30 April 2010

Zombie streetcar rails rise from the dead

With all of the news about the new streetcar network under construction in DC, I thought it would be worth stopping and taking note of some of the relics of the old streetcar network that used to exist all over the city.

Check out this map from the National Capital Trolley Museum's website:

Clicking on the map will let you see the routes that were in use in 1958, just a couple years before the end of streetcar service in DC. Many of these rail lines still exist—they were simply paved over when the streetcars were taken out of service. You can, of course, still see some of the old tracks in places like Georgetown:

Photo by Kmf164

Dan Silverman of Prince of Petworth has a photo of some old streetcar rails being torn up as part of the Columbia Heights streetscape project, and I saw some old rails being disposed of during the reconstruction of 11th Street NW between Massachusetts and Rhode Island Avenues.

Some of the old rails are making themselves visible without construction projects. Check out these photos from the corner of Florida Avenue and 8th Street NE. This is right in front of the main gate for Gallaudet University.

The curved pavement cracks in the first and fourth photos show where tracks that are hidden just beneath the surface are making their presence known. Interestingly enough, this corner is part of the proposed second phase of DC's new streetcar network. Looks like these tracks aren't willing to be replaced without a fight!

28 April 2010

Good Font/Bad Font

Indulge me in something a little silly here. I'm a font nerd, and this cup of soup I came across at Harris Teeter the other day really brought a smile to my face:

(For those interested, Harris Teeter's font is called Jester).

On the other hand, this sign at a Barrack's Row restaurant made me look twice:

This font is Copperplate Gothic Bold, which clearly has quite a following out there in some quarters. Note the two lowercase "o"s in the word "Room"—they've been rotated ninety degrees, apparently because the sign's frame wasn't made large enough for the restaurant's name to fit. Not important, but it did catch my eye...

21 April 2010

Streetcar details revealed at open house in Trinidad

Residents heard about the maintenance yard for the H Street NE streetcar line, how the system will tie in to Union Station, and how the streetcars will be powered at Tuesday's meeting hosted by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) at Trinidad's Wheatley Education Campus on the 1200 block of Neal Street NE.

Photo by erin_m.

DDOT's Scott Kubly, head of the Progressive Transportation Services Administration (PTSA) presented illustrations to the packed gymnasium at Wheatley Education Campus showing how the western end of the H Street line will continue below the railroad tracks, ending at a maintenance yard under the Hopscotch Bridge. Streetcars could be running in service by the spring of 2012.

William Shelton, chairman of ANC 5B, introduced the meeting, and Councilmember Tommy Wells spoke of the importance of linking Wards 5 and 7 to Union Station ("from which you can travel to anywhere in the world").

DDOT Director Gabe Klein stressed that the city is working on the "three P's: public safety, public schools, and public spaces," and said improving these will bring business, development, and families back to the city. He mentioned the fact that the city had over 800,000 residents at its peak in the 1950s and that the population is now increasing.

Rendering of streetcar stop along Benning Road. Image from DDOT.

Mr. Klein also made news by stating that DDOT is working with the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) on a compromise regarding overhead wires as a power source for the streetcars, stating NCPC is "very open to compromise."

Finally, Scott Kubly took the stage to discuss some of the details of the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line. DDOT has submitted a $25 million grant application to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to help fund the $75 million necessary to extend it across the Anacostia River to the Benning Road Metro station. The FY2011 budget includes an additional $63 million needed to complete construction and make the H Street line fully functional.

Mr. Kubly also mentioned his hopes for an overhead wire compromise with NCPC. An interesting fact he brought up (which was difficult to hear due to the fact that he was battling serious laryngitis) was that a wider pantograph on the streetcars would mean even less obtrusive wires are required to produce the necessary power for the cars.

The three streetcars that are currently being stored in Greenbelt will soon be brought to the District for citizens to have an opportunity to walk through the cars and see them firsthand.

The western end of the H Street line, which currently ends at 3rd Street NE, will continue two blocks west via a hole punched through the Hopscotch Bridge, crossing 2nd street at grade, and by entering the old H Street tunnel under the railroad tracks, similar to the tunnels at K, L, and M Streets. The entrance to the H Street tunnel is visible at the right hand side of this historical photograph taken in 1969.

Renderings of streetcars descending through the Hopscotch Bridge (left) and in the tunnel under the railroad tracks (right). Images from DDOT. Click to enlarge.

