Bus rapid transit (BRT) projects can be transformative, as we have learned from cities like Cleveland in the U.S. and global examples like Mexico City. But making space on streets for travel modes other than the car is a challenge for cities and transit operators around the world. The Bay Area has five BRT projects in development today, and each has met with difficulty and delays.
Last month one of these projects, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s Santa Clara/Alum Rock line, made the move from planning stages to design and construction. This 7.2-mile route through downtown San Jose will provide high-frequency bus service (every 10 minutes) and connect two major transit hubs — Diridon Station and Eastridge Mall. This line will converge with the Stevens Creek and El Camino BRT lines in Downtown San Jose. When these three BRT lines are combined with local service, an estimated 84,000 daily bus riders are expected to travel this corridor in 2030 (compared with 31,000 in 2008).
Planned Bus Rapid Transit Projects in the South Bay
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VTA’s planned bus rapid transit projects. The Santa Clara/Alum Rock BRT line is shown in red. This corridor currently has some of the highest bus ridership in the region. Image courtesy VTA
BRT expands a transit network in places where there’s a demand for fast and frequent transit service — but where rail might not be justified. It can represent a big enough infrastructure improvement to support new development and more livable communities. In Cleveland, development of the Euclid Avenue Healthline BRT has led to $4.3 billion dollars in spin-off investments and more than 13.5 million square feet of new development.
What makes BRT tricky is in the details of integrating it on existing streets. Where will stations be located? How will giving a lane to BRT impact auto traffic and parking? How will changes to the streetscape affect local businesses? Particularly in commercial districts and downtowns, there can be many stakeholders — and many negotiations about how to allocate streets and sidewalks. For the Santa Clara/Alum Rock project, SPUR worked with all the parties involved to try to maintain BRT best practices while also mitigating community concerns. The issues we grappled with illustrate what makes BRT a challenge to implement:
1. WIN: There will be a BRT station in front of San Jose City Hall — not a block away. SPUR supported locating the City Hall BRT station directly in front of City Hall (between 5th and 6th streets), rather than one block east, as the city initially preferred due to security concerns. We argued that locating in front of City Hall would save a large amount of money (the original location would have required property acquisition costing hundreds of thousands of dollars), activate City Hall’s plaza and better serve major destinations – City Hall and San Jose State University. Additionally, the City Hall station represents an important opportunity for local government to lead by example and embrace BRT at its front door.
2. WIN: The downtown San Jose station has the right design for its location.Initially, the downtown station (on Santa Clara Street, between 1st and 2nd streets) borrowed its design from other BRT stations in suburban locations. A BRT stop on the median of a busy suburban boulevard needs heavy design elements to make patrons feel safe. But a downtown station needs the opposite — light elements that don’t clutter the sidewalk or block pedestrian access. Based on SPUR’s suggested refinements, city and VTA staff and their consultants made considerable modifications, creating a station we believe will integrate much better with the downtown streetscape. Changes such as the size and placement of awnings and benches go a long way toward improving aesthetics, pedestrian flow on the sidewalk and patron comfort while waiting for transit.
The revised downtown San Jose BRT station design changed the size and placement of street furniture to help it integrate with the sidewalk. For example, benches were turned sideways so that transit patrons would not sit with their backs to the sidewalk. Image courtesy VTA.
3. OUTCOME UNCLEAR: The current service design does not prevent BRT buses from getting delayed behind autos. Numerous changes in the design of the downtown BRT service have been considered over the past year. VTA’s original plan would have keep BRT buses in mixed-flow traffic lanes with other vehicles. This design provided sidewalk bulb outs for safe and efficient bus loading and avoided conflicts between autos turning right or left across bus traffic. But it also would have required cars to wait or move around loading buses, so City of San Jose staff and the San Jose Downtown Association asked VTA to modify the design. The revised design attempts to accommodate four lanes of autos and requires buses to move in and out of mixed-flow traffic to load and unload in the curbside lane.
Since this design would delay buses, potentially taking the “rapid” out of bus rapid transit, SPUR advocated for VTA to study dedicated bus-only lanes throughout the downtown. VTA found that dedicated lanes would significantly improve bus travel times, but the city — facing concerns from downtown business interests about slowing travel for cars — opposed the idea. When a coalition of organizations including SPUR, TransForm, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Greenbelt Alliance and Working Partnerships voiced concern, VTA developed “transition lanes,” which would put a dedicated space before and after each stop to help buses move in and out of mixed-flow traffic faster.
Downtown interests have now advocated against transition lanes in order to retain the 10 spaces of on-street parking that would be lost — a position SPUR firmly disagrees with. The current design does include transition lanes, but because they are simply painted on the ground, they have remained up for debate by the VTA’s board. The timing of transition lane implementation, along with whether to allow left or right turns across bus traffic, has now been left to a VTA advisory board. We have not yet solved the problem of car traffic delaying rapid buses in Downtown San Jose.
Santa Clara BRT Proposed Station Layout
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The most recent service design for the downtown BRT station. The blue areas are “transition lanes,” space reserved for buses to pull in and out of traffic. Green areas are parking and yellow represents loading zones. Local businesses have opposed transition lanes due to the loss of 10 parking spaces downtown. Image courtesy VTA
What Did We Learn?
VTA and the City of San Jose deserve much recognition for moving the Santa Clara/Alum RockBRT project forward, but their success came at a cost to the BRT service. Just 1.9 of the Santa Clara/Alum Rock project’s 7.2 miles will be separated from autos on dedicated lanes. According to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s BRT Scorecard, the Santa Clara/Alum Rockproject would be called “basic” BRT. As we move other Bay Area BRT projects forward, we can aspire to bronze, silver or gold rankings by including dedicated lanes and adding rider amenities rather than removing them.
