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Historic Preservation Group Objects to Streetcars Along Historic Streetcar Route
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Historic Preservation Group Objects to Streetcars Along Historic Streetcar Route

February 3rd, 2011 by Tim Krepp · 24 Comments · Barracks Row, Stadium Armory

Anyone even remotely familiar with the H Street NE development is aware that rails are being laid for the what is likely to be DC’s first streetcar line in half a century.

But this is just the first leg in a system that may someday span the District, connecting areas currently difficult to reach by Metro, relieving overcrowded bus routes, and adding a whole new way to get around the city. Phase 1 of the Streetcar System Concept Plan calls for for a line up Barracks Row, on a north/south run to the Navy Yard and points east of the river and connecting with H Street to the north.

This week, the Committee of 100 of the Federal City released a report, Building a World-Class Streetcar System for a World-Class City, that admirably and thoughtfully considers each route of the proposed plan. As a self-stylized “force of conscience in the evolution of the nation’s capital city”, the Committee has done good work since their founding in 1923, fighting the proposed plan to carve up the District with freeways after the war and being strong proponents of the Metro system.

However, they’ve become known for their almost reflexive opposition to new development and their bizarre fetish against streetcar wires, not just on the Mall, but elsewhere in the city as well. So, within that context, their report is almost glowing. But they’re less positive about the leg down 8th Street:

However, we question the need for a streetcar along 8th St. from M St., SE to H St./Benning Rd. and Florida Ave. This area is already commercially successful, has an established residential character, and is served amply by N/S buses. We urge the city to explore another N/S connection across Capitol Hill, perhaps connecting Reservation 13 with Benning Rd.

A strong argument could be made for not caring what the Committee of 100 thinks. After all, they have no authority whatsoever, can hardly be considered representative of the city as a whole, and their very name evokes whiffs of old school benevolent elitism. But they are one of the oldest citizen-based urban planning groups in the country (well, according to Wikipedia, at least) and they have been right many times in the past.

So, let me examine in turn each of their three rationals for opposing streetcars on 8th Street, that “this area is already commercially successful, has an established residential character, and is served amply by n/s buses”.

Now, the Barracks Row portion of 8th Street is commercially successful. Kind of. If you are looking for a bar or restaurant. But we’ve talked extensively on this site about the various problems retail is having getting started and staying in business on Barracks Row. We’re building up the density and the sidewalk traffic required to support the retail we want, but we’re not there yet.

Look at the portion of Barracks Row that is most successful; that near the Metro. It’s interesting to note that lower Barracks Row, despite it’s easy access to the SE Freeway and comparably ample parking, struggles, while the more transit oriented area closer to the Eastern Market Metro commands the higher rents and bustles with more activity. Surely this is an argument to spread the benefits of rail based transit further down Barracks Row, ideally to connect with the development currently spreading out from the Ballpark and Navy Yard?

To put it succinctly, Barracks Row is commercially successful compared to what it was, but not what it could be.

Moving on to the “established residential character”? Presumably this is referring to the portion north of Pennsylvania Avenue, but Barracks Row has historically been a commercial corridor. In fact, the historical placard that kicks off the the Barracks Row Heritage Trail (done by Cultural Tourism DC in collaboration with Barracks Row Main Street and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society) notes that Pierre L’Enfant “envisioned a commercial and financial district nearby”. The development of the Navy Yard and Marine Barracks forestalled L’Enfant’s grander plans, but from a very early time, 8th Street became a thriving neighborhood retail center, providing the day to day supplies required of the surrounding residents. Growth in the area was further spurred when a streetcar line was put in 1862.

As to the portion north of Pennsylvania, yes, it is residential. But what’s the issue with putting streetcars through residential areas? This isn’t, and never was meant to be a quiet suburban retreat. 8th Street is an active, urban street with lots of existing activity. Notable among them are very loud and often crowded buses. A main advantage of streetcars (among many others) is that they are quiet, running off of electrical power instead of noisy internal combustion engines.