After crossing under the tracks, the streetcars will emerge at 1st Street NE, cross the street at grade, and enter a maintenance yard under the Hopscotch Bridge between 1st Street and North Capitol, concealed from public view.

Schematic of the maintenance yard (left), 1st Street NE (center), the Union Station stop, and tracks toward H Street (right). Image from DDOT. Click to enlarge.

Three new power substations will provide power for this line, located at 26th Street and Benning Road NE (just north of the kiosk library), a vacant lot at 1215 Wylie Street NE, and under the Hopscotch Bridge in the 200 block of H Street NE. Each will measure approximately 15 by 40 feet, and will be constructed to blend in with the surrounding area.

The platform at 1st Street NE will connect directly to the north mezzanine of the Union Station Metro station via a tunnel that was started but never completed in 1975 when the Metro was built. 510 of the tunnel's 600 feet is complete; the remaining 90 feet will have to be dug as part of the current construction. DDOT plans a single platform and track here, as there is currently not enough room for a parallel track and platform due to limited space and ADA requirements for space to enter and exit the streetcars.

The temporary eastern end of the line (at Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue) will consist of a short stub track that allows for eastbound streetcars to turn back towards Union Station. That stub will be integrated into the route towards the Benning Road station when that part of the line is completed.

Construction at the ends of the line should commence in Fall 2010, and be complete by Winter 2012, allowing the streetcars to begin running in Spring 2012.

The question and answer session was very cordial, with most people asking short questions about operational issues including how traffic would be affected, automobile parking, signage for the deaf community, and safety concerns for the elderly. A couple queries about the status of streetcar propulsion (the overhead wire question) were raised, but there was none of the contentious back-and-forth that might have been expected.

At the end of the evening, Wheatley's principal Scott Cartland asked those of us in the audience to help stack the chairs and clean up the gym since the staff had gone home for the evening and there was only one janitor to handle everything overnight. We gladly lent a helping hand, thanked the presenters, and stepped back out into the comfortable night air.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

13 April 2010

"The problem with Anacostia is no metro access."

See that quote above? Megan McArdle, who blogs for The Atlantic, wrote that as a comment on an article she wrote titled "Why Are There No Houses for Sale in DC?"

To start with, her premise is false. There are plenty of houses for sale in DC. Without knowing precisely her requirements, it's difficult to tell where she has been looking, but as a homeowner in Trinidad who pays close attention to when houses come on and go off the market, I know that there is a decent inventory of homes available in our neighborhood, and in many other neighborhoods in the city.

David Garber, who writes the blog And Now, Anacostia, commented and asked if she had looked in Historic Anacostia for a home. Her reply, quoted in the title for this article, shows unfamiliarity, if not downright ignorance, when it comes to this city. Look at the map below:

View Historic Anacostia in a larger map

The Anacostia metro station is highlighted in red, and the Anacostia neighborhood is highlighted in yellow. The green line along Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue is approximately 1000 feet long. That's how far it is from the edge of the neighborhood to the Metro station.

If Ms. McArdle honestly believes that Anacostia has no Metro access, I'll gladly take her on a tour of the city to help familiarize her with its neighborhoods. Perhaps then she'll see there are homes for sale, and that maybe she needs a new real-estate agent who knows the city better than the one that hasn't been able to find her a home so far.

08 April 2010

Update from WASA—and more water springs forth from the Earth

Over the last month, I've learned quite a bit about the terminology involved in the repair and upkeep of our city's water delivery system. The back-and-forth that I've had over email with WASA has been enlightening.

It all started with an angry Tweet from me on March 9. WASA's Twitter feed, to that point, was simply a way of forwarding occasional notices for city blocks that would be subjected to a "work zone" that day. After witnessing how well DCRA interacts with the public on Twitter, I was spoiled and believed that every city agency should communicate in the same way (I still DO feel that way).

Shortly after that angry Tweet, WASA announced that it was going to start two-way communication using its Twitter account. Can I claim that I was responsible for this flowering of openness? Probably not, but I like to think the attention helped get them moving forward.

Anyway, after yesterday's post regarding the mysterious leak on Montello Avenue NE in Trinidad, I received another follow-up from Alan Heymann, WASA's Public Affairs Director:
Our Director of Water Services spoke with the various foremen who have been involved with work in the 1600 block of Montello Ave. Here is what he heard, and what we plan to do next.