BRT decisions will continue to be made across the region in the months ahead. VTA is now looking at seven possible alignments for the 17.3-mile El Camino BRT route, which will serve the cities of San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos and Palo Alto. The alignments being studied include a dedicated lane for BRT throughout, which VTA is studying despite opposition from leaders in many of those cities. In San Francisco, after many years of negotiations with stakeholders, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is seeking to certify an environmental impact report for BRT on Van Ness Boulevard in July. This project is being proposed as “fully featured BRT,” which includes dedicated lanes for BRT and pedestrian improvements along Van Ness. As they move ahead, these projects will need support from many sources to retain their defining features.
Thanks to special buses and branding, transit signal priority and rapid boarding, the Santa Clara/Alum Rockproject will likely provide many of the benefits of BRT. And there will be many opportunities to create higher standard BRT service by adding quality pedestrian and bike facilities, clear wayfinding, real-time travel information and supportive parking policies. But when we choose not to give BRT riders priority on the street, we set BRT up to fail in its potential as “rapid” transit.
BRT has proven to be a test of our best policy intentions. The City of San Jose’s General Plan boldly defined a policy of reducing driving alone from 80 to 40 percent of all commutes by 2040. This is a worthy and ambitious goal, but to get there we must give BRT projects the support they need to succeed.
In the past few years, there has been a lot of attention on income inequality and the shrinking middle class, particularly as job growth nationally has remained sluggish. Meanwhile, many companies are struggling with the skills gap, when hiring workers with the right training proves very difficult. Some claim there are millions of unfilled positions nationally — although the New York Times has editorialized that companies who claim to have a hard time finding qualified workers should try offering more pay.
Whether or not the skills gap is inflated, we know that many individual workers do not have the right skills for opportunities that exist in our economy. We also know that the opportunities for people to move up into higher paying jobs are diminishing as the share of middle-income jobs declines.
In the Bay Area, despite an economic boom and declining unemployment rates, many workers are still struggling. Those returning to the workforce are often in jobs that pay less than what they earned before the recession.
How can we connect low- and moderate-income workers to existing quality jobs and expand the number of middle-income and middle-skill jobs? SPUR is part of a new initiative to identify ways we can increase economic opportunity in the Bay Area. Some of the questions we seek to answer include:
- Do we still have an economy with mobility? That is, can people still start at minimum wage and move up to jobs with middle income wages or higher? If so, how do people move up?
- What is not working in the current systems of workforce development and training? What hinders workers from getting into jobs of opportunity?
- What are the occupations with opportunity? Which industries are they in?
- And most importantly, what can we do at the local and regional level to increase opportunities?
The Bay Area’s Regional Prosperity Plan
The project begins with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Sustainable Communities and Housing, which has recently funded regional planning initiatives in dozens of metropolitan areas throughout the country. The goal is to create stronger, more sustainable communities by integrating housing and jobs planning, fostering local innovation, and building a clean energy economy. The Bay Area’s regional planning agencies — the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) — were awarded one of these grants in late 2012. It will provide $5 million over three years for planning and implementation work.
Somewhat unique nationally, the Bay Area is devoting its entire grant — called the Regional Prosperity Plan — to strategies focused on equity, particularly improving housing and economic conditions for low- and moderate-income residents and workers. The plan has three main initiatives: the Housing the Workforce Initiative, the Economic Prosperity Strategy and the Equity Collaborative, intended to support equity goals in the overall project.
Over the next year, SPUR will lead the Economic Prosperity Strategy, which aims to rebuild an economy with opportunity. Our partners — in addition to sponsors MTC and ABAG — are the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, Working Partnerships USA, Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy and the San Mateo Union Community Alliance. The initiative will focus on how to move low- and moderate-income workers in the Bay Area (the 35 percent of workers making less than $18 per hour) into more middle-income jobs (those paying $18 to $30 per hour). To implement the ideas in the Economic Prosperity Strategy, MTC will devote $1.1 million in funds from the overall HUD grant to support a series of pilot projects between 2014 and 2015.
Why Does the Bay Area Need This Plan?
Recent studies have shown that despite a growing economy and rising incomes, the Bay Area continues to provide fewer middle-skill and middle-wage job opportunities. Inequality has risen sharply in the last decade and is now greater in the Bay Area than in the United States or California. The chart below from the Bay Area Council Economic Institute’s recent economic assessment shows the dramatic rise over the past decade in the “Gini Coeffecient,” a measure of income inequality where 0 means everyone has the same income and 1 means that one person has all the income. This rise in inequality is largely due to the decline in middle-income jobs and the rapid increase in wealth from growing companies.
Wage and Salary Inequality, 1977-2011
Having an economy with mobility is good for everyone. When workers move from low-income to moderate-income jobs, not only are they increasing their household’s wealth, they are also creating a job opening for someone else coming into the labor market. If the upward mobility is a reflection of increased skills, the overall economy benefits through rising productivity and increased competitiveness.
Which Workers Are the Focus of the Economic Prosperity Strategy?
There are 3.2 million total workers in the Bay Area out of a population of 7.2 million. More than one in three workers (1.2 million) make less than $18 per hour in wages. Workers in this wage range include retail sales people, childcare providers, teachers, janitors, security guards, nursing aides, waiters, receptionists, truck drivers, housekeepers and many others. While workers who earn less than $18 per hour tend to be a little younger than the average worker, many people remain at or near minimum wage for their entire working lives. (The minimum wage is currently $8 per hour in California, $10 in San Jose and $10.55 in San Francisco.)
Despite what some may assume, low- and moderate-income (LMI) workers are not concentrated in any particular part of the region or in specific neighborhoods. While people of color are overrepresented among the ranks of low- and moderate-income workers, one third of people earning these wages in the Bay Area are white. And although workers closest to minimum wage are more likely to take transit to work, the differences are slight: 12.3 percent of those who earn $11.25 and less take transit, compared with 10.2 percent of all workers. Once workers’ pay gets to $12 per hour or more, they are just as likely to drive as everyone else (i.e., about 79 percent will drive to work alone).
