Friday photo: Georgetown Park, in memoriam

Remnant of Georgetown Park mall

The Shops at Georgetown Park opened in 1981 with one of the most exuberant postmodern interiors in DC. Its fantastical neo-Victorian atrium, accented with the requisite brass railings and stamped ironwork, was meant as an elegant escape from the busy streets outside, filled with specialty shops catering to the carriage trade. It’s strange that its loss raised not a peep in such a preservation-obsessed neighborhood, just as postmodernism is starting to gain attention from the preservation community.

This little scrap of the old atrium railing is within a tiny elevator lobby off M Street, next to Forever 21. The elevator is apparently used for Anthropologie’s loading and for its offices, but also has stops on floors that have been abandoned. One of the mall’s skylights is also intact, above the cash/wrap at H&M.

Friday photo: Globalization and the architecture of “triple echo McMansions”

Zilicun fields

Teardowns have recently been making the news in Arcadia, the suburb of Los Angeles where my aunt and uncle have lived for many years. Chris Hawthorne, the architectural critic for the LA Times, wrote that the new mansions are a curious simulacrum of grandiose European houses, carrying on a tradition as old as Southern California itself:

Yet to dismiss [the mansions] as mere eyesores would be to miss a larger story about immigration and architecture in Southern California in an age of globalization. The houses Tong and Chan design represent a triple echo. First, European architectural styles were widely copied in American suburbia, producing thousands of so-called McMansions. Then those styles began appearing in Chinese subdivisions, many of them designed and built by American firms… Their architecture is reassuring to Chinese buyers not just because it suggests American suburban plenty. It also reminds them of newly built and highly sought-after residential architecture on the outskirts of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou…

In the late 1870s, Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, the city’s founder and one of Southern California’s great land barons, hired architect Arthur A. Bennett to design a guest cottage for his sprawling ranch. Bennett’s eclectic design mixed the English Queen Anne and American “stick” styles with elements of Swiss chalet architecture and references to Moorish landmarks and Chinese pagodas. The budget for the house, now part of the Los Angeles County Arboretum, was vast, making it a cottage in name only. With its high ceilings and exterior dripping with filigree, it is as much the product of eclectic architectural influence — and showy new money —- as even the flashiest Arcadia houses by Tong and Chan.

This description brought to mind the most curious buildings that I saw in China, the “diaolou” of Kaiping — the county my father (and his cousin in Arcadia) hails from. Like Arcadia’s new mansions, they look fantastically out of scale, and their mish-mash of architectural revivals certainly don’t match any classical notions of Good Architecture. But sometimes, globetrotting capital manifests itself in less-than-serious ways, and today the diaolou are considered global treasures. From their UNESCO World Heritage Site designation:

covered porch

The main towers, with their settings and through their flamboyant display of wealth, are a type of building that reflects the significant role played by émigré Kaiping people in the development of several countries in South Asia, Australasia, and North America, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the continuing links between the Kaiping community and Chinese communities in these parts of the world.

The big difference between fin-de-siecle Kaiping and 21st-century Arcadia, though, is zoning. America might be “a free country” in many respects, but not when it comes to building houses, as a recent LA Times article by Frank Shyong reveals.

In yet another display of what Mike Davis called “slow-growth Know-Nothingism,” Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about “those” people — in particular, changing the zoning code to severely restrict new houses. The people who vote today get to write laws affecting the people who will live there tomorrow, without even knowing or caring who they’ll be.

I used to live in another American neighborhood that’s filled with ostentatious mansions built by immigrants who earned their keep in questionable trades. These days, of course, those buildings are considered local treasures. I’m glad that the Yankee settlers who lived lived there in the 1870s and 1880s, farming and building simple cottages, didn’t have zoning — and thus couldn’t legislate into the built environment their sublimated panic about immigration and social change.

Friday photo: Build in town, not edge towns, to cut carbon

edge town

The results are definitively in: when it comes to cutting carbon pollution from new development, location is far and away the most important factor. Even bad infill development will easily beat even the best greenfield design in terms of avoiding car trips — the single most climate-damaging activity in most Americans’ daily lives.

Kaid Benfield illustrates the point by contrasting the VMT per capita within some of the best suburban and urban neighborhood designs of recent years. Grounding his analysis in research, he writes:

[L]ocation is by far the most significant indicator of how much driving typically takes place to and from a given neighborhood. This is because of something called “destination accessibility”: outlying locations have fewer jobs, shopping opportunities, schools and other typical trip destinations within easy reach than do more central locations, causing average driving distances to be longer. (It is also generally easier in more central locations to substitute transit and walking for what would otherwise be driving trips, but such “mode shifts” are statistically less significant to vehicle miles traveled than are driving trip distances.) As a result, carbon emissions from outlying locations, per person and per household, tend to be higher – typically a lot higher – than those from closer-in locations.

