Recently on a few community boards, I’ve seen posts arguing whoever replaces Harriet Tregoning is obviously going to disavow “smart growth.” The problem is: where are they gonna find someone like this?
I’ve never met a professional planner who opposes the policies that constitute smart growth. Give or take a few things, what gets called “smart growth” is the standard approach of almost all urban planners. Despite Tregoning’s involvement in consolidating the agenda of Smart Growth, most of what she supports is the product of 50 years of empirical study of what makes cities work.
Outside of the mainstream, there are socialist and libertarian positions to urban planning. Their positions are significantly more radical than anything OP has proposed.
The topic is worth discussing, because today the Post endorsed Muriel Bowser for Mayor and the Mayor, Vince Gray, appointed Rosalynn Hughey as interim director of the Office of Planning. Whether she becomes permanent or steps down, OP will probably view the city’s problems from the same position Tregoning did.
Gray’s development policies were basically the same ones as Bowser’s mentor, Adrian Fenty. Fenty’s policies were really just versions of Tony Williams’ strategies, developed by Ellen McCarthy and Andy Altman. Tregoning wasn’t that different. She was just more upfront – and willing to be hated.
So there’s little threat that Tregoning’s policies will be rolled back under a revanchist OP. The best the intransigent opponents of development can hope for is spineless. If they truly believe that Tregoning sold out the city to developers, what do they think spineless will do?
This Wednesday will be the hearing for the Zoning Rewrite section pertaining to accessory apartments, or accessory dwelling units. This will be the most contentious debates over the changes to the zoning code required to keep DC thriving in the 21st century.
Accessory units give homeowners flexibility in the use of what are often large properties. The extra income is nice to have for some people. For others, it’s a lifejacket. When my class at yale designed and built a house, the client required a rental unit specifically because it added financial stability for the low-income family that bought it. For renters, it could bring a large amount of housing stock to the market with marginal capital costs and a lower profit motive, keeping prices down.
For communities, the economic diversity added to the vast single-family family neighborhoods will bring vitality and justify transportation improvements that all can enjoy. By allowing the elderly to downsize in place, welcoming new families, neighborhood ties stay strong while adding new residents. In most of Northwest, parking remains ample, so the addition of a few small households will have a very minor impact.
But I don’t want to overstate the effects. For the most part, making them “by right,” will only legalize already existing apartments. Rental units in R-1/2/3 zones are widespread already, despite being illegal. Furthermore, because the regulations were written in 1956, when domestic help was more common, if the renter picks up the paper or waters plants one weekend when the owner is on the Eastern Shore, the apartment is legal. That’s silly.
Now, a significant amount of opposition to the accessory provision has come from Chevy Chase residents, who claim that the provision is forced on them as “once size fits all.” But, in fact, zoning hundreds of acres as single family homes without any community nodes is the essence of “one-sizing.” Permitting a little flexibility allows for fine-grained land use decisions. It’s important to remember that although regulations keep the city safe and clean, but they should be justified. Chevy Chase hasn’t shown why it’s special.
Learn how to testify in person or by mail. The zoning commission is independent of the council and take comments seriously. Your communication with them matters.
BONUS: To share the nature of this opposition, follow the break to read testimony from one of the most outspoken opponents, Linda Schmidt, to see how extreme you have to get to criticize the proposal. Learn why some world-weary advocates call detached accessory apartments “schmitthausen.” These comments are fairly typical from her.
The strongest criticism to American University’s East Campus project has come from some neighbors in the adjacent Westover Place private community. Their case against the plan, however, is eroded by a development fight thirty-six years ago, where their own homes were the development threatening to spoil Northwest’s character.
Just as some residents are fighting the potential of AU’s campus expansion, so too did an earlier generation fight the development of the parcels that abut the five-acre parking lot that AU wants to turn into a leafy complex of low-rise residential buildings.
A substantial amount of opposition has arisen in Westover Place, a gated complex of rowhouses between Massachusetts Avenue and Foxhall Road. They have been the most vocal and ANC 3D meetings, insisted that AU build its buildings next to other people’s homes, and it was the meeting point of this summer’s traffic protest.
But in 1977, it was the threat of Westover Place that was vexing locals. According to a September 25th, 1977 Washington Post article: “And to the north of this, adjacent to the 5-acre university parking lot, Kettler Brothers Inc., the giant development company that built Montgomery Village, has already cleared more than eight acres where 149 town houses will be constructed. Houses in this development, Westover Place, will sell from about $135,000.”
In the article, entitled “Bulldozers at the Estates,” Phil McCombs reports on arguments and characters not unlike the current fights over American University’s expansion and other developments in the area. Just as before, opponents are appealing to a right of first arrival, but the article lays bare the hypocrisy in living in a development while fighting a development because it will have the same effects your house did. The rowhouses of Westover Place and similar developments paved over Northwest’s last open spaces that seemed so essential to the “rural” character of piedmont Washington.
