Innovations in Mobility for Southwest DC

A Keynote Address Delivered by Steve Moore at the Georgetown University “Mobility Making the Place” Research Forum which convened over 50 local non-profit organizations from across the Washington Metropolitan Region to discuss emerging practices in place-based community development. The forum was organized by the Georgetown Urban & Regional Planning program as part of its Place Leadership Project.

May 3, 2019

Steve Moore is the Executive Director of the Southwest Business Improvement District in Washington, DC

Steve Moore: So this is the southwest quadrant of the District of Columbia. You’re looking at about 500 acres. And in the north you can see the South Campus of the Smithsonian. The new waterfront of the large federal campus about 26 maybe 30 national headquarters for federal agencies. And then the southwest neighborhood, which is just off the screen to the left. It’s a funny area of the city in a lot of ways because it just didn’t exist for people in a way. Everybody understood where the mall was and “oh, isn’t the Mandarin located way over there somewhere?” and all of that has kind of changed a lot. And this would be what Maine Avenue looks like now on probably most Thursday nights (very busy). This is really problematic for the people that live there, the ANC arena theater people who are trying to understand how to have access to this and this is a picture of this part of the city that no one that we deal with on a regular basis sort of has their head around what’s occurring here. Why is it changing so quickly? What occurred that this would be what occurred that this would be happening so fast?

This is upwind from the fish market, the fish market is 200 years old, but most people don’t have a sense that Rappahannock oysters is there, an office scene where you need three weeks before you get a reservation in there, Blue Bottle Coffee, others in that spot. The Museum of the Bible had about a million people in its first year it’s aiming towards 3 million, most people arrived there by tour bus. The images now that people would have of the District of Columbia in their head are very very different than what’s ever existed before. And just a simple example of you could look at that and if you hadn’t been to the waterfront you might never say “oh, is that D.C.? I didn’t know that.” Or at second look, “Cherry blossoms. Oh, Haynes point. Oh this another shot from the wharf.” It’s also the beginning of understanding the current incredible demand and acceptance of people wanting to be in a public space. Wanting to be by the water and finding their way there against sort of complicated transportation signals and ways to travel and sort of what it takes to get yourself from home to here.

This is the view outside of the function space, inside the top floor of the new spy museum. We put together a meeting last November, we called it radical change, and we took 100 people who are community and business leaders and had them stand against the window and look out here to begin a conversation that it’s all changed. And we wanted them to say “Oh I see. Yes I see the new apartment buildings and and oh the new stuff at the wharf.” And “wow that’s real it looks different.” And people say all the time. “You know I haven’t been here in a little while. I can’t believe how much it’s changed.” But the message of us putting them in the room together had very little to do in a way with the real estate and a lot more to do with everyone’s attitude has changed. And the real estate has followed people’s changes in preference and how they like to move around and how they use their life and particularly the attractiveness of a place like the wharf at nighttime. In fact, the place was designed for nighttime and if you look at the small area plan or you were to look at sort of any of the other large plan, nighttime is not contemplated. But the renderings and the thinking of some of the attractions themselves thought through nighttime and anticipated that the project would be used at night or that the area would be understood as a place to be experienced at nighttime. Events happen at night. But more than that, the people who are now kind of driving the programming at the wharf understand nighttime and understand the event business or drawing people to a place with a level of sophistication that hasn’t existed in the city before.

Notice where the fireworks are here. The barge is so far down the channel that the fireworks experience is really very intimate. And you had to have all the relationship with the fire marshals and MPD and others to be able to cause that to happen. Clear the channel, move the fireworks down there, and drop 20,000 people at this location any time you want. The amazing thing about the events here is that if you think about the Southwest in general, or if you thought about as you were getting ready for the wharf and the Southwest’s development pipeline to come on line, no one ever talks about the Smithsonian. On the night that the wharf opened, this event took place that weekend, 50,000 people attended. So we are now talking about the people side of what Tom was saying with with respect to freight. In other words, have we thought through how people are accessing here? How many of them? Did we incorporate that into our planning? Are we now in the ketchup business because we didn’t think it through thoroughly enough the first time through? In the same way we didn’t think about nighttime, we didn’t think about water. Both as kind of access as a way to recreate a place for people to live, but also to think through: Is it a transit opportunity? How could we use it.? Is there some way we should think through having this much access in a way we hadn’t before.? To take this little free boat across there, to go for a swim, to play golf, to play tennis. These guys (Water Taxi) would very much like to be in the business of moving from Old Town to here or the airport to Southwest or to Georgetown as a commuter business, just the beginning of those conversations are happening now.