It takes a lot of effort to create new “connected, complete communities” from scratch, since a “complete community” depends upon a myriad of services. When the first household arrives in an incomplete “edge town” (like Kitts Creek, shown above), they may be able to walk to other houses and some services. New services won’t arrive until there’s sufficient population to support them — and in many cases, rely upon people living even further out. Contrast that with a new house within an existing “complete community,” which already has all of that community’s services at their doorstep, from day one.

I’ll note that mode shift is less statistically significant because, outside of a few urban cores where destinations are so close by that walking is enjoyable and driving a pain, driving accounts for a substantial majority of Americans’ trips. That makes development within those few urban cores that much more important, in the scheme of shifting Americans away from automobility.

Thus, the most effective land use tool that urban planners have to address the global warming crisis — and at minimal public cost, to boot — is to make infill development easier.

Applied on a global scale (or even at a citywide scale), the potential is vast: 2014’s New Climate Economy report estimated that “compact, transit-oriented cities” could keep 1.8 billion tons (CO2 equivalent) of global warming pollution out of the air annually by 2050. That’s equivalent to decarbonizing the entire US transportation sector, or the economies of Russia or India.

Friday photo: CIAM’s embarrassing questions about your rowhouse

Jose Luis Sert book: Why is your house gloomy?

Can Our Cities Survive,” Jose Luis Sert’s provocative 1942 treatise on the future of Western cities, posed this set of “embarrassing” questions to residents of the era’s cities. Those who claim that rowhouses are uniquely well-suited for families might recall that, not that long ago, they were widely seen as “gloomy” and unfit for family habitation unless extensively modified — and that most of America still thinks so.

Of course, Sert was largely wrong — in particular, the automotive menace should be solved by restricting the cars, not the children — and the Modernists were never quite successful at convincing families that high-rises were worthwhile.

Attitudes had softened just a bit by 1950, when the regional chapter of the AIA issued a report called “Of Plans and People.” Washington was then in a frenzy over the need to house its exploding population. Rowhouses were merely “disreputable,” rather than intrinsically awful:

Home owners have insisted on increasingly severe restrictions against apartment buildings and row-houses–this despite the fact that for many families they are the most suitable forms of housing. Part of this opposition results from the crude design of these buildings. The ugliness of the typical Washington row-house with its two-story back porches has done more than anything else to bring the row-house into disrepute. If builders were more concerned about good design, the public might feel less need for “protection” against apartments and row-houses.

Friday photo: Cranes at the Wharf, from spring into summer

Cranes at the Wharf, 10 July

10 July 2015.

Cranes at the Wharf

15 March 2015.

I’ve been trying out a faux-time-lapse-photo series of the ongoing construction of the Wharf, the mega-project just a few blocks down the street. The photos are taken from the Case Bridge, under the “L’Enfant Promenade, Keep Right” sign.

Since the lower photo was taken in March, the piers have been substantially completed, thousands of foundation piles have been nailed into the ground, excavation has been completed for the sitewide underground parking garage, and some of the first structural supports. Since the site is just about at sea level, substantial pumping will continue to keep seawater out of the hole until the foundation is complete. Two of seven tower cranes have arrived on this side.

Also, be sure to check out my posts at Greater Greater Washington. I used to crosspost all of them, but haven’t done so as much lately.

DC built 13% less housing over the past decade than its own citywide plan calls for

A version of this post was posted at Greater Greater Washington.

Nine years ago, the District of Columbia adopted a Comprehensive Plan to guide planning efforts throughout the city. At the time, the District’s population had just started to perk up after six decades of decline, and the plan reasonably foresaw that growth could continue into the future. Yet even though the District’s population has grown substantially, its housing stock isn’t keeping pace.

Three years before the comp plan was adopted, Mayor Anthony Williams pointed to recent population gains when he announced a bold goal to bring 100,000 new residents to the District within a decade [PDF]. The 2006 Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force recommended adding 55,000 new housing units over 20 years (a recommendation reaffirmed by a 2012 housing strategy update). Not only would that figure meet long-term population growth goals (accommodating 114,400 residents at the then-current household size of 2.08), but it seemed attainable: The District issued building permits to 2,860 housing units in 2005.

