1 Month: DC, PHI, NYC, PIT, CHI

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My apologies to readers of this blog who may have noticed that I’ve slowed down; I intend to remedy this by uploading components of my thesis and also with a few planned articles to highlight lessons I’ve learned from this recent swarm of trips.

What I’ve been up to lately: Finishing and defending my thesis, graduating with my Master’s in City and Regional Planning, still working for a tax credit syndicator, following-up on Congressional lobbying efforts for Preservation Action, the inaugural convening of RBCoYP, and applying for jobs! Whew.

Here is a brief travel tease…

DC in Mid-March:

 

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Philly in Mid-March:

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NYC in Mid-March:

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Pittsburgh in early April:

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Chicago in mid-April:

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No favorites! Besides the last city I’ve visited at the moment, whichever that is.

DC: WMATA TOD Tour

IMG_4554The Washington Metro is by far one of the most successful transit networks in North America, both in terms of ridership as well as economic development. As it relates to economic development, it isn’t just that WMATA makes TOD a priority, but also that the system performs well for practical commuting trips (with surge pricing to operate 2-minute rush hour frequencies), and revitalizing neighborhoods by concentrating 713,000 daily riders into walkable marketplaces.

Such was the case with Columbia Heights in particular, where I have spent a lot of time on the ground myself. One (delicious) word: pupusas. The area surrounding the Metro station at 14th and Linwood has been totally revitalized, but not without a high degree of public planning, investment, and long-term involvement.

Ravaged by riots in 1968, the neighborhood was subject to decades of failed revitalization efforts before transit reached the neighborhood. This included the creation of two redevelopment authorities (RLA, NCRC), and a string of failed development projects due to the neighborhood’s struggling economic base and subpar purchasing power. According to this MNCPPC presentation: Things changed in the 1990s as WMATA invested over $500 million into three new entrances, which surrounded 14th & Linwood with air rights development that the District of Columbia then provided $48 million of subsidy to support an anchor shopping center.

It looks great:

The $48 million District investment, following WMATA’s expansion into the neighborhood, catapulted the neighborhood to revitalization. That investment created a 20-to-1 ROI, with over $1 billion in resultant TOD, spread across 55 development projects.

• Since 2001, within a half‐mile of the Columbia Heights Metro Station, 55 development projects, valued at $912 million, under construction or completed

• 3,200 new residential units  Nearly 700,000 SF retail

• >36,000 residents live within a 10‐min walk of the Metro station, and nearly 40% of the population is between ages of 25‐44

• Projects include:

– 53,000 sq ft Giant Food grocery

– DC USA with retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Marshalls, Staples, and Bed Bath and Beyond.

– The 250‐seat GALA Theatre and the Dance Institute of Washington

– Highland Park and Kenyon Square mixed‐use developments: 412 residential units; 20% affordable; 20,000 SF retail– The redevelopment and reuse of the Tivoli Theater

Source: MNCPCC

While placemaking is one obvious ingredient in the success story of Columbia Heights, perhaps the most successful transit placemaking project in DC is the arch at the Chinatown/Gallery Place station – directly adjacent to the LED rotunda above the Metro escalators. This is one of the most-utilized and most-central Metro stations in the entire District, anchored by the Verizon Place arena.

 

Chinatown/Gallery Place is also one of a few of transfer stations, making it a natural fit as a TOD hub. Other less obvious TOD hubs have benefited from substantial WMATA and DC/VA/MD support, including 3 in Virginia, 6 in the District, and 13 in Maryland.

Farragut Square, near the heart of Downtown DC, is one of the most obvious examples of air rights development, with Class-A office space built above the Metro escalators. Of course, two of the Farragut Square stations have bikeshare stations, providing intermodal connectivity.

The station at U Street, one of the District’s most vibrant and active neighborhoods, models a different site plan prototype. In this development at 14th and U, an L-shaped development surrounds an open-air plaza with the Metro escalators, creating a dispersal point between pedestrians emerging from the escalators and queuing at the crosswalk. One of the city’s highest-traffic intersections, it makes sense within this context to shield the Metro station.

