Paul Goddin's Urbanism

Washington, D.C. resident. Amateur photographer. Urban Affairs Reporter at Mobility Lab of Arlington, Virginia.

Washington D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel. 

Washington D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel. 

New Shared-Space Residential Project in Arlington Made Possible by Tech, Transit

[Written by Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

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A new shared-space residential project by Vornado and WeWork, approved in July by the county board, will be Arlington, Virginia’s first micro-unit project, and could be priced affordably.

The Crystal City project will be a temporary revamp of the vacant Crystal Plaza 6 office building at 2221 South Clark Street, which is scheduled to be redeveloped by 2050.

In the interim, real-estate firm Vornado will spend $40 million on the renovation, with a mid-2015 completion date. WeWork, a New York-based coworking office provider, has signed a 20-year lease on the building.

Coworking, a communal office environment in which people from different companies commingle, network, and collaborate, is a trend that has quickly transformed the commercial real-estate sector.

Experts say coworking signifies structural changes occurring in America’s workforce. Coworking companies are largely located in the urban core, reliant on the vibrancy, walkability and transit options of these areas to lure a hip and influential clientele.

The coworking concept is part of the larger "sharing economy," which has been adopted in large numbers, especially by Millennials. (Cities, however, have been slower to adapt.)

The Crystal City project – dubbed “WeLive” by those familiar with it – will be WeWork’s first foray into the residential market, with a similar project planned for the SoHo neighborhood of New York City.

WeLive will consist of small apartments centered around a two-story-tall common living area. Apartments will contain a bedroom and bathroom, but kitchens and living areas will be communal.

The project will likely emphasize the cutting-edge design and amenities that have distinguished WeWork’s co-working spaces.

With many units between 300 and 360 square feet or less, WeLive will be Arlington County’s first micro-apartment project, located within walking distance of the Crystal City Metro Station, several bus stops and Capital Bikeshare stations.

WeWork has not yet established rents for the WeLive project, but the Washington Business Journal has reported that WeWork’s lease from Vornado is a low $24.77 per square foot. Additionally, since building small is an effective way to achieve lower rents, there are hopes within the industry that WeLive rents may increase the stock of affordable housing in the county.

Mary Rouleau, executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, has lobbied for micro-units in Arlington to help ease its affordability problems.

Rouleau told Mobility Lab, “We need to explore new designs in the search for a housing mix to serve employees of varying incomes. To maintain our economic vitality and diversity, we need to create housing affordability in a variety of stripes.”

More than one person interviewed about the WeWork project used the term “experimental” to describe the housing concept, with its decidedly dorm-like feel. “It will be interesting to see who is going to live there,” said Angela Fox of the Crystal City Business Improvement District.

Arlington Board Chairman Jay Fisette has stated that he believes the project will appeal to “entrepreneurs and tech workers.” Fisette’s comment makes sense, as by all accounts Crystal City is attempting to transform itself into a tech hub.

Federal spending cuts continue to affect the entire region, and no Arlington district was as affected as Crystal City by the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) plan, which resulted in a mass exodus of military personnel and contractors from the county. Crystal City’s office vacancy rate was at 21.9 percent in the second quarter of 2014.

Demonstrating that every problem really is an opportunity, Crystal City has been performing a dramatic about-face, repositioning itself as a magnet for growth tech companies, and engaging in placemaking to transform its streets into vibrant, walkable destinations.

Vornado CEO Steven Roth has indicated that the partnership with WeWork will continue in this vein, predicting it will be “transformative” for Crystal City. Roth told the Washington Business Journal regarding the innovative WeWork partnership, “We think that this is an enlightened transaction.”

The WeWork project is made possible, of course, by Arlington’s status as an urban center, its unique positioning relative to Washington D.C., and its world-class transportation options.

Also, with Millennials continuing to call the county their de facto ground zero, Crystal City seems like the logical proving ground for this interesting new idea.

Rouleau told Moility Lab, “The WeWorkunits won’t appeal to all, but that’s okay. I’m looking at this design with great excitement and hope.”