Which leads to the Committee’s final point; that the route is “amply served by n/s buses”. Indeed, the Circulator runs along Barracks Row before turning up Pennsylvania Ave, and the 90, 92, and 93 continue up 8th to H Street. In fact, this is the third busiest bus route in the city, and is so busy that Metro and DDOT have teemed up to study how to improve performance on it.

And this is all before the Hine redevelopment project comes to fruition or H Street fully builds out. The transit need in this corridor, connecting the two heaviest commercial corridors on the Hill, will just grow, and a higher capacity streetcar line will do much to absorb that. Would the residents along that corridor really prefer more buses?

Finally, I can’t help wondering noting that the report urges the city to “explore another N/S line across Capitol Hill East, perhaps connecting Reservation 13 with Benning Rd.” Interesting, especially to me, as that’s where I live. I find it humorous that the Committee of 100 doesn’t mind pushing a streetcar through my residential neighborhood but objects to it on 8th Street. Are the residents in Hill East less worthy of the Committee’s “protection” than those along 8th?

But perhaps I should just shut up and let the Committee work. After all, I’d love for a streetcar to run by my house.

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  • http://www.assoc-football.com Max

    You captured it all w/ the headline! fantastic.

  • ET

    Nicely said.

    I guess all of their objections aren’t really a problem for me. However, I am from NOLA that has had a street car for a long time with all the accompanying wires so that doesn’t bother me at all. As for the sound, if their is much, it brings back memories of home and is no noisier than your average bus. But again I am from NOLA and grew up with them.

    And just a heads up, people like getting on street cars because most places don’t have them so it seems to like a fun activity (I would hazard a guess the the NOLA streetcars make money just from people going from Canal to Carrollton and back). Personally I don’t like buses – don’t know why but they annoy me so I generally do use them to go to places without Metro access which means I don’t go to places without Metro access as often as I would like.

  • Thom

    Great report!

    I’m all for the 8th Street SE/NE line connecting from the 11th Street Bridge crossing of the Anacostia Streetcar up 8th Street SE/NE to H Street NE. I don’t live on 8th Street SE/NE however, so I’d like to hear what 8th Street residents think of that idea.

    I think it’s too bad the authors of the C100 report merely trash the idea of an 8th Street Line without proposing a specific alternative.

    If Tim Krepp and his neighbors think they will benefit from having the line run from the 11th Street bridge past Reservation 13 and up to H Street NE/Benning Road, then they should have it. That’s the vague suggestion C100 makes. With the 90/92 buses, we don’t *really* need it over here on 8th Street.

    Yet a third possibility: 11th Street Bridge, up Potomac Avenue to Potomac Avenue Metro, then up 15th Street to H Street NE.

    Either way, you’d be creating a short streetcar system that connects to Metro at the Green Line (Anacostia), Blue/Orange (EM or Potomac Ave Metro) and the Red Line (by switching to the H Street NE streetcar to Union Station). That would make both the streetcar and the Metro more valuable transportation systems.

    Whatever works, there ought to be some connection between the H Street NE Streetcar and the Anacostia Streetcar, otherwise that H Street NE Streetcar is just a toy train toot-tooting from Union Station to the starburst intersection at H/Benning/Bladensburg/Maryland Ave. and back and forth and back and forth.

    The original 8th Street SE Streetcar ran from the Navy Yard up to Pennsylvania Avenue then turned west and went to the Capitol and beyond. I’m not 100% sure there was ever a Streetcar that ran up 8th Street north of Pennsylvania Ave., but I might be wrong.

    L’Enfant’s idea of an 8th Street Stock Exchange only extended from the water below M Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, not north of Pennsylvania Avenue, and even that idea died when the Navy snatched the prime waterfront real estate on which the Stock Exchange idea depended.

    The Ruth Ann Overbeck tapes on the website of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society reveal L’Enfant’s true intentions, for what it’s worth:

    [People who travel and go to England and so on would know that there is something called the Royal Exchange. What happens at the Royal Exchange is stock brokering, same thing as the New York Stock Exchange. However, in those days of sailing ships, the way that took place was by the water, where people could see ... what a commodity was selling for in Barbados or Portugal or wherever, and then they would do their speculating on that basis, on that information. Very fresh information.

