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Choking to Death
Kirk White and Beth Solomon
June 1999




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I. Executive Summary
II. Introduction
III. “Respiratory Distress Center”: Proposed Intermodal Transportation Center
IV. Baseball Stadium: Wrong for Mt. Vernon Square
V. The Better Solution: Baseball at RFK, Transportation at Union Station
VI. The Mt. Vernon East Neighborhood: Key to a Living Downtown
VII. Conclusion

Appendix A: “Feasibility Study for the Intermodal Transportation Center: Executive Summary”
Appendix B: “How Insiders Play Ball in D.C.” Washington Post, Close to Home, by Dorn C. McGrath, Jr.
Appendix C: “Baseball? Yes. But Don’t Take Us Out To THAT Ballpark,” Rudolph A. Pyatt, Jr., The Washington Post
Appendices B and C are not available on DCWatch site, but are available in the archives of The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com


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I. Executive Summary

District of Columbia officials have proposed a 7,000-car parking lot, truck and bus marshalling yard north of downtown that would pose a severe health risk to residents and destroy thousands of housing units planned for the Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood.

The mammoth Intermodal Transportation Center, which some are calling an “Respiratory Distress Center,” would pose serious health and environmental risks for residents. It would worsen the District’s existing air quality problems. Building the Center would require demolishing and clearing at least 17 acres of downtown structures and land, including office buildings and a 330-unit senior citizens’ residence.

The Distress Center would draw thousands of cars to a site north of downtown that is already choking with traffic. Washington, D.C. has been rated the second-most congested metropolitan area in America, after Los Angeles.

City officials are proposing to build a baseball stadium above the Respiratory Distress Center, killing the prospect of at least 3000 units of housing which have been planned, zoned and ardently desired on the site for years.

This report offers details on the problems with the Intermodal Transportation Center and baseball stadium plan, as well as better options for these developments. A better plan for baseball in D.C. is to renovate the storied Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, where parking and Metro already exist. The Intermodal Transportation Center should be built at Union Station — where it will not pose a direct threat to residents and can meet Federal transportation standards required for Federal funding of the project.

Mayor Williams recently rescued the promising Mt. Vernon East neighborhood from the environmental threats of a proposed tour bus marshaling yard. The Mayor should now extend this legacy by spearheading the development of housing in this key area, thereby ensuring the environmental health of the area and the long-term future of a “living downtown.”

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Map of area

II. Introduction

The major battleground for planning and development advocates emerging today in the District of Columbia is “NoMa,” or “Mt. Vernon Square East,” an area of the city, north of Downtown, that is unfamiliar to most people in the Washington region.

The city and various business interests are promoting several very big, very controversial and very expensive public and commercial projects in Mt. Vernon Square East even though it is planned, zoned and desired for housing — and has been so for over 20 years.

The projects include a network of eight-lane underground freeways, a 7,200-car, truck and bus “Intermodal Transportation Center” covering close to 20 acres, and a baseball stadium, again on land zoned for housing. At the request of Councilmember Jack Evans acting on behalf of several commercial speculators, city officials have set the stage to convert the planned housing into intense industrial and commercial uses.

This preliminary report is a Shaw neighborhood effort to educate residents and elected officials about destructive development proposals and to suggest alternatives. Other groups, including the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, are preparing more detailed documents on this topic. Portions of this preliminary report may appear in the Committee of 100 report after necessary peer review.

The battle pits, on one side, Shaw residents and advocates of moderate-scale housing, technology and arts centers — and the Committee of 100, the District’s oldest planning advocacy group — against advocates of large-scale, expensive public projects and big commercial facilities.

The battleground is roughly 400 acres. Of space in occupied properties, about half today is moderate-income residential and half is offices or services.

The area is bounded on the west by 7th St. NW, on the north by New York Avenue NW, on the east by Fourth St. NW and on the south by Massachusetts Avenue NW. A planning study for the 400-acre area including Mt. Vernon Square East is soon to be undertaken by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.

In the District’s Comprehensive Plan, the Mt. Vernon Square East area is set aside for a lively in-town residential community, with retail, arts and technology uses at a medium density.

This residential community was begun with the building of 330 units of senior housing at Fourth and K Sts. NW.

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III. Respiratory Distress Center

Instead of following city plans and answering citizens’ needs, District officials have started the planning and pre-development of a 7,200-vehicle “Intermodal Transportation Center” in the middle of the residential Mt. Vernon East neighborhood.

