A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Tag: washington dc

Cities Start to Roll Back Dumb Parking Regs, Neighbors Freak Out

by drewnilsen

We’re starting to see a paradigm shift with parking policy, but that change – which isn’t really about parking, it’s about the entire fabric of our urban landscape – will face a lot of pushback from forces averse to change.

More cities are considering rolling back their minimum parking requirements (MPRs), and this bodes well for the future of public transit, walkability, affordable housing, and less sprawl.

Cities and suburbs alike regulate a minimum amount of parking required of a business or development. There’s usually a complicated calculus based on the type of business or residence, part of the city, etc. And that sounds reasonable, right?

Not necessarily. First of all, it can be prohibitive for rezoned or historic properties to meet MPRs, thereby resulting in the property not being utilized. A proposal by the Austin City Council aims to target this problem by doubling the minimum size a building must be before it has to offer parking, in part so that more historic buildings can be used.

Moreover, many MPRs are predicated on an antiquated notion of car ownership that exceeds current conditions. The increased popularity of Washington, DC as a place for young urbanists less likely to own a car – coupled with car- and bike-sharing services – means that fewer residents own cars.

“If you were to say, certainly ten years ago, but even five years ago that we would have in this city and 50 percent of folks go to work without a car and that 40 percent of the households do not have a car, they would have had you committed,” said a George Washington urban planning professor.

Yet, many residential developments – even ones in cities clearly targeted to an “urban” demographic – are still subject to MPRs that demand one parking space per bedroom. Many MPRs for businesses are calculated based on as much as 85% of peak capacity, resulting in an excess of parking that sits empty most of the time.

The implications of MPRs on architecture are spelled out well in this Atlantic Cities article about a novel new approach in Boston. The designer must reduce amenities to residents (common space, balconies, courtyards) or public greenspace, and replace it with parking. Or, s/he can bury the spots underground – at a much steeper cost that’s passed on to residents (whether they drive or not). Or, s/he can provide more land for parking, not only increasing costs, but also perpetuating sprawl and marring the landscape with another parking lot that could be better used as a business, more housing, a park.

The added cost is not negligible, either. DC planners noted that “the regulations have a real cost. A designated parking space can add as much as $50,000 to the price of a residential unit.” That added cost is folded into renters’ housing costs, as well, whether they drive or not.

MPRs have a ripple effect on everyone. They mean that development sprawls out farther, and the environment is covered by unsightly and impervious cover that absorbs heat and adds to polluted runoff.

It’s worth noting that the absence of MPRs doesn’t mean that developers won’t build parking; it just removes the regulation that requires them to. For many residences and businesses – especially in more car-dependent cities – the market will demand the provision of parking.

Unfortunately, developers who propose less parking often face pushback from neighbors who fear that their residential streets will be overrun by cars (this is especially curious in neighborhoods that have garages and driveways). A new mixed-use project in Tenleytown, a leafy enclave in far northwest DC, has faced opposition from neighbors – despite the fact that DC is an increasingly urban, non-car-dependent city and the likely residents of the new complex will own far fewer cars than they would have even a few years ago.

While I think that Tenleytown residents’ NIMBYism is unwarranted and anachronistic, that response is pretty standard across the country. The Boston developer cited above has proposed a creative solution. He’s trying to assuage Allston neighbors’ concerns and get zoning approval to build a parking-free complex – provide that residents sign away their rights to own a car. It’s an interesting idea, and if it works, it could circumvent NIMBY opposition and clear the path to more dense, smart development nationwide.

Living in the Shadows

by drewnilsen

Back in 2006, I finished a job in the Chicago area. Before returning home to Texas, I planned a solo trip to check out Milwaukee, a mere hour and a half away. A few years prior, I had read an article that pegged Milwaukee as the #1 most underrated city in America, but I had never visited (generally because, on roadtrips, I would stay with friends in Chicago and Madison or Minneapolis).

My colleagues – all from Chicagoland – seemed bemused but intrigued by my excursion. One, who grew up in Chicago, had never even been to Milwaukee. Within a few hours, we had wrangled a posse of Chicagoans to make the arduous trek up I-94, and we all had a blast consuming brats and spectacular coffee, checking out some fun tourist traps, and hitting the colorful bars on Brady Street. The night ended with the entire bar singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with us (don’t ask).