All of this is kind of driven by people that are almost, in terms of planning and thinking through an area like Southwest, almost invisible in a way. They’re the people that are thinking through: How do you attract people somewhere? What will they do when they get there? What kind of experience are we wanting to provide for them? So here’s an example of a small event. This is a weekend at City Center. This is a little tulip market with red tulips, yellow tulips, green tulips, and this is just beautifully staged simple event. You have a sense of how how busy that is. Just like a surgical “We understand how our market is. We want to provide something for them to do for 20 minutes.” Wonderful little moment in time. You’ve all seen their treatment of this seasonal changes to the ceiling. You’re just creating place a little bit, you know, augmenting your 10 or 15 minutes of just walking through. We do a very similar sized event which we invite people to a dinner on the Sunday’s in August. We call it Sunday Suppers and people from the neighborhood come and have dinner in the duck pond near our offices just to put people that didn’t know each other, people new to the neighborhood, around the table. Two kind of gentle events. Right.? A little tulip market, a little dinner for people that are in the neighborhood.

This however is different. So this is a what traffic planners call a “pedestrian demand generator” (little dog). Right? Although they only weigh six pounds, people are tremendously into dressing the little dog up and taking it down to let everybody else see what you did and having the running of the Chiwawas. I mean this event will happen tomorrow and it’s on nobody’s screen. It’s entirely the opposite side of the tulip event. It’s massive. And think through what it’s going to take tomorrow to move out of that space. 15,000 -18,000 people all at one time all with their little dogs. Right? I got interested in all of the kind of event programmers there that are putting together events inside the Southwest. Who are they? What are they doing? Who’s driving the Spy Museum? What’s the energy behind Smithsonian? What’s happening at air & space museum, at the Bible museum, at all of those kind of big generators? So I wanted to compare it to something. I got them all in a room together and wanted to compare it to something, just this little corner of the city. How does it compare to in this case Vienna, Berlin, Miami? And the truth is that D.C., the Southwest has more going on than all of those cities all at one time. Just the Southwest. But our sense of it is, I don’t think we prepared in that way. I don’t think we anticipated that. We watched the real estate too much. People that are in my business tracked the development pipeline and we knew every square footage we knew what the FAR was going to be. And we didn’t anticipate what was going to happen.

So they own the nighttime and they also understand what it takes to drive people to the place at will. Now there’s enormous demand for people because there are like twenty five hundred restaurant seats there. The Anthem is there. This is an enormous sort of attraction across the region. But what’s not understood is it’s not a random putting together of people. These people are playing at the highest level. If you are a curator at the African Museum in the Smithsonian you’re a world class participant in curating African artifacts and your peer is the person driving the Anthem. The Anthem now attracts more people than soccer in D.C.. Totally not contemplated as the drive that it is, what it would mean to have that many shows there, how we think through getting people in or getting people out, and they’re playing at the highest level. This is the Foo Fighters, they sold out, of course they sold out because a month later they sold out Wembley Stadium in London twice which is 60,000 seats. It is an extraordinary experience to be able to see them up close and get a chance to see this space. People are playing like that across the Southwest now. To the point of earlier about, who’s innovating? What are they doing? Are we cognizant of the level of play at which people are moving out across the city?

This is the petal-palooza two weeks ago, the average on site was 35,000 people at any one time, that’s more than the average onsite during a baseball game. So people will say to me all the time, “Well do you have signs? Are there signs? Where are the signs? Is there any anything like wayfinding at all?”. And yes it’s a tremendous sort of critical mass of attractions across the southwest. And we spend a lot of time telling people you know the walking distance back and forth is not that much. 9 minutes 10 minutes. And we have our own shuttle that we underwrite with J.B.G. And with the Spy Museum and it’s on this simple route and it sees about 40,000 riders a month right now. My guess is when the Spy Museum opens that number could go up even higher. We’re scratching the surface with that. And an evening like with petal-palooza we should have 20 buses outside. We’re looking for where we would have relationships with the Smithsonian. And we went out to chat with them a couple of years ago and said Is there something we could do with you? Can we have a relationship with you? We think of the BID, lets draw our identity more from the Smithsonian than we would from soccer and baseball, its more sustainable we liked it better. We just reach across the street. They said, “well, we are doing event with this artist Kazama. Maybe there’s something you could do with her?” So Lexi from our group gets in touch with her studio and we worked with them. We had seen that they had wrapped a building in New York so we thought, well maybe there’s something we could do. We did this little simple installation with Marta and it was a time for us to reach out to the Smithsonian, particularly for that show, work with WMATA, think through not just the wayfinding of people going to Hirshhorn but also what the experience of that is. 741,000 people saw that show. And if you tried to get in you know that 70,000 people at a time called in on Monday morning to get tickets. It blew all of their records. They’re playing at that level. Our own responses to mobility and wayfinding has to meet the kind of level that right now people are performing at across the city.