The facility, which some have called a “Respiratory Distress Center,” would draw thousands of cars each day to the area, according to D.C. Department of Public Works (“DPW”) documents. “In addition, the facility could be used as a parking area for tour busses (sic), as well as provide a truck staging area for the proposed downtown convention center.”

The Intermodal Transportation Center would exacerbate existing air quality problems as documented by the Environmental Protection Agency. The District is currently out of compliance with federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone and is anticipated to fail to meet new federal standards for small particulate matter which take effect in 2002.

These factors mean health problems for residents. Vehicle exhaust consists of numerous highly toxic small particles and contributes to ozone problems. A recent draft EPA report found a strong link between diesel exhaust and cancer. Particulate matter is also strongly linked to asthma and other respiratory disease.

Ozone pollution contributes to respiratory disease, including chest pain, coughing and shortness of breath. It is especially harmful to asthma sufferers.

The addition of over 7,000 vehicles into the Mt. Vernon neighborhood would clearly pose environmental and health risks. But according to government documents, an Environmental Impact Statement for the project may not be undertaken. (D.C. DPW Preliminary Environmental Assessment for Intermodal Transportation Center, pp. 2, 7)

The Department hired outside transportation consultants to prepare a feasibility study submitted in April, 1999. While the Department has not released the full study, the small volume of information available includes several notable assertions.

The study says that current downtown parking supply is adequate to meet demand from the MCI Center, the future Washington Convention Center, and an Opera House, which the study says are “programmed to be open within the next few years.” Parking supply will not be adequate, however, “given the vision that downtown Washington may be transformed into an Urban Entertainment Destination (UED).” The study says the UED will require an additional 10,700 parking spaces. (Transportation Feasibility Study for the Intermodal Transportation Center, April, 1999, p. ES-2)

The study says zoning regulations could be modified to accommodate the new “UED” area and its parking demands.

The study estimates that the 7,200-vehicle Intermodal Center will cost $289 million, in addition to $340 million to $600 million in road improvements “funded and constructed by others.” Cost estimates in the study do not include the value of buildings currently on the site or relocation costs for the hundreds of residents, businesses and government agencies that would be displaced. Cost estimates in the study also do not include consideration of floor-area ratios “that could dramatically increase the land costs by several times...” (Transportation Feasibility Study for the Intermodal Transportation Center, April, 1999, p. ES-3)

Without including the above costs, the study estimates the cost per parking space at $22,500.

Not only is the proposed traffic center environmentally and economically questionable, but it may be ineligible as an intermodal facility under Federal legislation.

An intermodal terminal must allow patrons coming in by one mode of transportation to transfer on site to another mode — car to rail, bus to Amtrak, freight from ship to rail or truck, etc.

With the proposed facility, few transfers would take place. Baseball patrons would park for games then drive away after the game. Trailer trucks headed to the Convention Center would park, wait, unload and leave. Tour buses would arrive empty, wait to be called, then leave empty to pick up passengers.

Since the facility would be blocks away from any Metro connection and far from rail connections or bus stations, new modes of transportation would have to be arranged to make the new facility “intermodal.” A downtown bus passing by the facility would not appear to qualify for Federal funds.

In view of the fundamentally flawed nature of the proposed Mt. Vernon East traffic facility, the D.C. Department of Public Works should immediately pull back its proposals to spend additional taxpayer dollars on further planning and pre-development.

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IV. Baseball Stadium: Wrong for Mt. Vernon Square

The proposed Intermodal Transportation Center is the stalking horse for another flawed concept: a Mt. Vernon Square baseball stadium. Many fans would like to see major league baseball return to the District, but as Washington Post business columnist Rudolph A. Pyatt, Jr. recently wrote, a downtown stadium is “a half-baked idea from left field that must be weighed carefully before D.C. officials jump on the bandwagon in favor of another boondoggle in the name of economic development.”

The downtown site is “neither economically sound nor practical,” Pyatt wrote. “The land-use policy for the area in question not only calls for a mix of residential and and commercial uses, but protection of historic resources there.”

As proposed, the $330 million stadium would be built largely with public money, called “Tax Increment Financing” or “TIF,” which is intended for neighborhood improvements. If the downtown stadium used the amount of TIF funding estimated by its D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission proponents, the cap on TIF funds would be reached, squeezing neighborhood projects out.

What happened to free enterprise?

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RFK.jpg (31623 bytes)

RFK Stadium -- Click on the photo for a larger image

V. The Better Solution: Baseball at RFK and Transportation at Union Station

Excellent alternatives for a stadium and a transportation center are available.