This is not to suggest that Milwaukee is better than Chicago. (I despise hierarchical comparisons of cities being “better” than others. They’re just different.) But the Chicagoans’ dismissal of plucky little Milwaukee as a place not worth visiting is a phenomenon that exists elsewhere.

Last month, residents of Baltimore were perturbed by a condescending Travel piece published in the Washington Post that culminated in a superfluous, snarky “I wouldn’t want to live there, but what a place to explore.”

I’ve only lived in D.C. for a little over a year, but I suspect a lot of Washingtonians share that attitude towards Bawlmer – maybe not outright condescension, but at least dismissal or oblivion. I’ve visited Baltimore a few times in the last month (though I’ve been there previously), and I’ve found it to be a vibrant, fun place full of more characters and self-expression than I usually find on the street in DC (even in hip neighborhoods like Columbia Heights). So, whether that dismissal is bad for Baltimore (or Milwaukee), a lot of people in DC (or Chicago) are missing out.

A similar phenomenon can occur with a medium-sized city subsumed by a larger metro area. Oakland has been “discovered” within the last decade or so, but I recall its reputation among residents of San Francisco and the Bay Area prior to that was of violence and poverty – despite the fact that it always was a big city that, in addition to gangs and slums, also had wealthy homes in the hills, a downtown business district, stadiums, and a cultural diversity and range of income levels that most cities have.
While Oakland has “Brooklynized,” a more current example is Long Beach. I grew up in Los Angeles County (in a beach suburb not too far from Long Beach), but Long Beach always seemed to suffer from the same negative connotations Oakland used to have. I’ve always found it to be a more affordable, lively part of L.A. that has a laid-back vibe and incredible ethnic diversity, as well as some cool shopping districts, bars, and coffeeshops. But, even last year, when I was asking Angelenos about good neighborhoods for a friend of mine to live in, Long Beach still suffered from a “hood” sort of reputation.

Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. The very dismissal from the big city allows the forlorn city to flourish. I just stayed with a friend in Baltimore; she’s a District native who recently moved from the DC suburbs to a beautiful house in Hampden, Baltimore that she bought for a price that would be unattainable in Washington.

“I think it’s also important to note that being the smaller, dismissed city is part of Baltimore’s psyche. … People here are proud of where they live, and no small part of that pride is based in constantly having to defend the city’s merits. People here have strong feelings about the city, and a loyalty towards it, that I think is at least in part a reaction to those dismissive attitudes. So I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing,” my friend said. “If those dismissive attitudes didn’t exist, and more people were moving from DC to Baltimore, the character of the city would change greatly. … We get a lot of creative weirdos and nerds and entrepreneurs and people who want to make a difference in a local community, and that population makes the city what it is. Plus the dismissive attitude [from DC] keeps down traffic and costs and makes it possible to get into pretty much any event without lots of advance planning — it keeps things more casual and spontaneous and affordable. It would be a very different city if folks in DC and NYC didn’t dismiss it. I don’t think the dismissive attitude is really such a negative thing for Baltimore — as much as I love to speak up on behalf of my city in the face of dismissiveness, it’s really just filling me with more pride, not detracting from my experience of living here. It’s the people in DC who dismiss it who are losing out.”

So maybe all is well. The ostensibly underrated places remain bastions of the weirdos and cheap rent and artists and all the things that foster a funky subculture, which they’d lose if discovered. This is not to say that bigger, expensive cities like New York can’t also be incubators of innovation and culture – they surely are. But like a neighborhood that hasn’t fully gentrified, the symbiosis between a bigger, more “important” city and its forlorn little brother an hour up the road or nestled in its metro area is perfect.

Still, if you’re a fan of great cities, hop on the train next weekend. There might be a great place you’re overlooking.

Happy Birthday, Baby! It’s a T-shirt of a Bus Map!*

by drewnilsen

Buses provide significantly more range, at a much more efficient cost, than rail. However, a seemingly trivial impediment to their adoption — particularly by those who aren’t dependent on public transit — is the indecipherability of bus maps (L.A. example in PDF)

Even here in DC, which only has five Metro subway lines (effectively three, as two lines significantly overlap within the city), people bemoan how difficult it is to get to popular, up-and-coming areas like H Street Northeast/Atlas District  — despite the fact that a bus (the ever-entertaining X2) goes directly from downtown to the burgeoning bar district.

