Tuesday, June 07, 2011

HOUSEKEEPING: The Oculus' Hiatus

Greetings. As you can see, I don't regularly update this blog, which I first launched in 2003. (But I will always use it as an online sketchpad for side projects.) If you're looking for my work, follow me on Twitter at @mgrass or check me out at Washington City Paper, where I'm currently the assistant managing editor.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

ROUTE 29: Errant Signs Still Up at Dupont, But Can They Be Reused at Key Bridge?

IT’S NOW BEEN MORE THAN THREE WEEKS since I started a test of the D.C. government’s social media responsiveness regarding what should be a relatively easy task: Removing incorrect signage from Dupont Circle that suggests Route 29 heads through the District via New Hampshire Avenue.

The signs were still posted as of this morning. (But I did see a DDOT truck full of signs parked on Wisconsin Avenue in Tenleytown earlier today, so maybe it was en route to deal with my request?)

As I detailed recently on this blog (and in a January 2005 blog post when I was editing DCist), Route 29 was rerouted years ago, via 11th Street NW and Rhode Island and Georgia avenues. The incorrect signage has been at Dupont Circle for years, so I realize that it’s not the most pressing problem for the District Department of Transportation, which has had a busy winter dealing with blizzards and a subsequent pothole-filling blitz, aided by Twitter. (DDOT was also busy at Nationals Park on Monday with Opening Day.)

I’ll tweet @DDOTDC to check in on my request to remove the incorrect signs and update. (Another quick response, via direct message: @DDOTDC hasn't forgotten about my request, it's just there hasn't been time yet to get them taken down. C'est la vie.) Since the initial tweet request on March 14, the agency acknowledged my request, responded to a second tweet inquiry and confirmed via subsequent direct messages that Route 29 doesn’t run through Dupont Circle. Additionally, @DDOTDC asked me where the signs were located. I responded that there are at least four Route 29 signs if you walk around the circle. (Hey DDOT: I recently spotted a fifth, on New Hampshire Avenue, south of the circle, on the sidewalk adjacent to the northbound lanes and the Heurich House.)

So, What About the Key Bridge/Whitehurst Signs?

It would a shame to just trash the old Dupont signs. Here’s a suggestion: Reuse them for the Route 29 connection between the Key Bridge and Whitehurst Freeway.

Just like I noted in January 2005, northbound Route 29 today lacks any sort of signage on the Key Bridge to alert drivers to the connecting ramp to the Whitehurst Freeway, where Route 29 continues en route to K Street NW and downtown. (At the photo above, note the small hard-to-see sign that says “To Downtown,” which lacks any sort of arrow indicating which way you’re supposed to go.)

Similarly, wayfinding signage for southbound Route 29 is problematic. There are no Route 29 signs if you’re going from the Whitehurst onto the Key Bridge, via the bridge’s congested intersection with Canal Road and M Street NW. In the traffic island, there’s a big empty signpost just sitting there (see photo below left), suggesting the city once had plans to place wayfinding signage there for Canal Road/MacArthur Boulevard/Foxhall Road and another for Key Bridge and M Street NW (and southbound Route 29, of course).

Are U.S. Highway Route Signage Important?

Drivers in the District don’t find much use for U.S. highway routes, which predate the Interstate Highway System. The routes, designated with black lettering on a white shield, are more identified with roadways in Maryland and Virginia. Long-distance drivers generally stick to the Interstate highways and don’t need to rely on Routes 1, 29 and 50 to get move through the D.C. metro area. But they might take one of those routes through the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, though they’re often known better by local names, like Lee Highway (Route 29) or Arlington Boulevard (Route 50) in Virginia and Colesville Road (Route 29) in Maryland.

In recent years, the city replaced aging and ineffective route wayfinding signage on the inbound 14th Street Bridge. The bridge technically carries Interstate 395 and Route 1 between the District and Virginia. As drivers approached the 14th Street SW/Southwest Freeway split adjacent to the Jefferson Memorial, the overhead sign simply gave you two highway shields to choose from: Route 1 and Interstate 395. When the sign was rehabbed a few years ago, additional information was added to note that Route 1 runs into downtown via 14th Street, which is more useful designation for local drivers.