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Wonder Bread Factory photo by WeWork. Architectural renderings by Vornado.

Martin Di Caro

—The Silver Line and Ballston

From our friend Martin Di Caro at WAMU comes the attached spot on the Silver Line and Ballston.

Suburbanites Seek Status Behind “Velvet Rope,” Argues Transit Activist Ross

[Written by Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

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Why do so many Americans choose to live in the suburbs, despite the increasingly long commute times and lack of community often associated with these places?

Benjamin Ross, a Washington D.C.-based transit activist whose grass-roots lobbying efforts led to the planned Purple Line in Maryland, argues that suburbia has a persistent allure because it is a great “velvet rope” separating those of means from the rest of us.

Status-seeking, Ross says, is the psychological underpinning of suburbanization, leading Americans to seek out the cachet purported by suburbia’s bigger houses, bigger lots, and bigger SUVs. Ross makes a convincing argument to this effect in his new, meticulously-researched book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.

Regarding status-seeking, Ross writes:

"Suburban construction is not the only sector of the economy where status sells. Nightclubs, like neighborhoods, thrive on exclusivity, and both employ gatekeepers to maintain the desired aura. These functionaries – bouncers, doormen, and planners – bring diverse credentials to their work, but they all have the same task. Their job is to keep the riffraff out while carefully trading off revenue against cachet. The balding hedge fund manager with the taste for champagne gets seated in the VIP section for the same reason the office building is allowed to go up along the interstate."

The problem, of course, is that housing and jobs, unlike nightclubs, ought not be reserved only for those with clout. Yet Ross demonstrates how status-seeking is built into the DNA of suburbia, through the zoning codes and private covenants that enable them.

Dead End details how the legal foundation for modern zoning ordinances lies in a 1927 Supreme Court case, Euclid v. Ambler. In this case, the view of apartment buildings as “lower class” was upheld by the court, which described apartments as a “mere parasite” on the single-family neighborhood. Coupled with private covenants (primarily homeowners associations), which historically did not just impose architectural standards but racial and ethnic restrictions as well, the result is an entire system based on exclusion and favoring single-family housing over all others.

Despite this dubious history, many Americans moved to the suburbs with the best of intentions, seeking safety and security for their families. The suburban oasis has proven to be a mirage, though, says Ross. For example, in present-day suburbia, children do not play throughout the neighborhood. Instead, play dates must be arranged in advance by “helicopter parents.” Walking or biking to school is anathema. The desire for safety has warped into a reality of isolation and disconnectedness.

The biggest problem with suburbanization, though, may be the unintended consequence of a segregated, dispersed land-use pattern – better known as sprawl.

Sprawl, the process of separating land uses – houses from offices from shopping – has resulted in a suburban landscape in which even the simplest errand requires a car. It’s no wonder, Ross argues, that Americans have fallen out of love with sprawl, if not with the suburbs themselves.

Ross’s book covers a great deal of ground. There is clearly no love lost between Ross and the suburban land form he deconstructs. He takes on opponents of smart growth as well, recognizing that behind most of their arguments lurks the culturally-biased premise that “the single-family suburb embodies true Americanism, under attack by an alien cultural elite.”

At its core though, Dead End is optimistic. Ross points out that demand for walkable, transit-accessible housing far outweighs the supply. In regions that have strong transit networks – New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles, among them – the central cities are gaining in population faster than the suburbs.

This is good news for smart-growth advocates, but the supply-demand discrepancy remains an issue. Ross says that in order to address the supply side of the equation, we need:

  • additional construction and density in existing walkable, transit-accessible areas, and
  • extended transit to create new places that fit this criteria.

Dead End has received praise from publications such as the Washington Post, which noted that the book “casts light on the cultural forces at play in major disputes gripping our region over affordable housing, the ‘war on cars,’ [and] the Columbia Pike streetcar in Arlington.” If the suburbs really are an exclusive, velvet rope-demarcated pattern of development, then like at any party, it’s important to recognize when it is coming to an end. Many Americans are doing just that.

