Circulators, frequent buses could ease potential traffic from booming development plan
Tucked into the southern edge of Alexandria, Va., between the Washington Beltway and Duke Street is the 230-acre Eisenhower East corridor. This formerly industrial area encompasses some of the newest development in Alexandria, including the Patent and Trademark Office (above) and the Carlyle Center office building. It is also the site of one of the city’s most ambitious designs: the Eisenhower East Small Area Plan.
First adopted in 2003, the Eisenhower East plan seeks to create an urban village with new transit, bike and pedestrian facilities, and mixed-use development along its namesake road, all with the explicit objective of making “the pedestrian feel equally at home with the vehicle”. This noble goal was visionary when the plan was first adopted. However, in the time since, development has outpaced transit improvements, leading to congestion that could worsen as more projects are completed. More worryingly, recent studies indicate that people are most likely to try transit shortly after moving to a new area. However, once people establish routines they are unlikely to deviate, meaning that the city could miss a once-in-a-decade chance to attract new riders.
To start, the plan has a plethora of good aspects, many of which are finished or underway. This includes construction of a semi-traditional street grid on the south side of Eisenhower Avenue, a necessity for the plan to succeed, since true grids – because they offer a multitude of routes – move traffic more efficiently and encourage more walking and biking than do arterial systems. These new streets, as well as Eisenhower itself, contain generous sidewalks, although none feature bike lanes. This absence is deliberate, as planning is underway for the Old Cameron Run Trail, set to open in 2023. When complete, the trail will connect the existing Cameron Run and Mount Vernon Trails, feature parkland along its route, and allow for east-west bike travel that parallels Eisenhower Avenue.
Development has also continued apace, with additions like the newly-opened Parc Meridian apartments and the almost-finished National Science Foundation offices. The Parc Meridian and NSF are just the beginning of the area’s development: three public notices currently on the road call for new apartments, offices, and retail, including a grocery store.
When first approved, the most innovative part of the Eisenhower East plan was its parking requirements: it was the first in Alexandria to set maximum, rather than minimum, standards. Conventional parking minimums force developers to build maximum capacity, resulting in either seas of surface parking that subsidize driving while punishing transit with long distances and congestion, or necessitate expensive garages that inflate construction costs by around $19,700 per space. The maximums depend on building use and transit proximity. For instance, the plan caps developments within 1,500 feet of Metro stations to 1.1 per 1,000 GSF of residential. The city has recently further tightened residential standards, and is embarking on a similar effort for commercial parking.
However, not every aspect of the plan is pedestrian- or transit-oriented. First, many projects already include parking not covered under the new maximum standards; two of the public notices along the road have a combined 2,182 spaces, while the third sign near the Holland Lane vaguely advertises “five levels of parking”. Furthermore, the Hoffman Center’s full-build-out redevelopment (i.e., if everything proposed is built) includes ten garages, although many of these will replace surface lots. Finally, one of the first parts of the plan to be completed was the addition of Beltway on-ramps. To handle traffic from these exits, the Alexandria plans to add new turn lanes and will replace the traffic circle between Eisenhower Avenue and Holland Lane with a three-way stop.
Booming construction, new parking, and widened roads is the traditional recipe for inducing suburban-style gridlock, a problem Eisenhower East hopes to bypass with increased bus transit. However, with the City’s budget stretched tight on essentials like Metro, sewer upgrades, and schools, Eisenhower Avenue’s transit has taken a backburner, allowing development to outpace infrastructure. This may seem like a small bone to pick, but without improved transit Eisenhower will become mired in traffic, making it harder and more costly to improve mobility later.
Although the area is served by the Eisenhower Metro station and is a half-mile from the King Street Metro station, many developments lie outside their half-mile walking ranges and don’t yet have bus service. This is especially troublesome for trips into nearby Old Town, where driving 10 minutes is faster than walking a half mile to Eisenhower station and waiting 8-15 minutes for a train.
Interestingly, the plan makes no improvements to the DASH AT7 bus, instead opting to launch new transit initiatives. The AT7, which runs along most of Eisenhower and connects Landmark Mall, Old Town, and three Metro stations, is one of the lowest frequency DASH buses, with on-peak headways of 30 minutes and no weekend service. It also doesn’t serve all of Eisenhower East, instead turning into Carlyle Center after stopping at the Eisenhower Metro. Increasing frequency, adding service on weekends, and improving traffic signals at the often-congested Van Dorn and Eisenhower Avenue Metro stations could attract riders and ease peak-hour congestion. The more recent sister plan for Eisenhower West does call for such AT7 upgrades, although Alexandria has not yet taken steps to implement them.
The two transit proposals included in the plan could be transformative. First, it calls for a circulator running between the King Street and Eisenhower Avenue Metro stations every 15 minutes to provide final-mile service, replacing the fleet of private apartment shuttles that currently patrol the area. As envisioned, the circulator would be free to use, feature stops with real-time displays, and, most importantly, connect the developments that currently don’t have bus or rail transit. While two potential routes are included in the plan, the city has not set aside funding or created a project timeline for the circulator. Second, the plan envisions a BRT line running along Eisenhower, although that route – the Corridor B Transitway – is now scheduled for Duke Street several blocks to the north.
The Eisenhower East corridor has matured into a nascent urban village over the past 10 years, but as growth continues, better transit will be needed. Transit along Eisenhower may get a renewed push as the City undertakes an update to the Eisenhower East plan. One can hope so, for while the original 2003 plan has successfully renewed the corridor and encouraged denser development, the numerous imminent projects combined with no new transit threatens the area with becoming a victim of its own success.
By focusing now on improving buses, walking, and biking, Alexandria can ensure that this rapidly growing area will continue to grow into a livable, vibrant community.
Photo, top: The U.S. Patent Office, which moved to Alexandria from Crystal City in 2005, and is located within the Eisenhower East area (Kazuhisa Otsubo, Flickr, Creative Commons).