The map below shows where workers who earn less than $18 per hour live in the San Jose region. As is clear, they live everywhere — though with slightly greater concentration in east and south San Jose.
Low- to Moderate-Income (LMI) Residents in the South Bay
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Source: 2010 US Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics. Map by Tony Vi, SPUR
The next map shows a similar story in San Francisco. (Keep in mind that the higher concentration of low- and moderate-income residents in the Tenderloin and Chinatown is partly a reflection of the higher density in those neighborhoods.)
Low- to Moderate-Income (LMI) Residents in San Francisco
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Source: 2010 US Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics . Map by Tony Vi, SPUR
Between 2010 and 2020, there will be 309,490 job openings that pay between $18 and $30/hour, compared with more than half a million jobs that pay less than $18 and half a million that pay more than $30. Some of these openings come from new jobs, while nearly 6 in 10 come from replacement jobs due to retiring workers.
Bay Area Job Openings by Median Wage, 2010-2020
$30 or more
$18 to $30
Source: California Economic Development Department. Analysis by Steve Levy, Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy
Working with our partners, we recently launched the Economic Prosperity Strategy with a series of workshops and outreach meetings with community, labor, business and local government leaders to determine the barriers to achieving a more inclusive regional economy. In the following months, we will begin examining solutions and strategies to address these barriers.
So far, several themes have emerged with respect to barriers facing low- and moderate-income workers. One barrier to accessing better jobs is the lack of on-the-job training. Another is the transportation challenge of traveling between multiple job sites and school settings throughout the course of a day, given that many low and moderate income workers hold multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. The solution to the first challenge might be new partnerships with employers, while the latter might be helped by better coordinated transit systems or land use planning that results in more concentrated job centers (putting more opportunity in one place).
The approach of the project will be to break down traditional silos and barriers between organizations and policy areas — such as workforce development and transportation planning — and to encourage better collaboration and coordination. We want to highlight existing local solutions and create new solutions that help move Bay Area workers into middle-income jobs.
As this work progresses, we will use the SPUR blog to report back on what we learn about the jobs and industries that provide opportunities for low and moderate-income workers to move up. To get involved in this important project, contact Egon Terplan email@example.com.
Should the design of major roads and our big transit projects favor moving large numbers of people in and out of downtown? Or should DC focus on making streets feel more like neighborhood streets, and transportation investments that help people travel within and between neighborhoods?
Photo by Roger Wollstadt on Flickr.
Planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) presented participants with 3 scenarios which keep things as they are, prioritize transportation to and from the downtown core, or focus on neighborhoods.
Scenarios set different priorities
All of the scenarios include finishing 22 miles of streetcars, the bridge megaprojects like the South Capitol Street racetrack, putting performance parking in busy commercial areas, expanding CaBi and bike trails and lanes, and more.
Stay the Course, the first scenario, sticks with these and keeps allocating resources and space to a balance of long-distance and short-distance travel.
Get To the Center focuses on the downtown areas, still the main engines of DC's economy. This option makes it easier to get to downtown by car and transit, such as by timing signals to maximize traffic flow to and from the core.
DC would invest in transit to and from Maryland and Virginia, like new Metro lines across the Potomac, or commuter rail capacity. Bike trails and cycle tracks that travel to or from downtown would get the highest priority.
Travel would not necessarily be free; this scenario includes a proposal for a congestion charge for private vehicle trips downtown to help pay for infrastructure that gets people downtown.
Connect the Neighborhoods instead focuses on helping people get around within and between neighborhoods. Most capital would go to facilities that help people cross geographic barriers like Rock Creek Park or the Anacostia River. Local streets would put walking, biking, and short-distance local traffic first, such as with medians that make it easier to cross.
New transit would also serve neighborhood needs more than commuters in and out of the city, such as the full proposed 37-mile streetcar system, or buses like the Circulator that connect "activity centers."
This scenario posits that DC needs to decentralize its jobs and retail. As the city grows, a single downtown can't serve all of the needs, and therefore this scenario assumes that more mixed-use zoning will let people work all over the city instead of all cramming the main downtown routes to jobs in the center, which is almost entirely built out.
In reality, any actual plan will combine elements of all of these and not go 100% in the direction of core-oriented or neighborhood-oriented transportation. Still, it's a useful discussion, as it helps us think through our priorities. Financial constraints mean we can't build every transportation project anyone has suggested. How do we prioritize investments?
Plus, roadways have finite space. On 16th Street in Columbia Heights, for instance, there have been dueling proposals to build a median, which would make the road safer to cross, or a dedicated bus lane, which would help buses get through the area. Off-peak parking on major arterials creates significant congestion at the edges of rush hour. Bike lanes, dedicated transit lanes, and parking all vie for roadway space.
Land use matters, too
It's mostly outside DDOT's purview, but any discussion of downtown versus neighborhoods can't be complete without thinking about land use. Transportation is about getting people to places they need to be: housing, jobs, stores, schools, and so on.
Where will DC grow? Any proposal to grow anywhere meets with some opposition. Can the city develop a consensus to grow in particular places rather than others?
The city could grow mostly in the center. That would protect neighborhood character, something resident activists often speak about. On the other hand, it would probably not mean a lot more neighborhood retail. Most of all, though, there isn't actually much room to grow in the center without changes to the height limit.
Do we want to relax the height limit downtown and create a much busier and denser central business district? That land use scenario fits well with the Get To the Center transportation scenario.
Or, does DC want to decentralize? Put more growth around Metro stations, frequent bus lines, and future streetcar lines in all neighborhoods? That would bring more jobs, residents, and retail to many neighborhoods. However, it requires making sure there's room for this growth.