Ross will speak at Mobility Lab on September 24 as part of our ongoing Lunch At the Lab speaker series.

Velvet rope photo by Ahmed Hashim.


Washington D.C.’s Beaux Arts-style Union Station is arguably one of the most majestic transit centers in the United States.

Washington D.C.’s Beaux Arts-style Union Station is arguably one of the most majestic transit centers in the United States.

Are Streets, Like Fences, A Relic of Another Era?

[Written by Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

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“Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost wrote in the poem “Mending Wall.”

It is a line that captures the 1914 poem’s themes of boundaries, ownership, and privacy perfectly. But today, 100 years later, fences are becoming more of a quaint notion in an increasingly urbanized world.

According to the United Nations, which has been tracking world urbanization patterns for years, 81 percent of Americans currently live in urban areas. This is a worldwide migration trend as well, with more than half of the world’s population now residing in cities.

If America’s rural and suburban areas are all about the private realm, then our cities are about the public realm; that is, the commons. More people are choosing to live in cities, electing a lifestyle of smaller living spaces, nonexistent yards, and more people in closer proximity.

The fenced-in private yard is giving way to neighborhood parks and sidewalk cafés. The public realm is reasserting itself as a vital place in which residents of cities can socialize, recreate, and politically demonstrate.

“Yet public space, often slow in the making, is easily compromised,” says Thomas Mellins, curator of Open to the Public: Civic Space Now at New York City’s Center for Architecture. “Its creation and maintenance require both patience and vigilance.” In land-poor places such as Manhattan and Arlington, Virginia, the market pressure for conversion of parks into “higher and better” uses is not insignificant. We should approach such ideas with skepticism.

Most people do not realize, however, that the majority of public space in the U.S. consists of streets. According to Planetizen, streets comprise roughly one-third of the land area of an average city. As automobile ownership declines and alternative transportation modes prevail, it makes sense to convert excess street bandwidth into walkable, usable public spaces.

Some cities are doing just this, in empowering displays of civic-mindedness. Charlottesville, Virginia pedestrianized its historic business district into a Downtown Mall before it was fashionable. More recently, New York City partially pedestrianized Times Square… permanently.

Just as nature threatened to take back the space occupied by Frost’s “Mending Wall,” cities too should take back that other, man-made obstacle to community. We’ve done it in small measure with protected bike lanes. Let the reclamation continue.

Photo by Maciek Lulko.


I briefly worked for a landscaping company in 2012. We worked on some fabulous residences. This one was in Georgetown, I believe.

I briefly worked for a landscaping company in 2012. We worked on some fabulous residences. This one was in Georgetown, I believe.

Why Arlington (and Every Place) Needs More Protected Bike Lanes

[By Paul Goddin, originally appearing in Mobility Lab]

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Chris Eatough, a former professional biker and the director of BikeArlington, envisions an Arlington County where there are more bikes than cars. In order to get there, says Eatough, the county needs to create a connected network of protected bike lanes.

Eatough has spent the last five years helping to guide the county’s transformation into a great place to get around by bike. He spoke about the state of the county’s bike programs at Mobility Lab’s Lunch at the Lab this week.

Eatough said that while Arlington’s leadership position in bicycling was forged by the creation of Capital Bikeshare, “Arlington is now falling a little bit behind as other communities roll out protected bike lanes more quickly.”

Protected bike lanes, also referred to as cycle tracks, are “like sidewalks for bikes,” according to People for Bikes. These bike lanes are often painted green and are segregated from automobile traffic by planters, pylons, curbs, parked cars, and, in the case of San Francisco, cactuses. While protected bike lanes have doubled in number nationwide since 2011, Arlington only recently opened its first protected bike lane this week in the Pentagon City neighborhood.

These lanes are integral to getting more people to choose bike instead of other modes. A Portland Office of Transportation study shows that 60 percent of potential cyclists are interested in bicycling but concerned over issues such as safety. A big way to address the concerns of this “interested but concerned” population cohort is by creating segregated lanes for bicyclists.