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There’s a Wal-Mart at the NOMA station.

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The DC Convention Center is also an interesting prototype, with the Metro station underneath the Convention Center, accessible by escalators inside the Convention Center itself. In this picture, notice that the street pavement is concrete, whereas most of DC’s streets are asphalt. This is because the exhibition hall is underneath the intersection, Convention Center, AND the affordable housing picture to the right (dwarfed but not displaced by the Convention Center).

 

Union Station, the city’s commuter rail and Amtrak hub, as well as a Metro station, is encapsulated by TOD inside and out. The interior of Union Station has been turned into a shopping galleria, with retailers such as H&M and Ann Taylor. Behind the station, to the east, is also infill housing separated by a cycle track.

On H Street in front of (but not connected to..) Union Station is the “beginning” of the DC Streetcar. That said, there are a lot of similarities to how Megabus often dumps you off under a bridge “adjacent” to a transit station, and how the DC Streetcar dumps you off on the H Street overpass above the tracks, but not at all connected to Union Station. This lack of direct connection to Union Station, and particularly the broader Metrorail system, is the only legitimate fault I can find with the DC Streetcar. The route, while short, manages to traverse three distinctly different neighborhoods.

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First is the historic commercial corridor of H Street, which is heavily revitalized, and almost entirely infilled since the streetcar project began. Second is the area around H Street and Benning Road, where the streetcar bends in front of a large outdoor transit plaza (for buses and bikeshare), surrounding by transitional urban fabric with some suburban-style shopping strips. Last is the stretch of Benning Road approaching Oklahoma Avenue, which is primarily suburban-style public housing.

As I rode it in its first week of operation, riding was fare-free, not to mention a relatively festive environment with several other curious riders taking their first ride. Some of them were taking selfies, others brought friends to check it out. In talking to a few residents, I noticed two unique POVs I never would have considered: 1, mothers with strollers were the biggest fans, because it is so much easier for them to board than a bus; 2, the eventual connection to Georgetown has area residents scared that they won’t be able to afford the fare.

The fear is that surely they won’t actually be given equitable access to the same infrastructure that Georgetown residents enjoy. By starting first with a largely disenfranchised neighborhood that was passed-up by the Metrorail, this project has an opportunity to renew these residents’ faith in local government.

DC: Trains the Old News, Bikes the New News

The Washington Metro, for all its problems including fires and crashes and more fires (just this morning), is the gold standard for transit in this nation. It is a showpiece metro system; a gleaming architectural accomplishment that makes other systems look like functional sewers (ahem, New York). Also count me as a big fan of its iconic waffle-grid station patterns, possible in part because it is one of North America’s deepest subways (due to the swampy terrain along the Potomac).

I will go into great detail on the station TOD programming, but needless to say that TOD is still one of the few things WMATA does flawlessly. Nearly all of their station-area TODs are air-rights construction, which is an amazing level of physical integration between the subway escalators and surrounding development. You often get the sense of emerging in the middle of an open-air shopping mall.

bike-lanes-1bike-lanes-2-e1401476005192All of this said, DC is the nation’s bicycle capital. It has truly become the District of Cycling – little could be more emblematic of this than the protected bike express lanes in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. Beyond Downtown DC, the District has an incredibly extensive network of bona fide cycle tracks (marked in purple). Biking is actually the fastest means of getting around the District, plain and simple.