I didn’t ride the bus for years in Austin because I didn’t know where the routes went (smart phones and Google Maps transit directions have somewhat ameliorated this problem). I’m not the only one, and it’s not only Austin.  If you’re new to a city, not knowing where your stop is can become a significant source of consternation and a major obstacle to adoption.

A few simple, affordable changes to how bus routes are presented on maps could go a long way towards making buses more accessible and understandable to the public.First, as much as I love to obsess about the minutiae of accurate maps, the detail of the real world is not helpful for cognitive digestion.

Stylized, graphically-simplified public transit maps — like London’s Tube  and DC’s Metro — make up what they lose in geographic accurancy with a more easily-memorized picture.More significantly, bus maps have suffered from a picture that treats all routes equally. This would be akin to a road map that depicted an unpaved alley the same way as an interstate highway.

There’s a movement afoot to remaster the way bus routes are misrepresented. A Cincinnati activist, Nathan Wessel, has done a fine job in reformatting the city’s bus maps to portray routes in a user-friendly way by frequency [closer map view], going so far as to explain frequent routes (“Hop on!”), secondary routes (“Be prepared to wait a little longer”) and tertiary routes (“Maybe look at a schedule”).

Spider Map graphic from Nathan Wessel, via UrbanCincy.com

Traditionally, all routes — regardless of intervals — have been drawn up identically. So, this change would be a big step forward if implemented by transit authorities. Seattle‘s King County Metro RapidRide is the first I know to do so.

Finally, spiders. Anyone who has ever walked up to a random bus stop — or even tried to decipher a stop online — has faced befuddlement when trying to discern where buses from that (or nearby) stops go.

Although DC’s Metro has attempted to highlight routes emanating from a particular stop, the result is still cluttered.
“Spider Maps” present a better solution — such as Greater Greater Washington’s H Street mockup [closer map view (PDF)]. By reducing the “noise” from other routes — and overlaying neighborhood names without the distraction of other map details — the spider map can convey some clarity for potential riders.

Are convoluted maps the reason that people fear the bus? No. But the accessibility of rail has a lot to do with its simplicity and understandability and, ultimately, the popularity of (expensive) rail over (affordable) buses. At a time when municipal revenues are down and budget cuts are in vogue, cleaning up map presentation is an efficient way to improve service and increase ridership.

*I’ve been asking for these NYC subway map socks for Christmas from my family — composed of Brooklyn natives and transplants alike — for years. To no avail. I want them this year!

At Long Last, A Finance Magazine Tells Me Where The Cool Kids Are Chillin’

by drewnilsen

Once you’re explaining a joke, it’s no longer funny. Once you’re quantifying coolness, it’s not cool.

That arbiter of what’s hip, Forbes Magazine, is out with a list of the 20 coolest cities in America.

As I’ve discussed recently (here and here), online surveys purporting to tell me “Where I should move to” or what the next hot cities are have an inherent inability to capture the intangibles what what makes a place great.

I’ll reveal the findings below so you can pack your bags on the train to Bitchin’ville (unless Fortune Magazine drops its own dopeness bomb first). But first, the methodology.

Forbes used seven equally-weighted metrics. Multiple criteria were based on sports and recreation (number of sports teams, green space, outdoor recreational activities … like golf. Tré cool, Forbes). I like that they used number of non-chain restaurants, as TGI Friday’s hasn’t been a proxy for coolness in 40 years. Also factored in were cultural diversity, unemployment, and net migration. Notably absent — any mention of walkability (curious, since quantifiable Walk Scores are readily available for every neighborhood) or access to public transit.

No list of this sort is perfect, but it’s missing a human element. God help me for invoking the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series in support of my argument, but the original intent recognized that computers might not realize that 9-1 Oklahoma is actually way better than 10-0 Central Michigan. Thus, they balanced the computer rankings with the human element (coaches’ and media polls).

The human element is the missing link here. A panel of “experts” — everyone from urbanists and realtors to cultural mavens and sociologists — could have rendered their own coolest city picks, or weighted the rankings based on the data.

So, what’s the #1 coolest city in America? Brace yourself.