    ....

    [Anyway, a perfect place: 8th Street from Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast to the river was going to be the seat of the Central Exchange, with the exchange being the public reservation that was right there on the water, or at the water, at the foot of where we now have most of the Navy Yard. ]

  • Tim Krepp

    Thom,

    Thanks for the exhaustive comments!

    I’ve got to go to bed sometime tonight, so I can’t give them the full attention they deserve, but let me give a few quick responses:

    1. I should clarify my final point. While I’d be happy to have the streetcar run by my house as the C100 vaguely recommends, I think a much more sensible option would be 8th Street. Although I can see merits in your 11th/Potomac/15th suggestion as well.

    We have high hopes for Res 13, but until the RFK site is re-imagined (2040?) I don’t think a n/s streetcar run makes as much sense as the other options.

    2. I don’t know offhand when it was put in, but the streetcar did at one point run north on 8th all the way to Florida. The 90/92 (like many DC bus routes) follows its path. Check out this map:

    http://www.dctrolley.org/dctrolleymap.htm

    3. You’re right, the commercial portion of 8th has always been centered south of Penn. I had originally planned to discuss the L’Enfant Plan, as well as the streetcar inspired growth of 8th St, in greater detail, but the post is long enough as is. Thanks for adding some of that nuance I left off.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comments!

  • marian

    As a resident of 8th Street north of PA Avenue SE and Barracks Row since 1985, I have mixed feelings about the city’s proposal to run street cars on 8th between H NE and M SE. The 200-300 blocks of 8th street have only been noisy and heavily traveled for the past decade. Yes, buses have long run on these blocks, but the total mix and volume of traffic was not awful until 9/11/2001, when the Capitol Police unilaterally closed north – south streets, pushing huge volumes of traffic to 8th Street. The subsequent explosion of office buildings along M Street SE and north toward the Hill has further increased rush hour loads. We now endure 3 waves of rush hour traffic in the evening and two in the morning. Throughout the day, we now also witness every form of delivery truck, from block-long beer trucks to 16 wheeler fuel tankers. Fumes belch and linger over the street, radios blare and reverb from autos sitting for long periods as drivers await the traffic signals. And on the weekends? The Market, Flea Market, Barracks Row, all result in perpetual traffic jams of autos, buses, trucks, and pedestrians. Part of me says if the street cars would eliminate all of this and be quiet , then bring them on. However, common sense questions what would our neighbors do for parking? Metro cannot replace the need for personal automobiles, however much we wish it. I asked a neighbor who grew up in the neighborhood from the late 40′s how the old street car line shared the street with parked cars. According to him, they didn’t, because very few people owned cars. This is a problem that one cannot be glib about as the author of this story has been. These are real problems of environmental and lifestyle quality. The author admits how intrusive street cars would be in his own neighbor as he objects to them being “pushed into his neighborhood.” I would contend that no neighborhood is less worthy of protection than another. That’s why city planners should not cavalierly run street cars down 8th Street, because the residents of this street have already suffered a continual lack of protection from the abuses of excessive street transportation. Enough is enough.

  • Thom

    @Tim: Thanks for the link to the unbelievably cool 1958 DC Trolley map with the pictures of streetcars operating all over the city (some with wires, some not).

  • Tim Krepp

    @marian,

    Thank you for your comments. Our 8th street neighbors will be the most directly affected by this, and your perspective, as well as the historical perspective provided by your neighbor, is valuable.

    One point of clarification. I don’t object to streetcars coming to my neighborhood. At all. I’d personally love to hop on a streetcar and get to H Street. Again, I think 8th makes better sense for an overall perspective, but personally, I’d love the opportunities the streetcar would bring.

    But I think it’s disingenuous of the C100 to object to streetcars on 8th because it’s a residential neighborhood and suggest my area of the Hill, which is also residential.