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While installation of these lanes would admittedly result in a small reduction in on-street parking, said Eatough, “A small number of objections should not prevent change that benefits everybody.”

The benefits these lanes provide are tangible, and not just relegated to bicyclists. A study in New York showed that protected bike lanes decreased injuries to all street users by 56 percent. A Portland study showed that 96 percent of people feel safer on a street with a protected bike lane.

Protected bike lanes, as part of a complete-streets policy, are effective placemaking tools as well. These lanes can transform a street or neighborhood into a destination rather than just a place to travel through. In Washington D.C., for instance, 83 percent of residents in the vicinity of the 15th Street NW protected green bike lane consider it a valuable neighborhood asset.

BikeArlington, a program of Arlington County Commuter Services, is engaged in encouraging more people to bike more often. Eatough’s last day as BikeArlington director is August 28. He is leaving to become Howard County, Maryland’s first-ever bike and pedestrian coordinator.

Protected bike lane photo by Dani Simons. Photo of Chris Eatough by M.V. Jantzen.


It may look like it was taken a century ago, but this is just an Instagrammed photo I took in 2013 of a horse-drawn carriage marketed towards tourists.

It may look like it was taken a century ago, but this is just an Instagrammed photo I took in 2013 of a horse-drawn carriage marketed towards tourists.

File this under “surprising research,” although it’s interesting that Whites are essentially equally as happy in urban and non-urban communities.
thisiscitylab:

Overall, Americans in the suburbs are still the happiest.

File this under “surprising research,” although it’s interesting that Whites are essentially equally as happy in urban and non-urban communities.

thisiscitylab:

Overall, Americans in the suburbs are still the happiest.

Are Suburbs The Secret to Walkability in D.C.?

[By Paul Goddin, originally appearing in Mobility Lab]

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Washington D.C. is the most walkable metropolitan area in the U.S., according to a report by George Washington University and Smart Growth America.

The District’s number-one ranking has surprised some, prompting them to ask how D.C. was able to surpass places such as New York City, which not only contains one of the best subway systems in the world but also that epitome of walkability known as Manhattan. (See the full rankings below.)

The secret to Washington’s walkability – according to the report entitled Foot Traffic Ahead – is its suburbs.

The term “walkable suburb” may sound like a misnomer, but Chris Leinberger, the report’s author, contends that it is not. Many of America’s traditionally car-dominated suburbs are being transformed into walkable urban places (or WalkUPs), says Leinberger.

While the Washington metropolitan area contains many walkable places already (think Old Town Alexandria in Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland), it’s the transformation of D.C.’s suburbs into WalkUPs that’s particularly striking. Tysons is but one example.

Walkability is indeed a regional goal. This is the entire point of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ (COG) regional activity centers project, intended to guide growth in the Washington area.

Sophie Mintier, a regional planner on the COG project, told Mobility Lab, “The activity centers are compact, mixed-used neighborhoods – or emerging communities that are planned for compact development – that place an emphasis on walkability. Focusing development in these locations is a way to accommodate growth more efficiently and create livable places.”

New York’s number-two ranking, according to Leinberger, is because pedestrian friendliness in that area is mostly relegated to the central city. Leinberger told Mobility Lab, “Ninety-two percent of New York’s walkability is confined to the island of Manhattan. And Manhattan, at 23 square miles, is just .3 percent of the land area of the New York metropolitan area.”

Some New Yorkers have taken umbrage with yet another ranking placing the city behind conservative Washington. Even the Washington Post has questioned whether D.C.’s suburbs are all that walkable.

One person unsurprised by the report is Lauren Hassel, promotions manager of WalkArlington. Hassel points out that Arlington achieved a Gold-Level Walk Friendly Community rating a year before the District.

Walkable urban places, according to Leingerger, are the new frontier. “If you don’t understand [places such as] Arlington, then you don’t understand where the suburbs are going in this country,” Leinberger said.