Now, will the District clear up the Route 29 confusion? (I just tweeted @DDOTDC about possibly reusing the signs.)

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

URBAN ARCHAEOLOGY: Holy Rood Cemetery's Sad State of Disrepair

ONE OF THE DISTRICT'S BEST VIEWS unfortunately sits in one of the most depressing of places: Holy Rood Cemetery off Wisconsin Avenue at the edge of Glover Park. Some cemeteries are beautiful places, like Brooklyn's parrot-filled Green-Wood, literary Sleepy Hollow near Concord, Mass., and Hollywood in Richmond, Va., just to name a few.

But while Holy Rood has its charms, it is a pretty sad place. Years of neglect have left it in awful shape. Graves are damaged, vandalized and largely forgotten. Unlike Capitol Hill's Congressional Cemetery, there are no known famous politicians buried there (at least according to the authoritative Political Graveyard database). But it is the oldest Irish Catholic cemetery in operation in the District, according to The Washington Post, which documented Holy Rood's sorry state in 2008.

And that's not all, so says The Post:
As many as 1,000 free Catholic blacks and slaves are believed to be buried there, although many are in unmarked graves or were buried with wooden markers that rotted away.

Other graves hold Catholic hoteliers, butchers, laborers, maids, war veterans, mothers who died in childbirth, victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic and many others.
When I was up at Holy Rood this week, I had lost track of the ongoing conflict over the terrible condition of the cemetery.

To sum up the situation, Holy Rood was established as a cemetery by Holy Trinity Church, which was founded by Jesuits affiliated with Georgetown University. During World War II, oversight of Holy Trinity was transferred to the Archdiocese of Washington, but Holy Rood was left under the university's care.

As The Post reported:
It has not been a happy combination, according to research by local historian Carlton Fletcher.

Over the years, the university has appeared at times to be a reluctant cemetery owner, skimping on maintenance, fighting with owners of burial plots and, at one point, seeking to remove the graves so that the land could be developed.
The university repaired Holy Rood's Wisconsin Avenue retaining wall and keeps the grass mowed.

When I was up at Holy Rood this week, it's pretty clear that not much has changed. Graves are deteriorating. Many grave inscriptions are illegible. (Fortunately, there is a partial directory online.)

As time passes, Holy Rood's condition will only worsen.

Perhaps the neighborhood's dog lovers could come to the rescue and establish a satellite branch of CemeteryDogs.org for Holy Rood?

» More background on Holy Rood at Georgetown Metropolitan

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

CAPITOL SOUTH: Train Tunnel Would Complicate 'Pelosi House Office Building'

MATT YGLESIAS IS RIGHT: The surface parking lot to the south of the Cannon House Office Building and adjacent to the Capitol South Metrorail station escalators is pretty ugly, a space that could be used for more productive purposes. The ThinkProgress blogger wrote earlier this week that the space is perfect as "the future location of the Pelosi House Office Building."

But the construction of congressional office buildings has been a political hot potato for generations — for more background on the evolution of the congressional campus, see my article "The Keystone of Washington" from Roll Call's 50th Anniversary edition in 2005 and my piece about the construction of the Hart Senate Office Building from 2004.

For any future Pelosi House Office Building, the security challenges posted by First Street's train tunnel would complicate construction.

The tunnel that links Union Station's lower level train platforms — for Virginia Rail Express and Amtrak service serving points south of Washington — with L'Enfant Plaza and the Long Bridge over the Potomac River beyond curves directly under the parking lot where Yglesias would like to see an office building honoring the House speaker. You can see the tunnel portal here near New Jersey Avenue; at First and C streets SE, the tunnel curves north on its route to Union Station. Another Capitol Hill-area tunnel, under Virginia Avenue, sits nearby and provides a bypass of the First Street tunnel and Union Station for trains traveling between Virginia and Maryland.