Similarly to the opposition to the 1960 Tenley Library and the 1941 Sears Roebuck, an enormous to-do was made over the development and yet both became established elements of the community. At that time, however, the changes seemed signified the end of something unique. McCombs quotes the ANC3 Commissioner Polly Shackelton bemoaning the change:
“Here you have these fine established residential neighborhoods, which will be impacted with increased density and traffic and all kinds of things that really could be very damaging,” she said. “I think in a way it’s too bad we don’t have a comprehensive plan.”
She said that development of the Rockefeller estate, for example, “will be devastating because Foxhall Road is already crowded. With 100 new houses there, I don’t know how we’ll deal with it.”
The problematic idea here is “establishment:” that because a neighborhood has reached any level of development, it should be maintained as it is. Are the current residents who now enjoy this property more justified than their neighbors who lived there in 1977, or estate owners who lived there in 1917?
American University’s plan for the Washington College of Law not quite right. Designed to minimize conflicts in the short-term, the current plans are not the right kind of development for Tenleytown.
While AU continues to present its east campus plan before the Zoning Commission, they left out plans for the Law School campus at Tenley Circle, promising to submit them in August. But even with that deadline far off, it is possible to tell that the design is wrongheaded. The site is more urban and has more potential than the East Campus site, so it must be held to a higher standard.
What is good about the design is how it pairs the program to the site. The law school has a non-residential program, where faculty and students live off campus and commute to the school. Many maintain jobs downtown, requiring a direct link into the city, which the metro can provide. Bus lines in eight directions fill in the transit gaps including an express bus on Wisconsin Avenue, which received a TIGER grant for more improvements. It would be very easy to graduate without ever parking a car on local streets.
It is near two functional but underdeveloped commercial strips on Wisconsin Avenue. These have been struggling for years, although most storefronts are occupied as of July 2011. The project could energize the South Tenley and Tenleytown strips by creating a bridge of activity where there is now just a narrow sidewalk and an empty field. The project might add a few customers too, since most students don’t have a meal plan.
Change in lot coverage. Blue areas are new area, yellow is removed, gray is no change. Dark gray represents preserved buildings.
As of July, the designs do not meet of the location’s potential. AU asked the architects, SmithGroup, to mass the building in the footprints of the 1950s campus: objects in relation to each other, but not in relation to the city. As the ground plan has evolved, its forms have become more sophisticated, but its relationship to the streets has remained pinned to the footprints and the outdated ideologies that prescribed them.
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
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
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.
American University is developing their 2011 campus plan, which will guide growth for the next decade.In effect, the plan is also an understanding between the neighborhood and the university about what the part of the city they share should look like in 2020 – and 2060.
In addition to some new buildings on campus AU proposes two major changes: First, the university would erect several buildings on some underused parking lots near campus, which I’ll discuss in a later article. The second proposal would relocate the growing Washington College of Law to the Tenley Campus, a facility between Yuma and Warren streets on Wisconsin Avenue at Tenley Circle.
In the abstract, the relocation should benefit the neighborhood and bring more life to the southern part of Tenleytown. The current location of the school is in an autocentric and distant office park on Massachusetts Avenue, a poor location for a professional campus. However, whether the new building benefits or burdens the community will depend on the quality of its execution and the policies with which the administration operates the school.
Currently, around 800 students live on the Tenley Campus, most of them taking part in the Washington Semester program. They occupy a buildings built for the former Immaculata School, which American purchased in 1987. A handful of those structures are designated landmarks, which AU will preserve; others are forgettable midcentury structures, which AU will demolish to handle the 2,500 students and faculty of the law school.
The site has tremendous potential to make Upper Northwest more walkable and more sustainable. Moving the law school closer to the Tenleytown-AU metro station will reduce the net amount of traffic along Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues. To get to the current law school building, students and faculty can either drive to the generous parking garage, or take the AU shuttle from Tenleytown.
That access to the Tenleytown metro is especially important to these law students, because most live outside the neighborhood and merely commute in for the school day. Likewise, the Immaculata campus sits right on several bus lines — and a potential streetcar line — that will receive efficiency improvements through TIGER Grants.
As a side benefit, the new school would put more foot traffic along the southern block of Tenleytown’s retail area. The current shuttle buses isolates students from neighbors; the three-block walk down Wisconsin would put them face-to face on the main strip. The steady stream of students and faculty would patronize stores and restaurants and justify streetscape improvements that will make Tenleytown nicer for everyone.