Houston. Just the other day, I noted that Houston gets a bad rap, and is underrated. In my years living in Texas, I came to admire Houston’s cultural diversity, arts, food, and fun, walkable neighborhoods inside the 610 Loop. Its affordability is an asset, as is its progressivism (I get more raised eyebrows — especially outside of Texas — by mentioning Houston’s second-term lesbian mayor, than I do from anything else I say about the place). All that said, it’s hard to believe that Houston would even get on the “Family Feud” board in a survey of average Americans asked to name the coolest cities.

And #2? Washington, DC. [Comments redacted since I live here now.]

There are a few good choices on this list — though whoever put Betheda, Maryland on there should be fired — but it demonstrates the limitations of trying to decipher what’s cool based exclusively on numbers. Math, in this case, isn’t cool.

City housing should be family, roommate, and polygamist-friendly

by drewnilsen

Having recently relocated to Washington, DC, I’ve been grappling not only with the stratopheric rents here, but also with the difficulty of renting a place. I actually wanted to live in one of DC’s larger, beautiful rowhouses — I’m 33, but I still enjoy living in a big house with roommates. However, as the process unfolded, I discovered how aggravating it was — I was competing for every 3-4 bedroom house — even those off the Metro in “transitional” neighborhoods — with 20+ other groups. The fact that I lack an income (I’m still job-hunting! Anyone? Bueller?) — though I have a great credit score and enough savings to pony up an extra-big deposit — and one of my roommates is tromping around the West African nation of Guinea, while my other is from Italy and lacks a social security number, made us untouchables to every individual landlord in town.In desperation, we went to a newer, modern condo, where we figured a larger entity might be more flexible on the financial angle. And, pending my criminal background check (DON’T LOOK IN SOUTH DAKOTA!), they were. Yet, I initially inquired about three bedrooms apartments, and I was surprised that they only had one 3 BR unit in a complex of, perhaps, 100 units.I found this odd, because plenty of 20- and 30-somethings want to live in groups — out of financial necessity or because they want to (I’m sure there’s some theory of Millennials in here somewhere). Or, if you’re doing well, you might want an extra room (or two), and still live in the city. The fierce competition for every large house in DC backs me up on that.

I hadn’t even considered the impact on families, though. Atlantic Cities — my catnip — wrote about the Toronto* Deputy Mayor opposing a requirement that at least ten percent of a new, large development be at least three bedrooms, to accommodate families.

My former colleague and neighbor in DC helpfully pointed out that it’s all about profit; you can command more per square foot from a studio or one bedroom than a 3 BR. His 60s-era urban renewal building, which I can see from my window in SW DC, is in the process of ripping out its 3 BRs to convert to smaller units.

Families and children — like all forms of diversity — are vital to the thriving energy of cities. Plenty of parents still want to live in the suburbs, but many parents my age want to raise their kids in an urban environment. Schools are usually the biggest hurdle (besides expense and space), but city policy and developer short-sightedness shouldn’t also be conspiring against them.

Yet, my own anecdotal house-hunting experience in the last month underscores that there is demand for larger housing units (not to mention the architectural tragedy of chopping up rowhouses and brownstones).

Hopefully, developers will realize this is find a way to not force everyone who wants to live in cities to live in the most little boxes, little boxes. But, cities have the leverage to force developers to build family (and group house) friendly accommodations, to ensure that cities retain a true diversity of residents and options.

*As I’ve learned from the Toronto-native boyfriend of my cousin (both of whom are moving to the thrilling urban environment of Ottawa next month), it’s pronounced “Toronno,” not “ToronTO.” Impress the next Canadian you meet!

The “Capitol” of Capital Misspellings

by drewnilsen

I lived in Austin on-and-off for about nine years, and my heart still resides in the land of great live music, cheap rent (compared to DC, anyway), cheap beer (ditto), liberal politics, flip-flops, Longhorn football, and breakfast tacos (the world’s greatest morning food).

