Photo by james4765 on Flickr.

Will the Spingarn streetcar barn harm the Benning Road corridor? Would a bus garage on North Capitol damage surrounding neighborhoods? Will mixed use development destroy Brookland? Discussions in DC’s Ward 5 often center around what residents oppose, but what’s really needed is a plan for what they do want.

Ward 5, mostly in Northeast DC, has the most industrial land, surface railroads and suburban big box stores of any part of the District. In short, it’s the farthest away from the kind of walkable mixed-use patterns in highest demand today.

Its new councilmember, Kenyan McDuffie, is trying to figure out the future of Ward 5. He’s got a tough uphill climb to bring fractious neighborhood activists together in a vision that could fundamentally reshape the ward, while dealing with old infrastructure and new infrastructure proposals that might or might not fit into a vision.

Ward 5 has a famously-bitter political culture, with ward-wide and neighborhood listservs that draw more nasty, personal backbiting than perhaps any others in the city. In that toxic environment is a very loud chorus of voices shouting down almost any ideAFRHa.

The critics point to a lot of transportation storage facilities being planned or proposed for Ward 5:

  • Ivy City is getting a parking lot for 65 charter buses displaced from Union Station. Ivy City already has very poor residents with many health problems, and don’t need the added pollution. But Mayor Gray says it’s also one of the most logical places to locate the buses, because it’s along New York Avenue and there’s ample city-owned vacant land there today.
  • After long insisting the streetcar facility could be under the H Street overpass, DDOT suddenly moved it to the Spingarn campus. They said they had no alternative to Spingarn, because it was too late to try to work something out for the RFK parking lots or some other spot, any of which would be more complex and time-consuming.
  • WMATA is now looking at relocating the Northern Bus Garage on 14th Street to a part of the Armed Forces Retirement Home property on North Capitol Street. WMATA sorely needs a more up-to-date facility, residents of 14th Street want to get rid of the bus garage, and AFRH wants to sell some of its land. However, WMATA initially wanted to build its garage at Walter Reed, where there was plenty of room to keep it away from surrounding houses. Councilmember Muriel Bowser staunchly opposed the plan, as did Mayor Gray. Was Ward 4 able to wield a lot of clout because it’s a wealthier part of the city? According to sources familiar with the discussions, WMATA officials now think AFRH might work even better, as it’s closer to the center of the city and North Capitol and Irving are now configured as high-speed near-freeways. It’s not right next to any residential neighborhood, let alone inside one. Still, it will bring more deadheading bus traffic to some streets which don’t have the buses now.

McDuffie has taken a firm stance against all of these facilities. He’s responding to his constituents, and the fact that all 3 are going to Ward 5 does seem unfair.

But if all or some of them will go there anyway, are there opportunities to design them to be assets to the area?

The buses in Ivy City are pretty hard to make into a plus, but a streetcar barn is really not such a bad thing. If designed well, it could even contribute to the neighborhood.

AFRH might be the best spot for a bus garage that nobody really wants to live near (except people in Friendship Heights, like some who want to landmark the Western Bus Garage on the belief that a mid-rise building would be far worse).

It’s hard to be very surprised that the District ends up suggesting locating transportation facilities in a ward that already has many transportation facilities, relatively low densities of residents, and many places without immediate opportunities for other types of development. In places far from Metro or high-frequency bus lines, large-scale residential or office development would be hard to attract and would bring lots of its own new traffic, likely stirring up vociferous opposition on the listservs as well.

That’s why it’s great that McDuffie is also moving beyond simply saying “hell, no” and trying to jump-start some planning for his ward. He is proposing an industrial land use task force to look at how to plan for the ward’s many acres of industrial spaces.

At Wednesday’s hearing on the bill, McDuffie suggested a MARC station at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. As Dan Malouff discussed, it’s not a bad idea. McDuffie also wants to look into the potential for residential development, urban agriculture, and hubs for small businesses and nonprofits in Ward 5, he said.

If McDuffie can shepherd a vision for the future of Ward 5, and more importantly get something his loud neighborhood activists can say yes to, it will do a lot more to improve the quality of life than just blocking a few locally-undesirable transportation facilities. It will also create more reasons to spread those facilities out to other parts of the city as well.

Still, as long as Ward 5 is the most industrial of the wards, it’ll attract things that tend to go in industrial places. A vision would also give residents something to ask for in exchange for these proposals.

Maybe, rather than stopping a bus garage on North Capitol, they can insist on money for other priorities for spots that are closer to more residents. Likewise, If a training facility at Spingarn doesn’t mitigate the cost of having the car barn, what would residents like instead?

Ward 5 can ask for the city to really invest in what they want, when it also invests in what the rest of the city needs.