If every new building meets opposition and the Historic Preservation Review Board wants to shave a floor or two off every proposal in one of the myriad historic districts, neighborhoods won't be able to grow enough to decentralize the city.
But if we do want to help each neighborhood become more self-sufficient and reduce the need to travel long distances for basic necessities like groceries or recreation, the Connect the Neighborhoods scenario makes sense.
We have to do something
By 2040, projections say DC will around 800,000 residents one-third more than today. The region as a whole will add 2 million new residents, also about a third increase.
The roads, rails, and bike paths will all need to accommodate more people safely, without relying on more physical space, and that's one of the central challenges this plan seeks to address. How will we move ourselves around, with a third more people everywhere?
The District is the 7th most walkable city, according to Walk Score, yet also has the most pedestrian fatalities per capita among major cities, and 46% of respondents in a 2009 DDOT survey complained that unsafe street crossings made it difficult from them to walk to places they want to go.
DDOT is committed to expanding transit, bicycling, and walking options. Mayor Gray's sustainability plan sets goals for 75% of trips to use these modes, which fit in more people per lane mile. At the same time, some people will continue to need to drive. Performance parking, car sharing, and possibly a future driverless car can reduce parking pressures as the number of people grows.
How should the District focus its transportation to meet the needs of the future? How should it balance getting people in and out of the core versus connecting neighborhoods? What do you think?
DC transportation officials would like to help cyclists avoid the streetcar tracks, heavy car traffic, and pedestrians along H Street NE. Yesterday, the transportation committees of both Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) along H Street supported a plan to let cyclists ride in both directions on G and I Streets, while keeping car traffic one-way.
2-way Montreal bike traffic on a 1-way street for cars. Photo by Joe McCann.
G & I Streets NE are both one-way for cars and bicycles for their whole length from 2nd Street NE to their eastern ends, at Maryland and Florida Avenues in between 13th and 14th Streets. Each are 30 feet wide along most of their length, with a few 35-foot-wide blocks at the west ends. Even for the narrower sections, the current travel lane is 16 feet wide versus a typical 9-foot travel lane.
Bicycle planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) created 4 options. All add painted sharrows in the primary direction of travel (west on I, and east on G). They differed on what to do about traffic in the opposite directon.
- Make no further changes and keep bicycle travel only one-way
- Maintain parallel parking on both sides of the street and add a contraflow bike lane on either side of the parked cars, depending on the road width
- Convert parking to diagonal, back-in along only one side of the street with none on the other side; add a contraflow bike lane on either side of the parked cars depending on the road width
- Allow 2-way traffic for both cars and bicycles.
The committees favored option 2, as did an informal audience poll. There are smaller sections similar to this option already in place on New Hampshire Avenue and R Street NE near the Metropolitan Branch Trail.
Any of these options could be mixed within the corridor, such that the wider blocks use different layouts or G & I receive different treatments. DDOT bike planner Mike Goodno presented one such hybrid option, "3A," which combined portions of options 2 & 3. This would eliminate only 7 parking spots, and was the second choice of the committees and in an audience poll.
Each of the affected ANCs will take up this issue at their next full commission meetings, and DDOT will continue to refine these options and solicit community feedback. Ideally, DDOT will be able to install this new bicycle infrastructure sometime later this Summer or early Fall.
Disclosure: I am a commissioner for ANC 6C, but not a member of its transportation committee. I did not participate in the audience or committee votes.
According to Reinventing the New Jersey Economy: New Metropolitan and Regional Employment Dynamics (pdf), a Rutgers Regional Report from December 2012, “Eighty percent of all the commercial office space ever built in the history of New Jersey was erected in the 1980s.” Somerset County was one of the major focal points for the subsequent arrival of northern and central New Jersey as an employment destination: From 1980 to 1999, Somerset County’s private-sector employment grew by 92 percent, compared to only 27 percent growth statewide. One out of every nine net private-sector jobs created in New Jersey between 1980 and 1999 was created in Somerset County, even though Somerset accounts for less than one of every 25 people in the state. The biggest job gains took place mainly in suburban townships dominated by automobile-dependent office complexes, such as Bridgewater.
But in the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, old patterns are re-emerging. Demographic and market forces have begun pointing to a trend towards recentralization: Long commutes, traffic congestion, the cost of gas, and the preference among younger workers for urban living is bringing savvy employers back into traditional centers.
As one of the primary beneficiaries of the suburban office boom of the 1980s and 1990s, Somerset County has realized that perhaps it has more to lose than most New Jersey counties by ignoring the new reality. On Friday, June 7, the Somerset County Business Partnership hosted the Showcasing Somerset County’s Economic Competitiveness conference, dedicated to a discussion of how Somerset County can adapt to the demographic and employment trends toward recentralization.
While the latter part of the morning focused more generally on strategies for business recruitment and how the public and private sectors can work together, the keynote address and first panel addressed the more long-term issue of how to foster the kinds of mixed-use, walkable places that businesses (and, perhaps more importantly, their future employees) now seek. Keynote speaker Bob Antonicello, executive director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, presented the big picture, highlighting the fact that many suburbs will need to reinvent themselves in light of changing lifestyle preferences. He noted that New Jersey has had to adapt to changing demographic and economic realities before: Somerset’s County’s obsolete office parks are really today’s answer to Jersey City’s vacant industrial buildings of the 1970s and 1980s, many of which have since been drafted into new uses.
The other panelists – Bernie Navatto, chairman of the Somerset County Planning Board, Colette Santasieri, director of strategic initiatives at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Debra Tantleff, vice president of development at the real estate development company Roseland – highlighted the need for a range of redevelopment approaches to suit individual locations, the importance of transit-oriented development and of market-responsive housing types as drivers of economic growth.