  • http://n/a anti-NIMBY

    Marian;
    my grandmother, who was born here and grew up using the Navy Yard Georgetown streetcar used to say that it was a godsend- and that you never needed a car. Why are people so damn obsessed with parking? We live in a city- not a damn suburb- if you want parking why don’t you move to a non-place where you can park all you want- and there is no noise at all?

    As for my fellow 8th street neighbors who all have multiple cars- why can’t they get rid of their cars and take tranist? Also – good transportation studies have not been done. The ridiculous assertions that Eastern Market needs tons of parking are baseless when one considers the weekends past when Metro was doing weekend track work- and had to single track and shut down the Orange Blue line. The Eastern Market area was a ghost town. We cannot let the selfish few who are not willing to give up their slothful anti-urban car-centric mode of business rule over the greater city at large. Density is a great thing and it will bring more affluence and investment into our city- with a concomitant lessening of social services for these new people. We need density, more rail transit, less tolerance of cars and parking , more bike lanes, and why not allow owners of homes that used to be corner mom & pop stores to convert their ground floors back to retail ?
    Why is having a car so important when we have the second largest heavy rail system in North America mere blocks from our homes?

  • Jason

    @Marian: There’s no reason why streetcars couldn’t run on 8th Street without taking away more than a few parking spaces at streetcar stops where the curbs would bulb out. There will still be street parking on H Street when streetcars start running there.

  • sebastian

    I hoping that the street car does go down 11th Street, rather than 8th. I’d rather go to Fragers than Ted’s anyway.

  • http://yahoo.com Hadn’t heard this one, but

    “Yet a third possibility: 11th Street Bridge, up Potomac Avenue to Potomac Avenue Metro, then up 15th Street to H Street NE. ”

    I love this idea

  • http://n/a anti-NIMBY

    Let’s restore all of DC’s original street car routes- and make use of the median strip rights of way that are not being used- like int he center of Penn Avenue. By the 1880′s DC had one of the country’s largest street car networks- we need to get it all back and get those stinking loud and rackety buses off of our streets.

  • http://n/a anti-NIMBY

    a lot of people are afraid of all of the well off new young people moving onto the Hill and they resent all change. In most places in this country-which is basically in a depression- the development on 8th street would be applauded and welcomed- but the stodgy people who are not really people with their hearts in the city want it all for themselves. Walk down 8th street and you will not see low class scoundrels- you see people all dressed up – spending lots and lots of mullah in those expensive places. What do the NIMBYs really want? Do they want it to go back to a ghetto with muggings and street robberies as it was before? And since when is parking a “quality of life issue” in a city?

  • Mark

    Wow, and I just potsed my modest little comment about the parking obsession in the other item about the Naval Hospital.

    In a nutshell…I agree with Anti-Nimby, what is up with this constant harping about parking?

  • ET

    Mark I think the carping is because there are people that want to go to 8th that don’t live overly close to 8th or to Metro that drive and then have to park the car -most of whom do it in the residential area.

    Normally I would just walk over (and I am 10-15 min away on foot) but there are times I have been in my car and had problems over there.

    The way DC zones means retail bunches up in an area or in this case a few blocks instead of spreading the wealth (and the cars).

  • H Street Landlord

    I agree with the anti-parking folks. Parking is a very valuable commodity, and if you want a guaranteed spot, you should be prepared to pay for a private lot. And the greater good shouldn’t be harmed just so you have easy, cheap parking.

    The notion that one can’t live in the hill without a car is ridiculous.

  • Andy

    The anti-parking sentiment would have credence if it applied to those who drive to the Hill from other parts of DC and from MD and VA.

    If the Hill is so Metro friendly, why isn’t there an expectation that visitors either use Metro or park in legal parking spaces? This blog and those who read it find it acceptable that visitors to Eastern Market, for instance, park in areas reserved for buses and in crosswalks. Visitors to that market have this mindset as well. I find this astounding. I certainly do not drive to Georgetown, Clarendon, Bethesda, etc., park illegally and expect that all will be well.

    Until this ethos changes, I imagine many of the residents of 8th street will raise our valid concerns about parking.

