Indianapolis Cultural Trail shows way for White Flint

Separate foot (on the left) and bike (on the right) paths on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Photo by Eric Fischer on Flickr.

Getting around White Flint by foot or bike today is difficult. Despite plans to create a new pedestrian and bicycle network in the area, how do you coax people onto the streets that were primarily built for driving? A new trail network in Indianapolis gives us a path to follow.

Last year, the city opened the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an 8-mile network of foot and bike paths that loops around downtown with spurs to nearby destinations like universities, cultural venues and shopping streets. The trail “was about changing the way people thought about walking and running and jogging,” says Brian Payne of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), which spearheaded the project, in a video from Streetfilms. “We couldn’t just do a bike lane and change behavior. We had to do a new street.”

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail: The Next-Gen in U.S. Protected Bike Lanes from Streetfilms on Vimeo.
The trail is designed for a variety of users, including commuters, recreational cyclists and runners, and tourists. Unlike traditional bike lanes, which are street level, the Cultural Trail gives bicyclists and pedestrians separate paths at the curb level. This helps people who may be afraid to bike feel more comfortable because they’re not mixing with car traffic.

Small design choices make the trail easier and safer to use. Frequent, well-placed signage helps pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers understand how to interact with the trail and other users. At intersections with small streets, the crosswalk comes up to the trail, making it level. At big intersections, special pavers help trail users see where it goes while letting drivers know to expect lots of foot and bike traffic.

Special markings at intersections help trail users and drivers alike. Photo by Graeme Sharpe on Flickr.

The idea to create a trail system first appeared in 2001, and CICF reached out to community leaders to build support for the $63 million project. However, the city didn’t have to pay for any of it.

$15 million came from a private donor, while the federal government provided a $20.5 million TIGER grant. The rest came from individual donations, ranging from thousands of dollars to much smaller gifts. It’s an illustration of just how much people in the community cared about this project.

Trail supporters emphasize its multiple benefits to the community. Not only does it encourages people to get more exercise, but it introduces them to new ways of getting around, and even supports the local economy. Local businesses say the trail has resulted in higher sales, while developers are building new residential and commercial buildings along the route.

“We didn’t talk about this as an infrastructure project,” says Payne. “We talked about it as a quality of life and economic development [project].”

A map of White Flint's future Recreation Loop.

A map of White Flint’s future Recreation Loop.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail sounds a lot like the White Flint Recreation Loop, a 1-mile trail network connecting several local destinations, including Wall Park, the Bethesda North Conference Center, the future Civic Green, and future housing and commercial developments. Like in Indianapolis, streets in the loop will have both sidewalks and curb-level bike lanes, though in White Flint they’ll actually be “shared use paths” for bicyclists and pedestrians.

But unlike Indianapolis, which has created a 75-mile bike network entirely from scratch in 7 years, it’s unclear how much additional bike infrastructure we’ll get in White Flint. County transportation officials have been reluctant to even provide sidewalks and bike paths on Old Georgetown Road, which is an important part of the Recreation Loop.

That said, it took 12 years for Indianapolis to build the Cultural Trail, and they couldn’t do it without extensive community support, pressure from local leaders, and creative funding sources. Hopefully, the White Flint Recreation Loop won’t take that long, but it suggests that we still have a lot of work to do.

BF Saul presents improved design for Metro Pike Center

BF Saul proposes a pedestrian plaza along the west side of Rockville Pike.

BF Saul proposes a pedestrian plaza along the west side of Rockville Pike.

After public outcry over their earlier proposal, developer BF Saul is back with a new design for a mixed-use complex that will replace the Metro Pike Center shopping center and Staples at the intersection of Rockville Pike and Nicholson Lane. Over 60 people came to the monthly White Flint Implementation Advisory Committee meeting at the Shriver Aquatic Center to see it, though concerns remain about how the pedestrian-friendly the new buildings will be.

The Bethesda-based developer first revealed their plans to build 5 towers containing 1.4 million square feet of housing and 200,000 square feet of office and retail space on the combined 12-acre site in May. Residents complained that there was little street-level retail, discouraging people from walking around.

This time, however, 4 of the 5 towers will have ground-floor shops and restaurants, putting it along both sides of Rockville Pike and parts of Marinelli Road and Nicholson Lane. The developers hope this will create more sidewalk activity.

“We received a lot of good, constructive criticism about how to activate those public spaces,” said lawyer Robert Dalrymple from Linowes and Blocher. “One of the best ways to do that is through street level retail, which we are proposing.”

Site plan of BF Saul's proposal to replace Metro Pike Center with 5 mixed-use towers.

Site plan of BF Saul’s proposal to replace Metro Pike Center with 5 mixed-use towers.

BF Saul proposes creating a grand promenade along the west side of Rockville Pike, complimenting a linear park on the east side above the Red Line, which runs so close to the surface that buildings can’t be built directly above it. It will contain a plaza with fountains, gardens, trees, benches for sitting and gathering, and outdoor seating for restaurants.

The promenade will have an “active, lively urbane” feel, “attracting people to come and encouraging them to linger,” says Michael Vergason, landscape architect. It will get wider closer to the Metro, taking advantage of a high point on Rockville Pike with long views.

Beyond the plaza will be 2 300-foot residential towers closer to the White Flint Metro station that share underground parking. A third, 200-foot office tower closer to Nicholson Lane will sit atop a “podium” of parking that will make it appear taller.

In keeping with the White Flint Sector Plan’s call for a new street grid, BF Saul will extend Woodglen Drive north from Nicholson to Marinelli, with 2 smaller streets linking it to Rockville Pike. Woodglen will be lined with street trees and apartments with “real doors,” giving it a quiet, residential feel while masking the above-ground parking garages.

“There are going to be steps and stoops and pots and plants to make Woodglen a nice residential street,” says Daniel Ashtary, architect with Silver Spring-based Torti Gallas and Partners, who is also designing the Gables development next to Wall Park.

On the east side, there will be 2 residential towers measuring 300 and 240 feet tall with underground parking surrounding a shared driveway. A new street will run behind them, connecting the Pike to Citadel Avenue.

Residents had many questions about traffic, pedestrian safety, and the need for larger, family-sized apartments in the area. One man asked if current businesses, like Staples and Kinko’s, will be able to come back after the shopping center is demolished.

Brian Downie, Senior Vice President of Development for BF Saul, didn’t rule it out but said the new development will emphasize more restaurants “because that’s what activates the street.”

Neighboring property owners expressed concerns about the extension of Woodglen Drive, which would connect this project to JBG’s North Bethesda Market to the south and Federal Realty’s Pike + Rose to the north.

“It’s a really important street,” added Evan Goldman of Federal Realty. “I’d like to see some focus on that.” He recommended that BF Saul work with the Grand Apartments, which is directly behind their project, to nudge Woodglen to the west so it could connect with streets in Pike + Rose.

Greg Trimmer of JBG suggested making the promenade a little narrower and giving the extra width to Woodglen so it could accommodate wider bike lanes or sidewalks. This would also make the promenade more attractive to retailers. In downtown Silver Spring, there’s no shortage of empty retail spaces behind gorgeous pocket parks, simply because the distance from the street discourages pedestrians from walking over.

However, the new design has promise, and it’ll be exciting to see how it continues to evolve. Downie says the “market will dictate” when construction begins. BF Saul will file a sketch plan with the Montgomery County Planning Board later this summer; if the approval process goes smoothly, construction could begin within 2 years, and the first building could open within 5 years.