DC WASA repaired a leak further north toward Raum Street. When shutting off the main to do the repair, the crew found the valve at Montello and Raum to be defective. Water Services then scheduled a shutdown to replace the valve. When water on the 1600 block of Montello was shut down for the valve replacement, the water surfacing in the middle of the block did not stop. We tested the water from the street for fluoride, because groundwater, treated drinking water and wastewater typically have different levels. This often helps us determine what kind of water is surfacing. Because the sample revealed little fluoride, and because the water didn’t stop when we shut down the main, we determined that the source was not a WASA pipe, but groundwater. When we encounter groundwater coming to the surface, we work with DDOT to reroute it into a drain.

As a result of your post, we are expanding the investigation. An investigation crew will listen for a leak along Holbrook Terrace and Meigs Place today. If any sounds are detected, a crew is scheduled to return tomorrow to drill test holes over the main to try to pinpoint the source of the sound and determine if there is a leak. If no sound, the crew will excavate south of the existing pothole and observe how the water is entering the excavation. While the hole is exposed, we will shut down the mains in Holbrook Terrace and Meigs Place for a short duration to see if the water stops or slows down. We will also take another sample.

Therefore, we will not do any excavating until Thursday.
This is exciting, and it'll be interesting to see what WASA and DDOT end up having to do to get this fixed.

Not wanting to pile on the requests regarding water coming out of the woodwork in our neck of the woods, but when they've figured out what the deal is on Montello Avenue NE, there is this little situation on Mount Olivet Road NE between Gallaudet University's campus and Ivy City since at least last September...

06 April 2010

No problems here,—move along (or, Please ignore that giant hole in the ground)

District residents love to complain about the city government. How it's not doing enough, how it's taxing them too much, how it's doing a poor job of providing services, how it's failing to follow through on promises (made one day and seemingly disavowed the next).

I am guilty as charged when it comes to this mindset. When I see a problem, I often wonder how the city could allow such a thing to happen, to fester, to become a bigger problem than it had to be. Of course, city agencies can't be everywhere at once—citizens have to be the eyes on the ground that alert the agencies about problems. Ideally, the city will use that citizen input to fix a problem as soon as is reasonable.

Seeing water coming up out of the middle of the street would qualify as a problem, one would imagine. Last fall, after moving to Trinidad, I noticed water seeping out of the pavement on the 1600 block of Montello Avenue NE. Google Maps' Street View caught the problem occurring before that even, during the summer of 2009:

View Larger Map

A pothole eventually developed here. Buses like the D4 and D8 plowed through it, causing it to grow larger and larger, so the city finally came through and did some repaving work, which appeared to fix the problem. Fast-forward to March 2010, and the pothole came back. A metal plate was placed over that hole, while water continued to come up from the ground below.

Water flowed downhill from the hole in the street, like a spring giving rise to the beginning of a mighty river (not really, but that sounds more appealing, doesn't it?).

The images below show you what it looked like last week. Someone removed the metal plate. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that neighborhood kids didn't pick it up and walk away with it as a prank. Buses and cars continued to drive through the pothole, making it to grow hour-by-hour.

Traffic driving through the hole was splashing water over the roof of the blue car on the right, and gravel sprayed in every direction once tires made contact with the 6-inch deep puddle.


Sometime in the last couple of days, more asphalt was poured into the hole, in what appears to be a pretty half-assed attempt to fix this problem. Clearly, water is still running out from underground, which means the picture below will resemble the picture above in a short period of time.


The neverending pothole.

Now, here's the part of this story where I tell you this is more than just a farce—attempts have been made to really remedy the problem. Instead of just complaining about this on the Internet, I started sending emails to WASA a month ago, alerting them to the presence of water flowing out of a neighborhood street (as well as multiple other water issues in the neighborhood, which I will address in a future post). I even sent pictures of the leak as evidence. A customer service representative told me that crews inspected the area and determined that there were no leaks. Almost incredulously, I replied that something certainly must be leaking—why would there be water actively pouring out of the middle of a city street?