On Nebraska Avenue, a well-designed campus would significantly improve the urban architecture of one of DC’s monumental boulevards. Against the other streets, a good architect would be able to make the building disappear into the trees that line the perimeter of the campus. Because the university has no plans or even a design architect yet, the possibilities for integrating the school into the neighborhood are vast. The campus plan is the right opportunity to ask for them.
For all of the potential benefits, the College of Law could still hurt the neighborhood. American could ask for an introverted suburban campus and receive an eyesore and a traffic nightmare. The negotiation between the ANC and the university administration will allow for specific terms of approval to be stated. Design guidelines, operations requirements, and community benefits can be spelled out ahead of time to ensure that both sides gain from the construction and trust is not broken.
American University’s plan is good at first glance. Whether it is good for the next fifty years will depend on how well residents and the university work together to make a lasting improvement to the city.
As part of a series on things opposed by Tenleytowners, let us discuss the Tenley-Friendship library. Here is a the basic story: a group of opponents, led by Janney parents, protested the loss of critical play space to build a library in Tenleytown and delayed the construction by a few years, until 1959.
Indeed, according to Judith Helm’s monumental history of the area, Tenleytown, D.C.: Country Village into City Neighborhood, when the DCPL began a modernization program for its libraries, they singled out Tenleytown’s inadequate branch. At the time, the Tenleytown library was in a former police substation that was small, dark, and old. But modernity beckoned with its sophisticated information storage technologies, like microfilm. So the downtown overlibrarians decreed from the quietest bowels of their Mt. Vernon Square reading-dome that a new building be built, and that it be built at Albemarle Street.
Their logic was relatively simple, and sounds strangely familiar. The land southwest of Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street was city property with no extant buildings with public transit at its front door. It seemed perfect for the city to use. Unfortunately, in 1955, a playground had already long occupied what was to become the site of 2008’s PPP fight. Even now, the library and the school share the same plat of property (check out this map).
One of the reasons residents opposed the Sears so ferociously in 1940 was that the jungle gym and a few other bits of blacktop stood at the top of a hill right across the street, and perhaps parents feared kids wandering into the new traffic. Then, as now, neighbors worried about auto traffic clogging up the streets, in spite of the streetcars that ran on Wisconsin until 1960. The tactic of throwing the kitchen sink at the project even reared its head.
Some proposed a new library in Fort Reno Park. The park was, after all, close to Murch, Deal, and Wilson, and so better suited to serve all students. That’s amusing because moving the library to the park was tossed around every once in a while in 2009. Both times, this alternative never came to pass. NPS may or may not have wanted to build a parkway through that area. In general, the NPS was as aloof and non-cooperative, just as they can be today.
Then, after five years of folderal, the library opened and people began to forget about the controversy. And here we are again, in 1959.
At top, the third library under construction on April 17, 2010.
The debate over DC streetcars has heated up again with a new alliance against DDOT’s plans to install in-ground rails.
In a press release today, the Organization for Moderate Growth With Trackless Functioning and Better-than-Bus Quality announced that they would oppose any technology reliant on a guideway built into the streets of DC. The organization emphasizes the damage rails would do to the historic character of the roads within the Federal City. “Pierre Charles L’Enfant,” the statement reads, “never imagined streets crisscrossed by hideous steel rails. Maps from his period show clean, smooth streets with no indication of any disruptions of the classical beauty of the surfaces.”
Proponents of ground-supported streetcars have emphasized that rail-based vehicles did once crisscross the city. However, the press release seeks to preempt this criticism by arguing that that was an unfortunate aberration. “Washington, DC has a strong tradition of rail-free streets dating back to 1964, when city fathers fought hard to eliminate the unsightly and segregated street-rail system in favor of more democratic buses. Even in the transit-friendly times of the 1950s, the general public recognized that surface rails were an affront to America’s cultural heritage.”
Margarita Masguerra, a representative of OMGWTFBBQ insists her group fully supports the construction of streetcars. “The petition we are circulating emphasizes that we want to see diverse transit options for residents. Buses are not enough, sure. But streetcar tracks would be so devastating to the city’s image of large automobile boulevards that we want DDOT to stop and consider other options. “In Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and Ponca City, OK, systems have been explored that employ no rails at all,” she continued, “Although we do not understand how these systems work.”
“Certain models from Boston and Philadelphia apparently hang from wires suspended above the line, creating the strongly defined structure that our organization recognizes as attracting growth.” Ms. Masguerra pointed out the results she had seen, but commented, “Speaking only for myself, I have been to Amsterdam and Dallas, and had there not been any rails, I think the streets with cafes and buildings could have been really nice places.”
Support for the group’s petition has come from a wide range of interest groups. Lon Anderson of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the American Automobile Association questions the need for surface transit. “OMGWTFBBQ are too polite about the nonsense logic of these railroad people. If they want streetcars, can’t they just put more rails in the subway?”