This is Ibraham Ibraham. He runs a company in London called Portland design. He’s been retained by WMATA to look at L’Enfant Metro and Crystal City, asking all of the right questions which is: What’s going on here? What should we be thinking about? What’s occurring in these spaces.? How dismal is it? If we’re playing at this level, what is it we should be thinking about? What are those things that are occurring in spaces like this that that we need to be looking at? These people are brilliant. Their work is the Heathrow’s of the world. They understand kind of your blood pressure as you move through big complicated airports. And we’ve all seen this space right. Just think about the level of detail here. Leo Villareal, American artist programs each of these light bulbs as if it were a musical note. So it’s fantastic amount of thought just to go into that space. I would argue that this has really held its value. There’s no sign there that says: “By the way the bookstore is this way. You know, you can get a cup of coffee that way.” None of that. Right? It’s just driving you toward the next thing. Here’s a wrap of the of the lower level of the Hirshhorn many of you have probably seen as well. So people are experimenting with how we take all of this to the next level. And this is the installation now inside Chinatown for this play at Shakespeare’s Michael Kahn’s last play. And it would cost a fortune to do this if you would just advertising some product. But if you had another agenda, which is you really wanted to make the story of the work you’re doing come to life. You wanted to thank a man for his life’s work. And you were committed to beautiful photography and really kind of using the space in a different way you could make it occur.

10th Street…. A lot of people sometimes look at 10th street and they say: “Boy it is really ugly. I don’t know what you think about doing there. The street looks dangerous.” I say, no it’s not dangerous. Dangerous is that crazy idea that the people in Georgetown have about the gondola that would run across the water. We don’t think like that at all. All we want to do on 10th street is to have cars go up and down the street with nobody driving them. We’re going through a transition in 10th street. This installation is happening today. We’re putting raised planters in. This is an example of them from two days ago and then were putting plants in the ground. This is the work of Michael Ferguson and his group. Major connector between north and south from the Smithsonian Castle down to the waterfront.

I think that this is the second largest Uber and Lyft pick up a drop off point in the city after Georgetown. And so this is a complicated use of this particular space. And without Uber and Lyft I would argue that the anthem and a lot of the dinner business wouldn’t be there and that’s not particularly good news for the whole world that’s trying to make a case about: How should we use Metro more? Where do we think about public transit? What should we be thinking? VRE is its own little entity. It’s a real factor, brings about 19,000 people to Southwest. That would be a third of maybe the federal employees that are there on a daily basis. This is its route. It’s just not in the conversation about what it is we should be doing next to solve transportation issues. I’m not fluent enough to know “here’s the capacity of the long bridge. Here’s the planning cycle for that and here’s how you turn all that around.” I’m only making the case that it’s right there and they’ll never take a soul away from the running of the Chiwawas.

I had a conversation about a mobility innovation district, and that came out of our own interest after we put an RFI on the street to say “Could we have driverless vehicles go up and down 10th Street as an experiment?” And what? After we had all of these operators in the office, in essence they said to us: “”What do you want to do? What’s your plan? What is it you’re moving toward? What solutions are you looking for?” At the time we thought it would just be cool to have cars go up and down the street. That’s not nearly enough. The technology is moving much much faster than city the regulatory side. So these guys make the case that they are ready to go and I’m not sure they are. But we put together two things 1. We have a joint grant with DDOT to create this area as the beginnings of a phased deployment for autonomous vehicles. And this is a very very cryptic description about what that looks like with drivers, without drivers, with passengers, that kind of thing. And that is roughly an $8 million grant. I think our chances of getting it are not very strong but it forced us into a conversation about a larger idea which was should we create an innovation district? This is exactly what Tom was saying a minute ago, which is not so much that we’ve thought through all of the tactics. It’s the permission to try. Let’s get rid of cars for a while. Let’s understand what’s occurring with drop offs and pickups. Let’s see if we can’t advance the conversation by just allowing ourselves to play a little more. This is available on our website. I won’t take you through all of the detail of it. We asked Eleanor Norton Holmes to comment on, is it a good idea because this ultimately is a federal grant, this will ultimately find its way. And I think it’s useful that she would say this project’s results is of national significance.

One last thought. All of this morning’s conversations, all of I think what’s behind Uber and this sort of convening this morning is about this sort of new moment in time I think we’re experiencing. There’s a sense of urgency about it and there’s a sense we haven’t moved quickly enough and there’s some people with a tremendous sense of loss. And we’re watching this just now on social media, on every car that’s in a bike lane, every somebody who gets knocked down, the frequency is even stunning to people that watch it closely. I think Gabe Klein, who’s been in this room for projects, I said to him, Gabe what is it? Talk for a minute about what this moment in time is. And this is what Gabe said, let me read this last part, “A requirement that we prioritize the safety of people living in our neighborhoods over the speed and throughput of those moving through them.”. I belong to a group called DC surface transit and it’s a group for people that sit and have transportation conversations and I find Greg Billings comment at these meetings always just insightful and take a second look at this. “…The planning work is done. Now city leaders must build the infrastructure that prioritizes people walking, biking and taking transit.”

Thanks everybody.

This public address has been edited for publication.

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