The WASA representative informed me that a second crew would be dispatched to double-check on the leaky street. When I asked what they found, this is what I was told (on March 22):
The work order for 1635 Montello Ave., NE was closed.  After several investigations, checking a water sample in the area, and an inspection from a foreman, they concluded there is not a leak resulting from a break on a main near that address.  We suspect this location is saturated with ground water as we noticed water coming from another elevation when crews excavated the site to ensure no breaks exist.  There was a substantial repair on a valve at Holbrook and Montello Ave. in January.  It is possible that the leaking water from that valve saturated the ground near 1635 Montello Ave., and what you see now is that water draining.  Another possibility is that a home or business in the area is discharging water from a sump pump to dry their grounds.  If you can send me your pictures, I would be happy to pass them along to the foreman for his review.
Since then, I have heard nothing further from WASA. As you can see, some agency has taken the time to "fix" this problem, but clearly this is not done in a way that anyone would define as satisfactory. Perhaps the explanation above is correct—this is simply ground saturation forcing its way to the surface. If so, it appears that Montello Avenue will have a permanent pothole at this location.

On March 11, before the discussion excerpted above, I received this note from Alan Heymann, the director of Public Affairs for WASA, in response to my concerns:
We had a number of problems in the vicinity of Florida and Trinidad Avenues – I seem to recall five breaks in that one area on a single day in January. The median age of a water main in the District of Columbia is 75 years. They break a lot this time of year. Our capital improvement program, which is funded mainly with ratepayer dollars, calls for replacing 1/3 of one percent of our infrastructure each year. We’re working to up that to one percent in the next budget cycle, which means we’ll be completely replacing the water infrastructure every 100 years. It would be great to do it even faster, but the ratepayers are sensitive – with good reason – about increases.
I fully understand that our infrastructure is ancient, and it's going to take a lot of money to properly repair that infrastructure, instead of just committing to patch jobs to fix the most egregious problems. I also know that this has been a very long-running issue in Trinidad, as I've spoken with fellow riders on the D4 and D8 who have said that potholes and sinkholes have opened up on Montello and Trinidad Avenues for decades now.

This particular pothole is going to haunt me until it gets fixed properly. It appears that city agencies are happy with the "fix" at this point (or perhaps this is all they can afford to do—I don't fault WASA for having to move mountains with a molehill budget). Expect to hear more from me about this in the future as I pursue it further.

05 April 2010

Wrapping up some loose ends

We were very excited to get such a quick response to our post about food deserts in the form of a follow-up email from the research director at the organization that produced the report we wrote about and a comment from the geographer at the DC Office of Planning who created the map.

That wasn't the only post to receive high-level feedback. In the first post after our introduction, I took Giant grocery stores to task for not taking the time to clean up around their new sign. This post was accompanied by a letter to Giant's Consumer Affairs Department, and here's the response we received on Friday, April 2:
Thank you for contacting us about your Brentwood store. I apologize for the delay in responding to your email. After receiving your email, I contacted our construction department and they tell me that the area around sign was cleaned the day after the new sign was put up. As you know, we celebrated the grand reopening last Friday. We hope you like your newly remodeled store.

Thanks, again, for contacting us. We appreciate hearing from you.


Deborah Riley

Consumer Affairs Supervisor
After that post, Jaime wrote about a new corollary to the Broken Windows Theory, which she dubbed Broken Scooter Theory. After submitting requests to the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Public Works, and not seeing any progress from either organization, we emailed our councilmember (Harry Thomas) and his constituent services director, requesting any help they could provide.

The following morning, the scooter was gone. Coincidentally, later that morning I ran into Councilmember Thomas at a Casey Trees planting event in Eckington, and I spoke with him about the scooter, thanking him for taking action to clean up our alley. I also found out that the councilmember grew up on our block in Trinidad! Small world...

04 April 2010

Distances in the District—What's "nearby" in Southeast DC?

Washington Post reporter Hamil Harris reported today that the Obama family attended Easter church services at Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is located in Ward 8 and near the Skyland Shopping Center.

The headline, "Obama celebrates Easter service near site of D.C. shootings," makes it sound like the church is very close to the site of the shootings that happened March 30. I don't want to delve too deeply into what is considered "near" and what isn't within the context of Washington, DC, but let's take the headline and story for their word and assume that we can define the distance between these two happenings as "nearby."

View Easter service in a larger map

Look at the map above. The straight-line distance between the church on Alabama Avenue SE and the site of the shootings on South Capitol Street is approximately 2.7 miles. Anyone who's familiar with the District knows that's a long distance to consider close. DC is not a suburban or rural area. For comparison, I noted the distance from my block to the White House. It also happens to be 2.7 miles. So, if anything happens at the White House, should I assume that the events are meant to be symbolically tied to Trinidad? Of course not.