Other opponents have raised the danger that in-ground tracks might pose to pedestrians. The increased incidence of tripping and stubbed toes is a genuine concern for small-footed locals. Amanda Hess, writing in the City Paper‘s Sexist blog, commented that “rails may disproportionately harm women, who are much more likely to be wearing heels,” saying that the supporters might have darker motives.
“The image of a woman fallen onto the tracks merely recapitulates a sexist image of a woman in need of saving before a big scary train. Sorry, the train died with vaudeville. No doubt, there are many “Nice Guy” transit fans just waiting for this possibility. Just because you help a woman up, doesn’t mean she wants you to take her back to your apartment for a little dissertation on railway signaling. Trust me, she probably doesn’t want to see your lunar signal, vintage or not.”
But even OMGWTFBBQ is willing to compromise and look at a variety of systems. The petition highlights the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, which suspends its rails in the air. “It’s a great system.” Masguerra says, “They’re hardly visible from the ground.” Another system mentioned is the Demontierbares Klappenschienenschutzsystem under consideration in Tübingen, Germany and Alexandria, Egypt. That technology employs panels that cover the rails when a train is not nearby. The tops of the panels can be inlaid with various road materials. When a train approaches the section of track, the panels lift up to reveal the rails and close when the train leaves. Also featured was Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik‘s guided semi-rigid airship system, which has been installed between 25 malls and 14 skyscrapers in Dubai.
Masguerra insists that her organization’s sole interest is in improving transit in the DC area. “Again, I just want to reiterate that we want to see streetcars in Washington,” she says, “And we’re committed to exploring all options to make that happen without rails.”
I would prefer a mixed-use development on the site that would include five or six floors of residential housing along with a new Safeway. (Safeway at present, has indicated that it has no interest in building such a development.)
Out of 95 voters, 72 said yes to the question anyway. Then there’s this:
If you expressed a preference for a mixed-use development, would you still oppose Safeway’s current proposal if the result were that Safeway decided against any redevelopment of the current store?
81% of respondents still said yes. But all this poll indicates is that activists overwhelmingly support a Safeway mixed-use project. A self-selected poll is never accurate for representing a general population, as it attracts only the most interested individuals. This survey does not, and never could have represented neighborhood opinion, even more so than the Safeway postcards.
So, I guess my point is that ARD doesn’t represent the silent majority, and they don’t even represent a significant minority. The secretive organization is nothing but sound and fury crippled by ineptitude and a lack of web savvy. I don’t think they represent even a credible opposition – and they certainly don’t support anything on their own. Hopefully, people will see through their bluster and realize that they are done.
Alas, maybe more radical action is needed. MaKrel, who may or may not be my friends at ASR, suggests something more radical:
We could demolish the Safeway and return the land to agricultural production in a cooperatively owned CSA farm. Then we wouldn’t have to eat the GM cr*p that corporate supermarket chains shove down our throats; a good example: http://www.intervalecommunityfarm.com/
God Bless Anarcho-Syndicalism. I’ve taken a screencap of the poll just in case it goes down, after the break.
DCMud reports that Safeway has put their PUD approval on hold. On Monday, the Zoning Commission approved an indefinite delay for the project. This is good news. As best as anyone can tell, it indicates that Safeway are reconsidering their entire plan. If they choose the option of urbanism, I know that Torti Gallas will deliver a plan that is beautiful and energizing.
Adding a few residences above, townhouses behind, or even just a streetwall with a few independent stores would turn the project from a pig to a prize for Tenleytown. A commitment to LEED Gold certification and the reconfiguration of 42nd street will ensure that Safeway delivers on the real amenities they owe the neighborhood in exchange for a zoning exemption. Finally, Safeway must be flexible enough to design a building that does not require a forest to hide its bulk.
If the new store is beautiful and adds vibrancy to the city, I will be more than glad to support it. I know many others will, as well. But some will never support appropriate and sustainable growth.
It is easy to see this process as another company battered into submission by Tenleytown NIMBYs. But it’s far from that – I, groups like Ward 3 Vision, and the current board of ANC 3E understand that developers are not the enemy. A Wisconsin Avenue that serves all ages and facilitates community and sustainability is not only good, but necessary. This recent prodding was necessary to restart the motion towards TOD lost over the years of fighting.
The old regime of Tenleytown and Friendship Heights has fallen with this action. The divisive, victimizing attacks, a relic of the freeway wars, are tired and out of tune with modern planning. They have scared off too many developers with endless appeals. But their time is fading. Their secrecy and and tactics disengaged neighborhood residents. But their currency is spent. Their Rovian arguments once swayed commissions. But they fool no one anymore.