Also woven through the morning’s discussions were references to Somerset County’s Strategic Investment Framework, a document intended to identify both growth areas and preservation areas for the county (and reviewed by New Jersey Future in January). Acknowledging the trends toward recentralization, the plan puts higher priority for growth on the county’s traditional centers like Somerville, Raritan, Bound Brook and South Bound Brook.
The first step in adapting to a new economic reality is recognizing the problem. Somerset County has taken a strong lead in initiating a discussion of how to repurpose commercial properties that may be reaching the end of their useful life as single-use, car-dependent facilities. Other counties that enjoyed a similar efflorescence of office campuses in the 1980s and 1990s – notably Burlington, Middlesex, and Morris – can look to Somerset’s example and start envisioning a new future for their own properties.
Photo by Michael HÃ¤nsch on Flickr."Gentrifiers" aren't all white: A new report identifies "gentrifying" neighborhoods based on trends in property values. New residents are more affluent and often younger, but in several neighborhoods, they're same race as longtime residents. (WBJ)
Bad apples lead to viral videos: If you're biking (or driving or walking), don't be a jerk. At the DC Bike Party, a few people rode unsafely and almost hit many pedestrians. One of them got hit by a taxi while running a red light. (DCist)
Simmons: Roads not rights: Deborah Simmons thinks DC shouldn't spend $1 million to promote statehood until it spends billions on new road infrastructure that would speed up the commute for some people from Maryland. (Wash. Times)
Primary will stay a joke: Muriel Bowser, David Catania, and Mary Cheh aren't willing to move the 2014 primary later than April 1. That date keeps the voting out of budget season, but could mean 9-month lame ducks if someone loses a reelection bid. (Post)
Food trucks get compromise: The DC Council may have reached a compromise on food truck regulations, which would still create defined vending zones, but let trucks operate more freely near the zones, and along narrower sidewalks. (WBJ)
Bag fee just for food?: Montgomery County may exempt non-food stores from the 5¢ bag fee (similar to what DC already does). That would exclude 89% of retailers and cut revenues from the fee by about 38%. (WBJ)
Chevy Chase Lake gets changes: Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal relax rigid congestion-based rules for development at Chevy Chase Lake, though in a nod to resident opposition, they also lower some allowable building heights. (WAMU)
Make the MBT safer: Residents along the Metropolitan Branch Trail (and Tommy Wells and Kenyan McDuffie) walk the trail together to raise awareness of safety issues and encourage people to keep using the trail. (Post)
Talk bike lanes, safe streets: There's a public meeting about Florida Avenue NE Wednesday night at Gallaudet (WashCycle) ... ANC 3D will talk New Mexico Avenue bike lanes on Monday, June 24. (Ward3DC)
And...: DC students couldn't use their transit passes Monday. (Post) ... Bethesda condos may include an art incubator. (BethesdaNow) ... An old Kozmo.com logo reappears in demolition. (DCist) ... There's a streetcar crossing sign in DC. (BeyondDC)
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Remember DC's zoning update? The source of massive public debate last year, and public hearings way back in 2008? It's still slowly grinding along, but the long delays even on less controversial provisions are making life difficult for actual homeowners today.
Carriage houses in Naylor Court. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.
A friend and her husband recently bought a DC row house for them and their two children. The row house has 2 stories plus a basement. In the rear is a 2-story carriage house, which a previous owner renovated into a separate apartment. However, it doesn't have the permits to be a legal unit.
This friend would like to rent out the carriage house. Nothing would change on the outside of the building. The adjacent houses also have garages or carriage houses on this alley, and the only windows face the alley or face the main property.
Unfortunately, DC's zoning laws make this difficult.
This house is in an R-4 zone, which encompasses many of the moderate density row house neighborhoods like Shaw, Bloomingdale, Petworth, Capitol Hill, and Trinidad. (It's the purple in the large map about halfway down this post). In an R-4, it's totally legal to make a house into 2 units, as long as both are inside the main building. But to use an existing accessory building like a garage requires a variance.
As we discussed in the context of theaters in residential zones on Friday, a variance is actually very difficult to get. There has to be some "exceptional" condition of the property. Sometimes DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment stretches pretty far to find exceptional conditions when neighbors don't object, but they can't always; in one case, a property owner wanted to build a garage on the alley to match the garages for every other property on the same alley. Nobody objected, but the board couldn't find an "exceptional" condition because that lot was exactly the same as every other lot (only without a garage).
This friend can try to get a variance, which would mean hiring zoning lawyers and a process lasting the better part of a year. Or, she and her husband can substantially renovate the house to make the basement a separate unit instead, at great expense. They might be able to maneuver around the zoning laws by somehow connecting the carriage house to the main house with a walkway, so it no longer counts as a separate building.
Or, instead of any of these undesirable and expensive approaches, DC could just pass its zoning update already. One of the proposals for row house areas would allow the legal 2nd unit to go in an accessory building, like a garage. The Zoning Commission, the federal-local hybrid board that decides the zoning in DC, decided on this and other recommendations on June 8, 2009, so we've just passed the 4-year anniversary of when they actually ruled on these proposals.
At the time, the plan was for the Office of Planning (OP) to go and write detailed text based on the Zoning Commission's guidance. The head of the project, Travis Parker, then got a job running a planning department in Colorado, and the team lost another member, Michael Guilioni, slowing the whole process. Opponents of the more controversial pieces of the update then asked for more delays, more public meetings, more task force meetings, and more process.
It's time to move forward on the zoning update. OP deputy director Jennifer Steingasser told the Dupont Circle ANC that they've recently shown the latest set of drafts to their task force, a group of residents from stakeholder groups and various wards. After that, it's time to bring the drafts to the Zoning Commission for the final phase: a formal "setdown" and formal hearings where residents can make their case for or against the proposals.