The comp plan incorporated much of the Housing Strategy, noting in its Housing Element that “The increase in [housing] demand has propelled a steep upward spiral in housing costs, impacting renters and homeowners alike… The housing shortfall will continue to create a market dynamic where housing costs increase faster than incomes.” To address the shortfall, the plan’s very first policy opens with the statement: “The District must increase its rate of housing production if it is to meet current and projected needs through 2025 and remain an economically vibrant city,” and raised the forecast slightly, to 57,100 additional housing units over the plan’s 20-year horizon.

The city as a whole isn’t meeting its goals

Yet despite all the new construction over the past decade, including two building booms, DC’s currently on track to miss its 2025 goal by 13%. Instead of building 2,855 units per year, DC’s averaged fewer than 2,500 each year over the past decade.

dc permits

The big reason why is that homebuilding nationally came to a near-standstill during the 2008 crisis, and the District was no exception: building permits crashed by 81% from 2005 to 2008, and remained at low levels through 2010. Many proposed projects, like CityCenterDC and Half Street, came to a halt when banks collapsed. Yet all that time, the city’s population, and thus the demand for new housing, continued to grow.

Construction has since rebounded to new highs, with 39% more building permits issued each year between 2011 and 2014 than in 2005. Still, the new boom hasn’t yet erased the 3,000-unit backlog from the slow years.

To get back on track, building permits would have to keep up at recent years’ record-setting pace for at least another three years — and perhaps longer, since the next ten years will also inevitably include another economic slowdown that will subdue construction.

Housing growth has lagged population growth

Even though housing construction has lagged projections, the city’s population has continued to grow. Instead of moving into new housing, all of these new residents have in recent years just filled holes in the existing housing stock.

Vacant units — the slack in the District’s housing market — have steadily disappeared in recent years. Between 2010 and 2013, the Census reports that the number of vacant housing units in the District plummeted by 13,319 (or 31%), far outpacing the 6,850 units that were added to the District’s housing stock.

It’s convenient that so many vacant housing units just happened to be available just when the District’s population began booming, but that feat can’t continue forever. A growing population will, at some point, require new housing.

Indeed, current market indicators show that there’s still tremendous demand for newly built housing: Even though a record number of new apartments have been built, they’re being snapped up as soon as they’re available.

The recent slowdown in the District’s population growth isn’t reason to rest: It could be that slower population growth is a result of inadequate housing growth. Slower population growth largely results from reduced domestic migration, and the #1 reason behind domestic out-migration from DC is because of its inadequate housing. (No surveys track why people choose not to move to DC in the first place, but the reasons are likely similar.)

Yet meeting local environmental goals requires even more population, and housing

David Alpert’s article on Sunday referred to the District and the greater Washington region’s aspirations to a greener future, which require that the District add many more residents. DC’s Sustainable DC Plan, which was adopted in 2012, acknowledges that the District needs to “increase urban density to accommodate future population growth within the District’s existing urban area,” and sets a target of welcoming 250,000 new residents by 2032. That target implies at least 100,000 new housing units, a figure confirmed by recent studies from George Mason University and echoed in the region’s long-range plans.

Adding more residents to the region’s core will result in a substantially smaller environmental impact than adding those residents at the region’s edges. Accommodating more population growth within existing built areas, like the District, reduces the overall environmental impact of new development, and not only by diverting pressure to pave over outlying wildlife habitat and green space.

People who live in dense settings close to the regional core live more lightly on the earth as a matter of course: Residents of the urban core drive less than half as much as residents of sprawling suburbs — a fact that regional transportation plans rely upon to keep traffic congestion, and road expansion, down.

DC can take a fresh look at housing

As Alpert wrote on Sunday, “a great opportunity” to review DC’s housing needs “will come when the District begins the process of revising its Comprehensive Plan.” As part of that review, the Office of Planning should examine the comp plan’s policies in light of the District’s new, more ambitious goals — and the District’s failure so far to deliver sufficient new housing to meet demand.

Yet it’s getting harder, not easier, to build new housing in the District. New zoning restrictions, like the “pop-up ban,” have made it even more difficult and costly to build new housing units in large swaths of the District. Even when proposed developments meet existing zoning, they often face costly and time-consuming litigation.

Since the comp plan guides the zoning regulations, a revised comp plan should guide future zoning changes to make it easier for the District to meet its housing and environmental goals. A revised comp plan should also determine where new housing can and should go; a future post will show how the existing comp plan has fallen short in that regard.

Friday photo: The pre-NIMBY era

Once upon a time, before there were NIMBYs

Once upon a time, citizens’ leagues sought greater population as an end unto itself, knowing that more people would bring more services and more opportunities. Dallas is still famous for its boosterism, but nowadays talk of more growth will probably bring out at least a few complaints about traffic congestion.

(Button seen at Old Red, the Dallas County history museum.)