The Washington area is deeply schizophrenic about whether it wants to be a city of driving and parking or of people and transit. While DC is working hard to put mixed-use high-density development next to many of its stations, plans in Foggy Bottom and West Hyattsville call for more parking than should be necessary.

Whether a city is car-dependent or transit-accessible is self-reinforcing. Once an area becomes dependent on cars, housing and shopping get built with huge spaces between them, reinforcing the need to drive, and creating demand for parking, which pushes buildings even farther apart and makes them less walkable. On the other side of the coin, once most people take transit and don’t drive, the most valuable use of real estate is to add more walkable housing and shopping, rather than parking. The cycle reinforces itself.

Thanks to farsighted federal investment in Metro and thoughtful planning, Washington has avoided tipping into a Los Angeles-like car-dependent form. But it hasn’t firmly rooted itself in New York-style walkability either. Many neighborhoods are still not very convenient to transit and many people still drive to work. The decisions the Greater Washington area makes will determine whether it tips one way or the other. Put a lot of housing and shopping downtown and around Metro, and people can live, shop, and get to work without driving. Fill the land with parking, and it will encourage low-density sprawl for people to park and ride or drive right into the city. The new plans in Foggy Bottom and West Hyattsville fall too far toward the parking side of the scale.

There’s been a large empty lot next to the Foggy Bottom Metro for years, and today, there was good news: GW has reached a deal to develop the site with office and residential towers and ground-floor retail. But the article also says the development will contain 1,000 parking spaces.

What do they need 1,000 parking spaces for? There will be a supermarket (and more neighborhood supermarkets are definitely needed in DC), but the extremely busy Trader Joe’s nearby only has about 25 parking spaces for shopping, so they can’t need those spaces for grocery shoppers. This is a great opportunity to add residences for people who don’t need cars, and for offices for workers who can take Metro to work if they don’t live in the building. But by building a thousand spaces, it will be attractive for residents to have a car and for workers to drive in. Better to provide a few hundred spaces and a fleet of Zipcars.

The Foggy Bottom Association is concerned that the development “is a much greater intensity of use” than appropriate for the neighborhood. A big part of the development’s impact will be the traffic created. With fewer spaces that encourage less driving, it can provide the density that’s appropriate around Metro, and the living and working space needed in downtown DC, without as much of an impact on the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, over in West Hyattsville: Rethink College Park’s retrospective on Maryland Smart Growth criticized the failure to develop land around Prince George’s County Metro stations. The most recent plan (PDF) for the site looks like a nice, attractive mixed-use transit-oriented development, until you realize that in the area around the Metro station, about half of the ground floor land use is for parking.

So much parking means that people will be walking along blocks whose building fronts have nothing but parking spaces, as well as open-air parking lots. Even the picture from the front of the plan (the image above) shows more space devoted to cars than people, with all the people crammed into narrow sidewalks at the side while cars leisurely cruise along the wide streets and in and out of the garage entrances that take up most of the space.

Meanwhile, most of the housing is low-rise townhouses, which would be most appropriate a few blocks away from the Metro station with taller buildings in between. This may simply be a matter of market demand—Hyattsville is poorer and more African-American than nearby Montgomery County, lowering developer interest. But building a set of garages with sidewalks won’t change the character of the area and won’t help West Hyattsville become more than it is today.

Stanford, in notoriously sprawly Silicon Valley, was able to resist the urge to build more and more parking, and instead has been able to use its land more efficiently. Why can’t dense, urban Washington DC and just-a-


downtown West Hyattsville?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.