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.