The point here I believe is one of familiarity. If one lives in Cleveland Park, they likely think of the National Cathedral as "nearby," but not Petworth. Yet the two neighborhoods are just as close as Allen Chapel AME and South Capitol Street running through Bellevue and Washington Highlands.

In a great guest post at Congress Heights on the Rise, author Ambergris writes about the problem that comes from unfamiliarity with the neighborhoods in Southeast DC. I would recommend that all local news organizations read this open letter. While the Washington Post appears to be doing a better job of identifying neighborhoods around the city instead of simply falling into the lazy trap of only identifying a city quadrant, there is still a long way to go.

02 April 2010

Response to "Food Desert or Mirage?"

In addition to a number of comments both on this blog and on the cross-posting at Greater Greater Washington, we received two very salient responses to this week's "Food Desert or Mirage?" post. One, below, is from Carolina Valencia, Director of Research at Social Compact. The other is from J. Graham, the geographer at the D.C. Office of Planning who created the map referred to in the original post; you can read his response in the comments on GGW. I want to thank both Ms. Valencia and Mr. Graham for taking the time not only to thoughtfully respond, but also to actively make efforts to clarify the information in future versions of the report. Again, I strongly concur that food security is an important issue we need to take seriously, and I applaud the work being done here.

*   *   *
In response to the post submitted by Jaime Fearer, we at D.C. Hunger Solutions and Social Compact would like to offer a few additional points of information and clarification. We would first like to thank Jaime for the review and critique of the recently released report, When Healthy Food is Out of Reach [pdf]. It is important to note that Social Compact is in agreement that the best way to measure residents’ access to goods and services is to take into account physical barriers (e.g. parks, highways, etc.). However, in the absence of a reliable data source that can provide this information, our current methodology offers an alternative means to measure access.
While the maps developed by Social Compact, as seen on pages 6, 11, and 15 of the report, do reflect all parks in the District, it is correct that they do not depict other key landmarks in the city, such as universities and hospitals. Social Compact has made the decision to not include all landmarks in these maps for the purpose of providing a readable image given the size and scale of the maps published in the report. This decision was not meant to obscure the information provided or mislead readers. All food access indicators in the report are a result of calculations that take into account the total population and households, thus providing accurate, reliable information pertaining to food deserts.
The map referenced in the blog post, seen on page 18 was developed by the DC Office of Planning using the data from this report. Unlike the other maps in the report, it does not include parks. We hope to address this inconsistency in future updates to the report. The on-line report will soon contain the revised map [see revisions below].
Furthermore determining areas that should be included or excluded is not a clear-cut task. As the table below demonstrates, all of the Census block groups, except for one, located in the areas highlighted as areas that should have been excluded have people living in them. While Jaime is right to note that it is possible that certain areas with landmarks are likely to contain (in some cases) sizable ‘zero population’ areas it would be improper to exclude them in the case at hand since there are residents in these areas. 
Additionally, the report maps and indicators DO take into account “easily accessible facilities located right over the border in Maryland.” As noted in the report, the indicator calculations include grocers within the entire District of Columbia and all grocers located up to two miles beyond the District boundary in both Maryland and Virginia.
Finally, please note full service grocers, as stated on page 6, are defined as business establishments with a minimum of 5,000 square feet primarily engaged in retailing food for home consumption and preparation. Additionally, to be considered full service grocers, stores had to contain the following sections: fresh fruits (8 or more types), fresh vegetables (8 or more types), fresh meat (5 or more types), dairy and bread products.” Thus, Yes! Organic Market was not included in this category because these stores do not meet the aforementioned criteria.
(I find it interesting to note that Yes! Organic Markets do not qualify as a full-service grocer seemingly because that do not meet only one of the above criteria—the sale of fresh meat. One can purchase some packaged meats at these stores, but not fresh, butchered cuts. - IMGoph)
Social Compact agrees that information provided at a micro level is optimal and does understand that “Just because something is across the ward doesn't make it easy to access.” However, in an effort to compare access indicators with health indicators (only available at the Ward level) provided by the DC Department of Health, as seen on page 3 of the report, the decision was made to report information at the Ward level. Furthermore, the average distance indicator provides information on physical distance to the closest full-service grocery store precisely to highlight that access does not behave the same way that geographical boundaries do.
Click image to enlarge
Carolina Valencia
Director of Research
Social Compact, Inc. | www.socialcompact.org
738 7th Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003