttons and
those of you who want signs can get them. Then we’ll go up to the Circle and
cross the street.

The guard at the gate will be alerted. Secret Code is “Stop AU”. There are
several guest parking spaces behind the Mass. Ave. wall which will work if we
all carpool.

Yep, the issues here do seem pretty self evident. So, if you’re in the area, think about talking to the poor folks. But just do mind to not inconvenience drivers. It’s their street.