Following the toxic Howard Street train tunnel fire in Baltimore in 2001 and general terrorism fears that unfolded in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the D.C. Council pushed legislation to ban hazardous shipments via rail within 2.2. miles of the U.S. Capitol.

As then-Ward 3 D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson wrote at the time:
Studies have shown that such an attack could create a deadly toxic cloud extending 14 miles, killing or injuring up to 100,000 people within 30 minutes and resulting in billions of dollars of economic damage. As noted by the District’s congressional representative, the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton, this is the “single greatest unaddressed security threat to the City. ... The Federal Government has not acted to prevent the terrorist threat resulting from the transportation of dangerous volumes of ultrahazardous materials through the Capitol Exclusion Zone.
The Washington Post's Sally Quinn, explored the issue in 2006 in "Hell on Wheels":
If the railroads won't reroute hazardous shipments voluntarily, then what's the answer? It's simple: President Bush could pick up the phone and demand that they do so.
Well, it was never that simple.

Rail operator CSX argued that the legislation interfered with interstate commerce and a legal challenge ensued in CSX Transportation v. The District of Columbia.

Washington, D.C., is a troublesome freight rail bottleneck on the East Coast and planners ideally see a freight rail bypass of downtown Washington, but that is a long way away. "It is unlikely that any of the bypasses would be operating before 2017 at the earliest," Greater Greater Washington's Matt Johnson wrote in in an examination of the topic last year.

While building atop of rail infrastructure isn't impossible — see Atlantic Terminal, the East Side Access Project and Penn Station/Moynihan Station/Hudson Yards redevelopment in New York City, or for that matter, the proposed Burnham Place development atop the Union Station rail yards in the District — it is expensive.

And security sensitive sites like Capitol Hill present additional challenges. So don't expect a Pelosi House Office Building anytime soon on top of that parking lot, no matter how ugly it is.

Photo of the Cannon House Office Building surface parking lot from Google Street View

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

UPDATE: 7 Days Later, DDOT Is 'Researching' Errant Route 29 Signs

A WEEK AGO, I decided to test the social media responsiveness of the District Department of Transportation related to what should be an easy task for the D.C. government: Remove some errant signs at Dupont Circle that suggest that Route 29 travels through the area via New Hampshire Avenue. In fact, Route 29 had been rerouted years ago via Georgia and Rhode Island avenues and 11th and K streets NW. For all the background, click here.

Immediately once I tweeted a request to DDOT to remove the signs, I received word from the agency that my request was "interesting" and that it was being looked into.

So where do things stand now? After I inquired again last week Wednesday, I received an update via a Twitter direct message: "We're researching the signs."

I'm not sure what depth of research this issue requires to determine that Route 29 doesn't go through Dupont Circle. Click here, or here, or here. (Look for the Route 29 shields on adjacent roadways that are not New Hampshire Avenue.)

So seven days later, the signs are still posted. Rest assured, I will be watching this issue as it develop and remain a champion for wayward travelers trying to make their way between Virginia and Maryland via Route 29 through the District.

Postscript: Oh yes, Metro: You also have Route 29 going though Dupont Circle on some neighborhood maps posted in stations. One agency at a time, I suppose ...

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

After Winter Floods, Signs of Life in the Potomac Gorge

ODDLY ENOUGH, one of the most biologically diverse natural areas in the Mid-Atlantic lies inside the District of Columbia’s borders. Few people, however, know where to find it. And right now is perhaps the best time to see the landscape change.

The Potomac Gorge, which stretches from a point upriver from Georgetown to Great Falls beyond the District boundary, is a wild area reshaped annually depending on the severity of flooding. In the vicinity of Little Falls, just upriver from Chain Bridge, the river channel narrows and fast-moving floodwaters can litter the floodplain, which stretches up to the C&O Canal, with boulders, trees, sediment and other debris.

I used to live on the bluffs overlooking this wonderful natural area and have spent a good deal of time exploring the gorge, which falls largely under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Earlier today, I went on a 7 1/2-mile roundtrip hike into the gorge from my apartment and for the first time, have seen this landscape fresh after floodwaters have receded.