Washington is also perfectly set-up for biking. It’s extremely compact. Markedly flat, except up north. It may be one of the most pleasant climates on this side of the Mississippi – rarely too hot or too cold. Not to mention, the demographics are young, diverse, and fit. All of this makes a perfect storm for a city that can (and has) embraced biking as a legitimate mode of transport

As a city, the District will realistically never achieve the statehood it so badly wants. However, its real function is as a national role model for planning. Other cities big and small should look to DC for innovations in planning; as our nation’s capital, it has always done a fine job of implementing new ideas. As the 117-mile Washington Metro first opened in 1976, DC has since modeled how to do TOD, air rights construction, and intermodal connectivity. The new frontier DC is pioneering is bike infrastructure. Not just with some pilot infrastructure, but with comprehensive infrastructure: 72 miles of cycle tracks. In fact, no other city has seen as large an increase in bike community as DC.

Grabbing lunch with several different friends while I was in town, they all asked me, “So what do you think of our new bike lanes?” They are top of mind. And unlike nearly all change, people already don’t mind them one bit. Drivers even are surprisingly courteous toward bicyclists. Not to mention, the day that I hit the Hill to lobby for historic preservation, the bike lobby was in full force – passing out bike lapel pins. Many Congressman and even the Architect of Congress proudly display their bike lapel pins during the spring. Bikes aren’t just tolerated, an achievement for most cities, but they are cherished, for which DC stands nearly alone (perhaps amongst Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland).

Better yet, the bike lanes are flawlessly-executed. Curb cuts minimized. Left turn lanes are negotiated with bikes having right of way. Almost all lanes are protected. Bikeshare stations abound – in fact, one of the real strengths of the kiosk-based bikeshare model (as opposed to the cheaper displaced, decentralized Zagster model) is that all station kiosks have bike maps. Even if you aren’t bikesharing, the wayfinding signage at over 350 stations is still invaluable.

With the entire DC Metro system off line tomorrow, an unprecedented move in response to yesterday morning’s “arcing fire” that erupted in the tunnels, there will be more bicyclists than ever before in the District. More may decide to switch permanently. Many already have.

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Biking is making the District more pleasant, equitable, active, green, and attractive. Biking is the new news in town.

DC-Philly-NYC is booked

ULI Hines competition: Check (Dammit I shoulda won that). Thesis lit review: Check. Work busy season: Check. I need a vacation. I think I’ll just take one. Well, somewhat. I will be in DC for National Historic Preservation Advocacy Week, as a part of being a Preservation Action Foundation Advocacy Scholar, and thought I’d hit up Philly and NYC while I was in the area.

Student traveler tip: The cheapest way to pack as much into a vacation as possible – pack light, use surface transportation, and fly in and out of different destinations. For instance, I’m flying into DC, and out of NYC, and taking Amtrak between the two. I end up back in Columbus just the same, but get to see that much more. Oh and another tip: NEVER fly into Dulles.

Somehow I did very good with AirBNB just a month out from landing in DC. Lots of options, and lots of ways to go wrong. I decided to break it up into 2 separate bookings, for a few reasons. Foremost, 5-day availability is tough in the nation’s capitol. Also, I wanted to see more of DC, and I get bored of surroundings after about 3 days. So might as well pack it up and go see another sweet DC pad. I’m staying in Mt. Pleasant / Columbia Hts. for the first 3 days, and then in Downtown DC on U Street for the next two (closer to nightlife and all that).

airbnbphillyIn Philly, I apparently booked a place that’s farther north than I thought it was. For privacy reasons, AirBNB is a little cagey about the exact location that you’re booking, which you don’t see until you’ve paid up. I saw this one and let’s just say luckily the host’s cancelation policy was flexible. It was a brand-new townhouse with a cool deck, in a hipster area, so it seemed right up my alley – until I discovered it was more of a back alley, a little closer to a rough patch than I’d realized. North Philly is NOT all bad. It’s got a lot of soul and a lot going for it, and Temple is up there. That said, I’m only in Philly for a day and a half, in which case you really oughtta just stick to Center City.

Nonetheless I’m super excited for Philly. It seems like my kinda place. Historic. Human-scale. Diverse. Did I mention historic? And beautiful:

Of course, I hope it’s not blizzarding in Mid-March (like the last two winters up until this one, fingers crossed). That would kinda suck at that point.