Telematics can reinforce centralization

Self-valeting vehicles would make going downtown a lot cheaper and easier. Photo: Steven Vance

1. Telecommuting is great, but only to a point. According to Gallup, “the ability to work remotely corresponds with higher engagement, but primarily among those who spend less than 20% of their total working time doing so.” Employees who spent more than 50% of their time working remotely had engagement and disengagement figures similar to those who never worked remotely. (The release also has some nice quotes from Vint Cerf at Google about the value of face-to-face interaction, and how they’ve sought to increase collaboration within the workplace.)

2. On a similar note about the potential of telematics, there’s a lot of hype out there about autonomous vehicles, aka driverless cars, but Nat Bottigheimer and my former colleague Brooks Rainwater have appropriately measured responses.

In the few conversations I’ve had with transportation professionals about their impact, their understanding is similarly muted. Yes, platoons of autonomous vehicles will squeeze a little bit more capacity out of existing roads while maintaining laminar flow, but it’s not as if there’s scads of peak-hour capacity remaining to be had.

The really big impact will be upon parking. By removing the cost and hassle of parking at the final destination could make urban centers even more valuable, and further diminish the primary appeal of drivable (really, parkable) suburbia — which is that it’s easy to drive to, and park at. If both of those factors become immaterial, then why bother driving to the B-mall when you could go straight to the A-mall, or downtown?

Similarly, an interesting class divide could arise if the vehicles really do succeed in eliminating driver-error crashes. Such crashes could soon become stigmatized as something that only happens to poor people who can’t afford fancy crash-avoidance technology. (Do people today cluck-cluck with resignation about people maimed in car crashes because the inexpensive cars said victims bought used were not equipped with adequate airbags?)

Shorts: parking craters, carbon tax, Census tools

toys

Urban renewal in New Haven created a “towers in a parking lot” environment, replacing its lower-scale past.

Several springtime shorts:

1. My Streetsblog post about Chris McCahill’s parking research got a strong reception last week:

Streetsblog recently spoke with Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin, to learn about his research into how parking affects small cities’ downtowns. Most recently, McCahill and his co-authors have shown how policy makers’ preoccupation with parking not only hollows out city centers, it also decimates the downtown tax base.

2. In carbon tax news, DC residents Christine Lagarde and Jim Yong Kim (who might know a bit about economics and taxation) both endorsed a carbon tax shift at last week’s IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings, per a report from the Sydney Morning Herald. Meanwhile, revenue-positive carbon tax legislation was introduced in California.

3. Three neat online Census tools for future reference:
- Demographics around a point, from Census 2010 (so, alas, limited to the short form, but useful for gross population)
- Shift-share analysis, to see how your area’s job creation in various sectors leads/lags its peers
- Economic development cluster mapping, identifying geographic concentrations of firms by NAICS code and county

Modernist town founder urges evolution, not stasis, for his jewel

Reston: Lake Anne Village
[Nobody's around to sit with Bob by the shores of Reston's Lake Anne.]

One new fad insists that Modernist urban plans were designed as totalizing works of art, and thus should be frozen in their as-built, “apex” condition. That’s even though such places often were never built to their originally planned capacity, and almost always fail to draw the crowds that were promised. However, most of the auteurs who dreamt up and built these places have passed on, and we thus have no way to ask them whether their plans were truly end-state designs, or whether they were starting points for natural urban evolution — whether the founders hold more sacred either the intent, or the letter, of their plans.

Tom Jackman from the Post gets a word in with Robert E. Simon, one of the few long-lived Modernist visionaries who still plays an active role in his built creation:

Redevelopment is also in the works for Reston’s original centerpiece [link], the Lake Anne Village Center, including the addition of 800 residential units nearby. That, Simon said, ‘is an answer to a prayer’ because more than anything else, he still wants Reston to one day be a true walkable community… Of the seven village centers that Simon envisioned as creating a sense of community, only Lake Anne resembled that vision of shops, businesses and housing in one place. His hopes for multiple high-rises never materialized, so Lake Anne’s retail shops gradually fell into decline or closed… Simon remains convinced that village centers can create the community that makes Reston distinctive and is thrilled that a developer plans to remake Lake Anne Village Center, where Simon lives. The plan will replace an 180-unit apartment complex with 1,000 townhouse and apartment units, a concept on which Simon was consulted.