I suspect, though, that every single resident was getting high on the Barton Springs Greenbelt on the day in middle school English when they taught the difference between “capital” and “capitol.” It’s certainly an easy error to make, but every other city seems to grasp the distinction — “capital” (with an “a”) is the city, “capitol” (with an “o”) is the building. For example, Washington, DC, is our nation’s capital, but the neighborhood where underpaid congressional staffers hit free happy buffets is called “Capitol Hill.”
Today, a writer at the excellent Texas Monthly referred to “the capitol city” in an article about Robert Plant living in Austin with singer Patty Griffin. I loved the steak frites at the now-closed Capitol Brasserie, which was downtown and not within view of place where the bidness of Texas — notably, slashing $28 billion from the budget and legalizing the shooting of feral hogs from helicopters — is done. A budget car dealer out in the suburbs — with no apparent fondness for Italian Renaissance Revival-style government buildings — is also named “capitol.” (I’ll cut Capitol Kia some slack, though, because it finally stopped erroneously referring to its location as “Interstate” 183, which does not exist.)

I’ve lived in a few English-speaking capitals — Providence, Cape Town, Austin, and now DC — but I’ve only noticed this issue in wide practice in Austin. What gives?

Trains to Nowhere

by drewnilsen

Washington, DC’s Metro often receives praise as the nicest subway in America. Having just moved to DC after a short stint living in and traveling around Europe – I’d lick the floor of Lisbon’s subway, and a Brussels tram I rode smelled of rich, new cowhide – I can a little snotty about this assessment. Yes, Metro is carpeted and has coolly Modernist stations that don’t drip sewage onto copious amounts of rats, and local riders self-police each other’s behavior (“STAND RIGHT, WALK LEFT, YOU STUPID TOURIST!”).

Yet, Metro shuts down before midnight on weeknights and switches to painfully long intervals at an absurdly early hour (what this blog’s Founder coined “the Matlock schedule”).

But the biggest problem with Metro is coverage, owing to its genesis in an era when cities were out of vogue, and it doesn’t know if it’s an urban rail system or a commuter line.  Metro – and most other American public transit networks (other than New York City’s) – was predicated on a goal of shuttling commuters into and out of downtown, but not necessary to and from neighborhoods where people might live, work, and play.

Greater Greater Washington has a nifty animation of the evolution of Metro, from 1976 to the present.  It should be fun for any Washingtonian to see how the routes have expanded and morphed over the years, particularly in light of last month’s Rush Plus tweaks to the system.

Admittedly, it’s difficult for any system with only five lines to serve most neighborhoods. However, New York City’s MTA, Chicago’s El and Boston’s T all seem to benefit from the existence of complementary suburban commuter lines, which allow the urban rail to focus on the city itself.  Despite the existence of commuter rail in Maryland, Virginia lacks such a system, forcing Metro into a schizophrenia that adequately serves nobody.

Unfortunately, altering train infrastructure is prohibitively expensive and time consuming. If we could start from scratch, though, I suspect the DC Metro map would look much different, and that Chicago’s El lines wouldn’t all require going into the Loop to go from Andersonville to Roscoe Village.

As cities from Los Angeles to Austin to Atlanta create and expand rail and other public transportation in their metropolitan areas, they’d be wise to consider that American cities are no longer what they were in the 1960s and 1970s – people now commute from one suburb to another, not to downtown, and people choose to live and hang out off H Street, not flee to Woodbridge when the figurative foreman’s whistle blows (or happy hour ends).


Oh My Jesus, High-Speed Rail From NY To DC (Maybe)

by evanmcmurry


A small privately owned Washington company is lobbying to develop a high-speed rail system that would take passengers from the District to Baltimore in 15 minutes and to New York in an hour.

The Northeast Maglev, a downtown D.C. firm with 30 employees, is working with Central Japan Railway Co. — which operates the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan — to develop a maglev network that would connect Washington and New York, with stops in Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia, including BWI Airport, Philadelphia International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport. Eventually, the company wants to extend the line to Boston.

It is a private company, and that sector likes to ink deals that fleece taxpayers, and puts profits ahead of safety even in the face of natural disasters. Still, Amtrak—which is pushing a competing proposal that looks like it will take as long to complete as a bus from NY to DC on a Friday afternoon—ain’t exactly the US government’s shining star here. I’m more than willing to hear what private industry has to say if it can get the job done.

Of course:

It is not the first time there’s been an interest in building a maglev system in the Northeast, but previous attempts were halted by lack of support from lawmakers and funding shortfalls.

The GOP currently hates trains for reasons unspecified, except when they’re in Ayn Rand novels. Hey, call the thing the John Galt Express. Just fucking build it already. (via WaPo)