Even small tweaks that will fix pervasive problems with the zoning code have been stuck in limbo for over 5 years because this process is taking so long. It's time to bring the best draft to the Zoning Commission, have hearings, and approve the zoning update so that homeowners like these, and many others around the city, don't have to keep waiting to better enjoy and afford their properties.
Mandatory pre-application informational meeting Wednesday, June 26.
The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs announced on Friday, June 14, that it is making $5 million in federal Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds available to support long-range planning initiatives in municipalities affected by Superstorm Sandy.
The grants are available to the counties of Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union, and to municipalities within those counties, who suffered tax-base losses of at least 1% or $1 million as a result of Sandy. They are intended to support the development of recovery plans that incorporate issues of long-range resilience.
Grant-approved projects must be overseen by an AICP-PP-licensed planner. Interested communities must first complete a Strategic Recovery Planning Report, for which they may apply for and use grant funds, before they are eligible for funds for additional initiatives. Combined applications that encompass multiple eligible grant activities are permitted, as are joint applications from municipalities working together on regional planning initiatives.
In addition to the Strategic Recovery Planning Report, other activities eligible for grant funds include preparation of requests for proposals for solicitation of planning services; modification or replacement of comprehensive plans or plan elements, community resiliency plans and master plans; development or modification of community development and neighborhood plans; efforts to streamline land-use permit approval procedures in anticipation of increased volume post-Sandy; preparation of flood-zone-specific design standards that enhance resiliency; preparation of capital improvement plans for public facilities and equipment; preparation of municipal hazard mitigation plans; development of resiliency-focused codes, ordinances, standards and regulations to assist in implementation of local resiliency plans.
There is no submission deadline, and grant applications will be evaluated on a rolling basis. Grants will be made for a term of 12 months or less, and a second round of applications may be accepted after the first 12 months.
An informational meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday, June 26, 2013, at 2 p.m. in the Dept. of Community Affairs building, 101 S. Broad St., Trenton. The meeting is mandatory for all government entities intending to apply for grant funding.
More information on grant requirements and limits, the application process and the pre-application meeting is available here.
15th Street bike commuters, don't worry about getting those shock absorbers installed. Following months of appeals from the community and elected officials, DC will repave the 15th Street cycle track.
Photo by the author.
The 2-way 15th street cycle track was DC's first protected bike lane and now carries hundreds of bike commuters during rush hour. When it opened in 2009, then-mayor Adrian Fenty and Councilmember Jack Evans rode SmartBikes down it for reporters.
However, the cycle track has long needed maintenance. The parked cars that once occupied the lanes dripped gas and oil that eroded the asphalt, creating a bumpy bicycling surface. When the cycle track was changed from one-way to two-way, the southbound lane contained part of the street's brick trim edge, which is also bumpy but avoidable. Cyclists often have to choose between protecting their tires or protecting themselves by trying not to swerve into oncoming riders.
Last fall, I held a Dupont-Logan bike safety meeting with Noah Smith and Chris Linn, where we asked the District Dpeartment of Transportation's Mike Goodno and George Branyan to address this problem. The agency's Asset Management team inspected the cycletrack and put in a work order (WO#356774) on October 26, almost 8 months ago.
As an ANC commissioner who campaigned to solve this problem, I was prematurely pleased with this quick response. Since I was elected, Noah Smith, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and I kept reminding the agency about it.
Over the winter and spring, I went out to the cycle track and talked to cyclists. All agreed that DDOT did a wonderful thing by installing the track, but such a popular lane needs to be in better shape. Most complained about the unsafe bumpy conditions and several even said they had blown tires because of them.
We related these stories to DDOT without any progress. I even spoke to WAMU about it. "I've heard from people who've had near accidents because they were avoiding potholes," I said. "I heard from a father-to-be who wants to take his infant to daycare by bike but he's afraid all the bumpiness would be bad for the baby." (The audio story link includes a cute quote from a toddler and dad on the cycle track complaining about riding over the "camels" and their many "humps.")
Finally, Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT's Associate Director for Policy, Planning, and Sustainability, committed to repave the track this year. "It was always intended for us to come back and resurface it, but it's taken us a few years," he told WAMU.
After further appeals from myself and Councilmembers Jack Evans and Mary Cheh, DDOT agreed to move up the project and potentially start within the next month, according to Zimbabwe. We have proposed that the work start during the slow July 4 week and that the schedule avoid disrupting rush hour. To help protect pedestrians and drivers as well as bicycle riders, we have asked for better signage at all intersections, especially the almost-hidden alleyways off of 15th Street.
In the future, everyone involved would also like to see bike-specific traffic signals to prevent confusion and increase efficient traffic flows. This was among the recommendations from a recent study that evaluated the 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes.
The DDOT planners are also studying whether they can widen the lane slightly, so cyclists don't have to ride on the brick "gutter pan." Right now, Zimbabwe said in an email, it's not possible to narrow the car lanes any further, but they can readjust how they use the 11 feet between the edge of the parking lane and the curb.
Now, there is a 3-foot striped buffer, then a 4-foot northbound lane, and a 4-foot southbound lane that includes the bricks. Zimbabwe said, "We're still working out how we would address [this issue], but we could narrow the buffer a little bit or restripe the 7' of bike lane excluding the gutter pan as 3'6" in each direction, or leave as is since the repaving will address the asphalt/brick connection and make that better."
Zimbabwe said he and Goodno would appreciate hearing from riders about which they would prefer. Please post your thoughts in the comments.
Development at Fort Totten has been slow despite access to 3 Metro lines, its close proximity to both downtown DC and Silver Spring, its access to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, its green space and its affordability. But as demand increases for housing in the District, this previously-overlooked neighborhood could become a hot spot.
Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.