Currently, there’s a fresh layer of sediment that has already sprouted new plantlife. Water has pooled at different elevations, abandoned by receded floodwaters which have drained away through a complex network of streams and rivulets back to the river channel. The other dominant sign of intense flooding: The vegetation that had survived the winter has been bent over in a downstream direction.

Once spring takes hold and this area leafs out, it will be quite difficult and treacherous to navigate if you leave the established trails between the C&O Canal towpath and the river’s rock-strewn channel. So I got the timing just right — after the winter floods and before spring has sprung.

I was not, however, able to hike all the way to the river channel at Chain Bridge because of the way the flooding had left behind pooled water. Normally, I like to go to hike there to a point opposite Pimmit Run on the Virginia side of the river, where there was once a mill where the Declaration of Independence was stashed away safe keeping as the British were torching Washington in 1814.

From way down at the bottom of the gorge looking up at the Chain Bridge, it’s hard to imagine that floodwaters could rise so high as to wash away the bridge’s superstructure. That happened in 1936, when the Potomac had its largest recorded flood. The bridge was rebuilt atop the stone piers that date to the 1870s. On one of them, there’s some 1880s-era graffiti if you look closely enough.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Attention DDOT: Route 29 Doesn’t Travel Through Dupont Circle

THE DISTRICT DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION has been receiving plaudits in the local Twitterverse recently for being responsive to pothole repair requests coming in via Twitter following our epic snowfall and slow snowmelt, all which tore up D.C. streets. I’ve seen a few DDOT pothole patrols patching rough spots around town. So Twitter has certainly shown its effectiveness in promoting responsive government — as long as those in government want to be responsive.

I have a non-pothole related issue I'd like DDOT to address: incorrect wayfinding signage.

The "bastard child” of U.S. highway routes through the District, Route 29, has an identity crisis. Although it technically runs from the Key Bridge to the D.C.-Maryland border at Georgia Avenue via Rhode Island Avenue, 11th Street NW, K Street NW and the Whitehurst Freeway, pedestrians and drivers heading through Dupont Circle might be a bit confused.

For years, the city has posted signs at the circle indicating that Route 29 travels along New Hampshire Avenue, which is not accurate.

The Route 29 signage confusion isn’t necessarily a new concern. I wrote about it when I was editing DCist back in 2005. Years ago, Route 29 ran through the District via New Hampshire Avenue, 16th Street NW and Alaska Avenue and at some point — when, I’m not too sure — was rerouted to its current path.

While I sort of like the old Route 29 signs at Dupont as a relic of historic wayfinding, there’s no need to have them posted.

To test DDOT’s social media responsiveness, I just tweeted a request for DDOT to remove the old Route 29 signs. ("Happy Sunday @DDOTDC! Can you please remove all Route 29 signage from Dupont Circle? Route 29 was rerouted years ago. Thanks.") Let’s see how much time it takes for the signs to come down. A couple days? A week? Four years? Only time will tell.

In the course of researching the history of Route 29 in D.C., I dug through my map archives and pulled out a 1973 Amoco Oil Company map of the District, pictured below. It has the old New Hampshire Avenue routing, plus an ALT 29 routing between the Key Bridge and New Hampshire Avenue via M Street NW. Route 50, which cuts through the District on Constitution Avenue, was once routed via Independence Avenue.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, when a northern extension of Route 29 into D.C. and Maryland was considered in the 1930s, there was an "understanding that when the by-pass and direct line around Washington has been constructed that [Route 29] will hook up and follow it, or some route passing around out of the thickly congested area in Washington."

Well, that never happened.

Most curious, perhaps, are the former D.C. truck routes meant to “expedite traffic through the city.” For some reason, one truck route for Route 29 takes the trucks from K Street NW to Virginia Avenue via 25th and 26th streets. Imagine the uproar within the membership of the Foggy Bottom Association if DDOT were to re-sign the truck route on such quiet residential streets!

Photos by Michael E. Grass

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