WMATA bus barn on 14th Street by WDCEP.

WMATA is revamping its crumbling northern bus garage on 14th Street using state-of-the-art “green” construction and electric systems. The proposed new garage will bring retail to enliven the street, but many residents are disappointed it won't replace polluting diesel buses with electric ones.

At a community meeting on Monday night, residents weighed in on plans to redevelop the Northern Bus Garage on 14th Street and Decatur Street NW. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd and representatives from WMATA co-hosted the meeting, one of the first public events about the redevelopment process that is scheduled to begin later this year.

The northern garage was built more than 100 years ago, and decades of deferred maintenance have left it beyond repair. The garage supplies buses for most of the city’s northern routes but is literally collapsing: pieces of the ceiling sometimes fall into areas where staff are working.

It's hard to find space for a big garage in DC

One of the first questions the project team considered was whether to move the garage to a different location. It currently takes up two full blocks along one of the area’s few commercial corridors in a residential neighborhood. Several homes are located just a few yards from the facility’s exhaust vents.

“Finding a piece of property that’s big enough to house a bus garage in an urban setting is exceedingly difficult,” explained John Thomas, WMATA’s Chief Engineer for Design and Construction, at Monday night’s meeting. “It needs to be within a certain geographic area in order to serve the needs of our routes. We talked with Walter Reed and the Armed Forces Retirement Home, National Parks Service, the District of Columbia. We even talked to a couple of developers about assembling enough property and doing a swap with us. Candidly, you are all invited to find enough land and tell us where to go.”

Instead, WMATA plans to rebuild the garage at its current location with state-of-the-art green facilities and street-level retail.

“Doing mixed-use with bus garage is not very common,” said Nina Albert, the Managing Director of WMATA’s Office of Real Estate. “In fact, I think there’s only one other example in the United States.”

The proposed project will include approximately 700 feet of retail frontage along 14th Street, covering about two-thirds of the block and creating a double-sided retail corridor. In total that would add about 55,000 square feet of commercial space, a use that is within the existing zoning for the lot.

“We put in an amendment to the comprehensive plan to increase the density of this site,” Thomas noted, “but that process is now delayed for several years and this building is deteriorating faster than that timeline will allow.”

The new retail space will join a commercial corridor that currently struggles to attract and retain tenants, a fact that Nina Albert says they are building in to their approach.

“We’re considering retail as well as not-for-profit uses,” she explained. “Once you start thinking about those combinations, we feel pretty confident that we could fill those spaces.” The agency is currently working with a consultant to survey surrounding commercial anchors and identify potential opportunities in the market. A small grocery store, home improvement store, urgent care facility, inline retail, a fitness center, a sportsplex, a charter school, and small production businesses are some of potential uses they are currently considering.

An electric garage—without electric buses

The WMATA reps also laid out plans to make the new building LEED Platinum certified, with solar panels on the roof and other green features. The agency’s most recently rebuilt garage at Andrews Federal Center is LEED Gold, and the agency is confident it can achieve Platinum in its next build. John Thomas offered to take any concerned residents on a tour of the Andrews garage before it opens to see what rebuilt facilities can look like.

Most notable for the environmental aspects of the project, the agency plans to build the garage with the electrical infrastructure to accommodate a fleet of 175 electric buses — despite the fact that they do not currently have a specific plan for migrating to an all-electric fleet.

“US electric bus infrastructure isn’t really there yet,” said Dave Michels, WMATA’s Managing Director of Bus Maintenance and Engineering. “There are a lot of transit agencies that went down the electric path and have abandoned it because it didn’t work. It would be irresponsible of us to buy a fleet of electric buses and then have to throw them away because they’re not what we need.”

Residents are frustrated the garage will still house a diesel fleet

Several of the residents at Monday’s meeting expressed anger about WMATA’s lack of a plan to migrate to electric buses.

“What is ‘later?’” asked Taalib-Din Uqdah, a long-time neighborhood resident and local real estate developer. “It has to be different from what we have now. Otherwise you need to get that garage out of this neighborhood. If DC can use eminent domain for a stadium, we can use eminent domain to find another place for this garage.”

Community meeting about the northern bus garage on March 11. Image by the author.

Other residents cited lead in their soil, children with asthma, and friends who have had to leave the neighborhood because of health concerns, which they trace back to the garage. Several asked Todd pointedly to fight for their concerns as constituents—and to not side with WMATA in this debate.

Uqdah also pointed out a line in the project’s Request for Proposal that specifies plans to add an auto body and paint shop to the site — a point which none of the WMATA representatives had discussed, and which only redoubled residents’ concerns about the new garage’s impact on air and groundwater quality.

Todd invited anyone concerned with the environmental impacts of the project to join one of several community committees that will advise WMATA over the next four years.

“The construction is one thing,” Uqdah pushed back. “These diesel buses have been in our backyards for decades and now you’re saying they’ll still be here. It’s time for them to go.”

The Northern Bus Garage redevelopment project is currently soliciting proposals from contractors. WMATA plans to stop using the garage later this year and to begin demolition in early 2020. The redeveloped garage is slated to open in 2024.