Regarding the transformation of the D.C. suburbs into walkable urban places, Mintier said, “There are certainly challenges to achieving this kind of development, especially in more auto-oriented places, but we are seeing an increasing shift toward walkability and complete-streets approaches in the local planning of COG’s member jurisdictions.”

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Miniature Times Square photo by Jason Kong.


Ghostly Dupont Circle architecture, Washington D.C.

Ghostly Dupont Circle architecture, Washington D.C.

From a great BBC News story about the comeback story that is Washington D.C., this video discusses real estate, gentrification, and how growing up in the suburbs can lead one to long for a place like Washington. That is certainly my story.

The Rebirth of the Zombie and, Dare I Say it, Walkable City

[By Paul Goddin, written February 3, 2013, unpublished until now]

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Ever since George Romero’s 1978 film "Dawn of the Dead" (arguably the best zombie film of all time, with a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), zombies have symbolized modern-day anxieties, specifically American consumerism. For what is a zombie but a mindless automaton consuming everything in its path? But give me a little latitude here, because I believe a strong case can be made that zombie movies also mirror migration trends and settlement patterns, and the new movie "Warm Bodies" gives hope that things are headed in the right direction.

Trust me, I get it. Many of you are rolling your eyes already. The zombie metaphor is so overdone it’s outlived its life expectancy several times over (becoming, in its own right, ahem, the walking dead).

But let’s go back to Romero’s seminal original “Dawn.” Beginning in an urban location, a Pittsburgh public housing project overrun by the fictitious horror monsters, the heroes of that movie quickly realize that the cities are doomed, and decide to move to less populated rural areas. After some scrapes with redneck flesh eaters, they settle on a more defensible location, a suburban shopping mall (oh, the horror).

"Dawn of the Dead", then, mirrors society’s fears of the time, as the middle class left the cities in huge numbers in favor of the suburbs. That movie’s ending, it should be noted, was less than upbeat.

It’s not just “Dawn” though, that depicted this fear of city life. It has become a trope of the zombie genre that the cities were not an attractive location in which to settle. Too many people in close proximity, too easily overrun by flesh eaters. The ultimate gentrification, you could say.

The AMC series "The Walking Dead," the highest rated show on cable in 2012, continued in this blood-spurting vein, mirroring the migration patterns in “Dawn.” In the first season of the show the heroes looked to Atlanta as their salvation. Finding it hopelessly infested by the undead, the series’ protagonists moved to a farm in season 2, until a horde of zombies booted them from their safe haven.

Now midway through season 3 (returning to AMC in February, 2013) most of the team has settled into a location they also view as more easily defensible: a prison. But a few others have found themselves in a “planned community” that seems too good to be true, and is. It seems a safe bet that the remainder of season 3 will involve a similar mass exodus. For what are these people trying to do if not find a place where they can live, and more to the point, feel alive. Neither a dehumanizing prison nor a planned community in all its artifice seem likely contenders in this endeavor.

Despite my enjoyment of “The Walking Dead,” the show is as bleak and dark as a Wal-Mart parking lot at midnight. Fitting for a show with such a gory backdrop, but it’s not the only way to make a zombie show or movie.

This is why the new film “Warm Bodies” was such an enjoying departure. Riffing off William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the two star-crossed lovers in Jonathan Levine’s film are Julie and a zombie named simply “R,” who is slowly coming back to life. Not unlike the American urban centers, currrently in demand and being resettled in significant numbers.

This is what struck a particular chord with this writer: the way the action has shifted in this original take on the zombie story. “Warm Bodies” is more optimistic than previous zombie incarnations, but its use of place reflects a trend in Americans’ thinking as well, particularly as relates to the city. Cities are no longer places to be feared. They are places, in fact, of life. The “dead zone” in this movie is the suburbs.

So while “R,” that zombie without a name in “Warm Bodies,” slowly returns to life, so too do America’s cities. As always in these movies, the zombies are us, but things are looking up.