Last Saturday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth concluded their spring walking tour series with "Fort Totten: More than a Transfer Point," a look at future residential, retail and commercial development near the Fort Totten Metro station. Residents and visitors joined representatives from WMATA, DDOT and the Office of Planning on a tour of the area bounded by South Dakota Avenue, Riggs Road, and First Place NE.
Today, vacant properties and industrial sites surround the station and form a barrier between it and the surrounding area. Redeveloping them could improve connections to the Metro and make Fort Totten a more vibrant community.
There is a significant amount of new residential, retail and commercial development planned within walking distance of the Metro station. But Saturday's tour began with the only completed project, The Aventine at Fort Totten. Built by Clark Realty Group in 2007, the 3-building, garden-style apartment complex consists of over 300 rental units as well as ground-floor retail space.
Visitors were ambivalent about the success of the Aventine due to its small amount of retail space and lack of connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods. While residents noted that it created more options to live close to Metro, representatives of the Lamond Riggs and North Michigan Park civic associations agreed the development differed from the original vision for the project.
They called it an example of the need to continually engage real estate developers and local government agencies to ensure that new development is of a high quality and responsive to the local context. Throughout the tour, residents said that future development proposals should adhere to DC's urban design guidelines, improve pedestrian access and have a plan to mitigate parking concerns.
Between South Dakota Avenue and the Metro station, the Cafritz Foundation will redevelop the old Riggs Plaza apartments to build ArtPlace at Fort Totten. When finished, the 16-acre project will contain 305,000 square feet of retail, 929 apartments, and 217,000 square feet of cultural and art spaces, including a children's museum. Deborah Crain, neighborhood planning coordinator for Ward 5, noted that ArtPlace will include rental units set aside for seniors and displaced Riggs Plaza residents.
As one of the largest landowners near the Fort Totten Station, WMATA has a huge stake in future development around the station. They own approximately 3 acres of land immediately west of the station along First Place NE that is currently used as surface parking lot for commuters. Stan Wall, Director of Real Estate at WMATA, discussed the great potential for development on the current parking lot mentioned that the agency will solicit proposals for development of the area in the near future.
Anna Chamberlain, a DDOT transportation planner, talked about how streetscape improvements could calm traffic, making streets around the Metro station more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. DDOT is also working to improve connections to the Metro, as some areas lack clearly defined walking paths. The agency will begin designing a path connecting the Metro to the Metropolitan Branch Trail within the next few months.
The final stop on the tour was Fort Totten Square, a joint effort by the JBG Companies and Lowe Enterprises to build 350 apartments above a Walmart and structured parking at South Dakota Avenue and Riggs Road. DDOT has completely rebuilt the adjacent intersection to make it safer for pedestrians and more suitable for an urban environment, replacing freeway-style ramps with sidewalks, benches, crosswalks and improved lighting.
Jaimie Weinbaum, development manager at JBG, says they're committed to working with the city and residents to make Fort Totten Square an asset to the community. They've promised to place Capital Bikeshare stations there and would like to have dedicated space for Car2go as well.
With help from the private sector and public agencies like DDOT and WMATA, Fort Totten could become a model for transit-oriented development, but much of the new construction won't happen for a long time. Until then, residents eagerly await the changes and continue to work with other stakeholders toward creating a vision that will benefit everyone.
Join us for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities Twitter Town Hall on Monday, June 17, at 1:30 PM ET
June 16, 2013 marks the four-year anniversary of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since 2009, our three federal agencies have been working together to help communities build stronger regional economies, improve their housing and transportation options, and protect the environment.
As President Obama said when the Partnership launched in 2009, “…by working together, [the agencies] can make sure that when it comes to development—housing, transportation, energy efficiency—these things aren’t mutually exclusive; they go hand in hand.”
Our collaboration helps communities plan the housing, transportation and economic development they need as infrastructure for economic growth, helping them attract businesses and improve quality of life for residents.
The Partnership is a one-stop shop for communities to access federal resources that can help them become more economically and environmentally sustainable. To date, the Partnership has provided more than $4 billion in funding for projects in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, for example, coordinated investments across our agencies are supporting the revitalization of the East Side neighborhood. (Read the case study; watch the video.) An EPA Environmental Justice Showcase Community Grant facilitated renewed access to the waterfront for residents. An $11 million DOT grant for TIGER multimodal transportation is helping build and upgrade roads around the East Side’s Steel Point Peninsula to prepare for redevelopment. And a HUD Regional Planning Grant helped study the opening of a proposed rail station on a cleaned-up brownfield in Bridgeport’s East End. The station will anchor the East Side redevelopment plan, leading to new business investment; mixed-use, transit-oriented development; and affordable homes.
To celebrate the four-year anniversary of work on these and similar projects, the Partnership is undertaking three major activities this summer:
- EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe, HUD Deputy Secretary Maurice Jones, and DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari will respond to your questions and comments about the Partnership in a Twitter Town Hall on Monday, June 17, 1:30 ET. Twitter users may ask questions in advance and during the Town Hall using the hashtag #sustainableqs. You may also join us through the live webstream.
- Throughout the summer, the Partnership agencies will host roundtables in Arlington, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Toms River, New Jersey, and other communities across the country. Municipal staff, community leaders, business and industry representatives, and other stakeholders will be invited to tell us about the successes and challenges of their projects—and what the Partnership can do to help.
- In July, the Partnership will host a webinar series about three of the topics on which EPA, HUD, and DOT offer coordinated support: investing in green infrastructure, creating context-sensitive streets, and integrating housing and transportation planning. See www.sustainablecommunities.gov for dates and further details.
Staff from HUD, DOT, and EPA continue to regularly work as a team to find ways to serve tribal communities, small towns, rural areas, suburbs, and cities more effectively. We feel privileged to be a part of this collaboration, and hope that you will join us in celebrating the progress of communities across the country that are investing in a sustainable approach to economic growth.