  • http://www.DCLikeALocal.com Tim Krepp

    Andy, I don’t speak for the entire blog, just myself, but I don’t think it’s acceptable to park illegally. I do expect visitors to use Metro or park in legal spaces. From what I’ve seen, that’s what the overwhelming number of visitors already do. Well, those that don’t walk there.

    I’m not saying illegal parking doesn’t happen. Heck, I’ve been known to do it myself from time to time. But it isn’t ok, and I support the vigorous enforcement of parking rules in the area.

    Just out of curiosity, what do you base this statement on: “This blog and those who read it find it acceptable that visitors to Eastern Market, for instance, park in areas reserved for buses and in crosswalks.”?

  • Andy

    Tim-

    I base it on earlier back and forths I’ve had on this blog with contributors and readers alike. The sentiment has been “those on 8th St. should suck it up.” This is quite the contrast to your statement that no one part of the Hill deserves special treatment.

  • http://www.DCLikeALocal.com Tim Krepp

    Well, Andy, I looked back through the archives and can’t find the thread you were talking about. Which is, I’m sure, a reflection on my searching skills more than anything else.

    But without being able to reference it, I can hardly comment on a thread I haven’t read recently. I will say that this blog is a forum. We have over a dozen writers, all of whom are free to take their own spin on things (as I clearly have). We don’t speak as one.

    Furthermore, our readers are welcome and encouraged to comment, as they bring an even greater diversity of experience and perspective to the table. So neither this blog, nor its commenters, have a unified voice on anything, much less the topic at hand.

  • http://n/a anti-NIMBY

    anyone who seriously thinks that the majority of visitors to EM drive to get here is grossly mistaken. Just 2 weekends ago the Metro was closed between Foggy Bottom & Rosslyn for trackwork. I was at a restaurant and noticed the ghost town look- the owner told me- the Metro is being fixed today and part of it is closed.

    Anyone who does not believe that this is the truth should support to have a traffic study done. This would no doubt silence the people who think that we need 300 parking places next to the Metro in the new Hines site.
    I can’t wait to see it all get built and then the NIMBYs and car-centric types find out no one is using it.

  • Car owner

    I can’t tell if anti-NIMBY is a real person or simply a caricature.

    In any event, someone said, “[t]he notion that one can’t live in the hill without a car is ridiculous.” That misses the point. Certainly, “some” people can live on the Hill without a car, but if the author is suggesting that “everyone” can live on the Hill without a car, then that is what is ridiculous. Putting aside all of the necessities that require a car — meetings, doctor’s appointments, etc. — a car is still necessary to enjoy many of the fine things that the greater D.C. area offers. To ignore the reality that many people need a car to survive is no better than ignoring the need to develop better public transportation.

    As a resident of 9th st., my feelings about a streetcar on 8th are mixed. In theory, it would be nice to have easy access to H St., but our area does have a very residential feel. That’s why we leave here and not Dupont. Adding a streetcar would certainly alter the feel of the neighborhood significantly. Would the benefits outweigh the costs? Hard to know at this point. Not because I’m anti-8th, but because it makes sense, I like the 11th St. idea.

    As

  • H Street Landlord

    Car Owner,

    Thanks for the response, but you missed the point of my argument.

    “Parking is a very valuable commodity, and if you want a guaranteed spot, you should be prepared to pay for a private lot. And the greater good shouldn’t be harmed just so you have easy, cheap parking.”

    Please provide a rebuttal to this?

    Also, why would you need a car to attend a meeting or a Doctor’s appointment?

  • Horace

    Realize this is a long-dead thread, but I live on 8th St. north of H and want to express my support for the line. Take it from someone who has lived around and ridden a lot of modern street cars in Europe — they are far quieter and less disrupting than buses.

    I also wanted to comment that it’s weird that this thread devolved into a discussion about parking. The 8th St. line won’t take up any parking at all — the tracks will run down the center lanes, just as they did historically. One or two spots might be taken by the curb bulb-outs at the stations (Florida, H-street), but it’s a net gain given fewer people will need to drive!