Planning’s fruits include Shaw’s Progress(ion Place)

Progression Place

Eight years on, the District seems to have gotten a nice return on its $20 million investment into Progression Place, the long-awaited development that replaced a city-owned parcel above the Shaw Metro that some called “the block of blight.” Not only has the Mid-City neighborhood gained an employment anchor (DC’s grants went to the office portion) and 50 units of affordable housing, but Progression Place also created a lively block of walkable retail that complements DC’s adjacent investments in the Metro and the Howard Theater. So yes, although you may have to wait a while, sometimes city plans do eventually work according to plan.

From a planning perspective, Progression Place features a broad mix of uses at a fairly high intensity:

  • It anchors a new uptown office district, with 100,000 sq. ft. of new offices being built now for the UNCF and Teach for America. Next door, the Wonder Bread factory has another 98,000 feet, for a combined daytime population at lease-up exceeding 1,000. It’ll be interesting to see who moves in here; even beyond the Digital DC initiative focused here, TFA is known as having a younger constituency than most other federal programs. Although the Green Line has spurred great residential and retail growth, its potential for office is rather less tested.
  • 205 apartments; 1/4 inclusionary, with both low and moderate income price points.
  • The retail tenant mix has a few nationals (Bank of America and Sprint) alongside several established local operators, led off with a critical mass of food & beverage destinations. The merchandising by StreetSense is also first-rate, and not only because I’ve a known soft spot for beer, bakeries, and tea. Having great retail in place (and thus a high Walk Score) will help residential leasing. I suspect that retail is somewhat of a loss leader here, which might explain why the retail and residential are under one owner.
  • There’s underground parking, but the overall parking ratio is about 0.57 spaces per 1,000 sq. ft., shared with the historic Howard Theater next door. A comparable project in the suburbs might include 4-5 times as much parking.

Just as importantly, the building’s architecture pulls off the “vanishing high-rise” trick quite well by setting the tower 35′ behind the storefronts. What could be an overwhelming slab of an apartment building — with a net density of 301 dwelling units per acre, excluding the site’s office and T Street wings — disappears at street level behind the historic row of storefronts:

Progression Place Storefronts

The 19,500 sq. ft. of retail is almost entirely housed behind retained and rehabilitated historic storefronts, retaining not only their appearance but also the fine-grained scale — i.e., the neighborhood’s classic rhythm of narrow lots and small bays. The original finishes, like exposed brick, carry through to the interior — but behind the front room, modern new building services are provided in the back of the house, as part of the new structure. This transition (visible in the retail floor plan) is subtle enough to have evaded notice by at least one table of architects I was dining with.

In some respects, this project probably benefitted from having local firms in charge of development and leasing, including layering a complex capital stack, and then selling the property on to a national income-oriented owner. Four Points’ next project might well be downtown Anacostia, a site they’ve been waiting on for several years.

Disclosure: I have no financial interest in any businesses or properties named, or located on named sites.

[Blogging update: now that I'm working at Streetsblog, I might be able to repost some pieces from there, and will continue reposting items cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington or written for other venues.]

Between rocks and a tall place: two height limits hold back affordable mid-rise construction in DC

In the fable of the Three Little Pigs, one pig builds a house from straw, a second from sticks, and a third from bricks, with very different consequences. Notably absent from the pigs’ tale is any mention of each little pigs’ construction budgets. For humans living in the 21st century, it’s not protection from hyperventilating wolves, but rather out-of-control budgets, that determine our choices of building materials.

The Height Act limit for construction in outlying parts of Washington, DC, enacted back in 1899, is 90′ — effectively 7-8 stories. This particular height poses a particularly vexing cost conundrum for developers seeking to build workforce housing in DC’s neighborhoods, since it’s just beyond one of the key cost thresholds in development: that between buildings supported with light frames vs. heavy frames. Heavy frames rely on fewer but stronger steel or reinforced concrete columns to hold up the building, and are better known as Type I fireproof structures. Light frames rely on many small columns (usually known as studs), and are usually referred to as Type II (if masonry or metal) or if wood, Type III (with fire resistive treatments), Type IV (if made from heavy beams), or Type V (if little fire-proofing has been applied) construction.