Bob Perciasepe is acting administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Maurice Jones is deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. John Porcari is deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Photo by Jeff Youngstrom on Flickr.There is a (little) bike lobby: Dorothy Rabinowitz called the bicyle lobby "all-powerful," and it's not, but some are trying to lobby for bicycling. They're just way smaller than the auto lobby. (Politico)
Is the council too powerful?: US Attorney Ron Machen thinks the DC Council needs to curb its influence over things that invite bribery, but several councilmembers say it's just the same as everyday "constituent service." (Post)
Safeway expands, goes mixed-use: Facing competition from many more grocery chains, longtime area stalwart Safeway is looking to add more stores and renovate existing ones, often with housing on top. (Post)
Fence blocks the way: A WJLA news van "almost backed over" a resident cutting through a Rosslyn parking lot. In response, the owner has put up a fence to block a walkway, forcing residents to walk the long way around in poor lighting. (ArlNow)
No jail for Raquel Nelson: Raquel Nelson, the Atlanta woman convicted of vehicular homicide when her son ran into a street and got killed by a driver, is free: prosecutors finally relented and let her plead to jaywalking. But problems with safety crossing our streets, and bad laws, persist. (T4A)
Fraud with disability parking : At least 17 DC workers have been abusing disabled parking placards, such as non-disabled people using another's placard. (Examiner)
Education elements: Fairfax schools might start later to better match teens' circadian rhythms. (WAMU) ... Engineers studied sinkholes at Garrison Elementary, but DC hasn't paid them. (Borderstan) ... Arlington won't get a new law school. (ArlNow)
House may scrap Ike design: A House committee wants to start over with a new design for the Eisenhower Memorial. The Eisenhower family has fiercely lobbied against Frank Gehry's design. (Examiner)
And...: We'll miss JDLand (and thoughts are with JD's family). ... A conservative former Congressman wants his colleagues to go see DC's black neighborhoods. (DCist) ... Prince William residents discover VDOT's planning processes are shams. (Potomac Local)
Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.
Let's kick things up a notch in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool! We love pretty pictures of the National Mall and neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill as much as anyone, but we'd love to broaden our horizons a bit!
Specifically, we'd love to see more pictures of changing neighborhoods, mixed-use areas, and places beyond our region's iconic neighborhoods.
Greater Greater Washington uses the Flickr pool as our first stop in looking for images for our posts, and we cover so many interesting places! We're challenging you, our readers and Flickr pool contributors, to contribute pictures from all of these places. To get you inspired, this week we dug through the Flickr pool archives to pull some of the best of these kinds of images—specifically in Virginia.
Next time you're in Carlyle, Columbia Pike, Fairfax's Richmond Highway, Tysons Corner, or one of many other places GGW might write about, snap a photo! If you've never submitted to the Flickr pool, it's easy to join and submit your own photos!
Got an idea for a place deserving more photos? Share it in the comments below!
Smaller theaters that don't own buildings of their own are having trouble finding places to rent. Can DC's zoning update help fix this?
Great spot for a theater. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.
Nelson Pressley writes in the Post about numerous theater troupes which have outgrown their existing spaces, or are losing their spaces. With heavy demand for office and residential space in DC, there aren't a lot of affordable places to rent that can fit the performing arts.
It would make perfect sense for the arts to expand east of the Anacostia River and to other underserved parts of DC where space is cheaper. An arts space, the Anacostia Playhouse, is even working to open in Anacostia, though it's faced delays including some from parking minimums.
Pressley talks about a few groups which found unconventional spaces, like Spooky Action Theater, which uses a church basement on 16th Street in Dupont. But Spooky Action had to seek a zoning variance to keep performing in the church basement, which is very difficult to get; DC's Office of Planning could change this to an easier "special exception" to foster more performing arts.
Arts performances are not a by-right use in a residential area or in a religious building in a residential area. A variance, however, sets high hurdles for anyone seeking one; you have to prove that not getting the variance presents "exceptional practical difficulties or exceptional and undue hardship" on the property owner.
Neighbors had some concerns about where audience members would congregate before shows and during intermission, but ultimately the theater did get its variance with support from the Dupont Circle ANC. The theater and church agreed not to allow any audience members to use the rear alley entrance of the church, so that any noise would be on 16th Street rather than near the rear neighbors' houses.
In its report, the DC Office of Planning said that it couldn't conclude that the need for a theater rose to the level of "exceptional practical difficulties or exceptional and undue hardship," but the Board of Zoning Adjustment ultimately decided that since the church is having financial struggles, its need to rent out its basement is exceptional enough.
But why should this be necessary? If another church, perhaps one in strong financial shape, wants to rent out a basement to the performing arts, and if they can ensure it doesn't unduly harm neighbors, isn't this a win-win for everyone? Unfortunately, the zoning rules make such a beneficial arrangement extremely difficult.
The DC Office of Planning could solve this problem by simply switching performing arts to a "special exception" standard, which is much lower. Under a special exception, the zoning board simply must determine that a use doesn't harm the public good, but there need not be some "exceptional" circumstance. For example, you can locate a home daycare in a residential zone, but have to get a special exception. The same could apply to a theater.
I live in a residential zone, and there happens to be a theater on my own block. It's a great asset, not a detriment. Theaters won't be able to afford to rent spaces in busy commercial zones when they're competing with restaurants and furniture stores. We can let them use other spaces nearby, spaces not open to retailers, and help the arts while enriching our neighborhoods with fun and culture.
(And go see a show at Spooky Action, or my neighbor the Keegan, or the Studio, Woolly Mammoth, or any of the other great theater groups in DC that put on interesting plays that are new and/or low-cost. There's a lot more to arts besides the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare!)