There are two better places for the stadium: Union Station North and the historic Robert F. Kennedy Starplex on the Anacostia River. We prefer the RFK solution.

As George Washington University professor of urban planning Dorn C. McGrath wrote recently in the Washington Post, “RFK was built for baseball, and though it needs rebuilding or replacement... RFK has Metro access, a dignified site, adequate parking and a long tradition of serving the region.”

In 1993, the director of the Sports Commission testified before the D.C. Council that RFK “continues to offer the ideal blend of desirable sight lines and seating capacity.” (As reported in “Squeeze Play” by Stephanie Mencimer, Washington City Paper, May 14, 1999)

The Sports Commission estimates that a full renovation of RFK could be accomplished for $100 million. Renovation such as has been proposed by George Dove of the Weihe Partnership offers an alternative that is not only significantly less expensive than building another stadium, but would preserve the dignity and historicity of RFK. Renovation proposals now include waterfront restoration that would re-open the Anacostia waterfront for recreation and public benefit.

The multimodal facility should be built in a location where it can honestly serve sound transportation goals, like Union Station.

Union Station offers more transportation options than any other site in the city: freight and passenger rail, Greyhound/Trailways, Metrobus, Metrorail, commuter rail, bike paths, etc.

It is also a retail center that draws over 25 million visitors each year.

Intermodal centers have worked most successfully in renovated historical train stations like Grand Central or the James A. Farley Post Office replacement for Penn Station in New York. Union Station is a similarly good option for an enhanced intermodal hub.

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VI. The Mt. Vernon East Neighborhood: Key to a Living Downtown

In 1970 the Mt. Vernon Square East area was included in both the Shaw School and Downtown Urban Renewal Areas. It still is. The Redevelopment Land Agency bought two very large squares in the Mt. Vernon East called the “Wax Museum” site, to create an in-town residential community with shops and services.

Several hundred houses and small businesses in the area were torn down in the 1970s to make room for thousands of units of apartments and shopping. One part of the site was developed for 330 units of senior citizen housing (pictured at right).

In 1987, a housing and office developer, Horning Brothers, submitted an unsolicited proposal to develop housing and offices on the remaining District land at the site. Following that, the RLA sought bids from other developers to build there. Several bids were submitted.

The Horning Brothers’ proposal, eventually accepted, included a mix of apartments, duplexes, lofts, shopping, doctors’ offices, and an office building. Courtyards and open lawns with walkways as well as a fitness center, swimming pool and community center were included. Parking was provided in a garage under the complex. The real estate market hit bottom as the proposal was approved and was never built. But recent real estate trends offer strong indications that in-town housing is high demand.

A report prepared by the Committee of 100 in 1998 demonstrated that housing in Mt. Vernon would not only enliven the area, provide a healthier market for retail and services, and connect housing at Market Square and other points South with the Shaw/Logan residential base. The Committee of 100 report estimated that 1750 units of mixed use and housing in Mt. Vernon would generate $40 million in annual revenues for the District. This figure is nearly four times the annual revenues downtown stadium proponents estimate would accrue from a stadium at the Mt. Vernon site. The opportunity cost of not developing housing at Mt. Vernon Square is very great.

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VII. Conclusion

Millions spent on consultants’ reports cannot mask the defects of the proposed Mt. Vernon Square facilities. These proposals should be set aside immediately. The Mayor and Council should concentrate instead on implementing long-standing Comprehensive Plan policies for Mt. Vernon Square — housing, arts, technology and other mixed uses. The DHCD/NoMa study should undergird this effort and its RFP rewritten to reflect this policy.

Appendix A: “Feasibility Study for the Intermodal Transportation Center: Executive Summary”

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The authors would like to thank Joseph Passonneau for his contributions to this report and to transportation planning in the District of Columbia, Joseph Bender of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City for his ongoing work on critical downtown issues, and the Horning Brothers development corporation, for providing insight and information about housing possibilities in Mt. Vernon East.

About the authors:

J. Kirkwood White, Shaw resident and Trustee of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. Former Director, D.C. Office of Planning Zoning and Plan Coordination Staff. Attorney on zoning, planning, preservation and development matters. Fifth generation Washingtonian.

Beth Solomon, Mt. Vernon Square resident, Trustee of the Committee of 100 and member of the Shaw Coalition. Former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC 2F). Principal of Planet Vox, a high-tech media company in Shaw.

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