Future 10th Street Cutting Through CityCenterDC
[Type I: CityCenterDC, photo by David Gaines/Flickr]

Takoma Station
[Type III: Takoma Station, photo by author]

stick over concrete platform
[Type III: stick over concrete podium on 9th St. NW, photo by author]

These structural types are rated using the degree of fire protection that these structures offer, with lower numbers denoting more fire-resistant structures. In DC, they’re defined in the city’s building code, which is based on an international standard — the International Code Council (ICC) and its “I-Codes.”

The ICC’s Table 503 sets limits on how high different types of buildings can be. Thanks to technological improvements to wood and fire safety improvements to buildings, mid-rise buildings can be built up to five floors high using Type III construction. These five floors can, in turn, be placed atop a one-story concrete podium to build a six-story mixed-use building.

How much cheaper?

Light frame construction cuts costs in two principal ways. Light frames use fewer materials in the first place and thus have smaller ecological footprints, particularly since cement manufacturing is one of the most carbon-intensive industries. Light frames are built from standardized parts that are usually finished off-site, rather than on-site, so materials are cheaper, on-site storage and staging (e.g., cement mixers) require less space, and construction is faster — further reducing overall construction costs, since developers pay steep interest rates on construction loans.

These cost savings really add up throughout the entire building. The ICC’s Building Value Data provides national average per-square-foot construction costs for multifamily of:

$104.74 Type V Low-rise wood frame
$119.77 Type III Mid-rise wood frame, fire-resistant walls
$139.01 Type II Mid-rise, light-gauge steel
$150.25 Type I High-rise fireproof

Similarly, the RS Means construction cost-estimator database provides 2012 estimates (adjusted for local prices in DC) that show an even steeper premium for high-rise construction:

$136.70 Type V Low-rise wood frame, 3 stories
$162.87 Type II Mid-rise, light-gauge steel & block, 6 stories
$246.32 Type I High-rise fireproof, 15 stories

As the ICC figures show, switching from Type III to Type I construction increases the cost of every square foot by 25.4%. Thus going from, say, a six-story building to seven stories only increases the available square footage by 16.7%, but increases construction costs by 46.3%. This results in a difficult choice: go higher for more square feet but at a higher price point, or take the opportunity cost, go lower, and get a cheaper, faster building?

In most other cities, the obvious solution is to go ever higher. Once a building crosses into high-rise construction, the sky’s ostensibly the limit. In theory, density can be increased until the additional space brings in enough revenue to more than offset the higher costs. As Linsey Isaacs writes in Multifamily Executive: “Let’s say you have a property on an urban infill site that costs $100 per square foot of land. Wood may cost 10 percent less than its counterpart materials, but by doing a high-rise on the site, you get double the density and the land cost is cut in half.”

Yet here in DC, the 90′ height limit on residential areas, and commercial streets outside the core, tightly caps the additional building area that could pay for high-rise’s substantial cost premium.

Within the twilight zone

For many areas in DC, land is expensive enough to fall into a Twilight Zone. These areas are both expensive enough to require high-rise densities, but the local rents are too cheap to justify high rises’ high per-foot construction prices. These areas are not super-trendy like 1st St. NE in NoMa or 14th St. NW in Logan Circle, which are seeing an explosion of Type I construction (and prices to match, with new apartment buildings selling for $900/sq. ft.). Nor are they outlying areas, where developers think the opportunity cost of forgoing a future high-rise is acceptable and thus proceed with Type III construction. The recent apartment boom has given local residents a good, long look at Type III construction: in outlying city neighborhoods like Brookland, Fort Totten, Eckington, Petworth, off Bladensburg Road, and in suburban areas like Merrifield and White Flint.

In areas that are in-between, a lot of landowners are biding their time, waiting until the moment when land prices will justify a 90′ high-rise — a situation which explains many of the vacant lots in what might seem like prime locations. My own neighborhood of Southwest Waterfront is just one example. Within one block of the Metro station are nine vacant lots, all entitled for high-rise buildings — but their developers are waiting until the land prices jump high enough to make high-rises worthwhile amidst a neighborhood known for its relatively affordable prices. While the developers wait, the heart of the neighborhood suffers from a critical mass of customers within walking distance; the resulting middling retail selection, vacant storefronts, and subpar bus service reinforces the perception that Southwest Waterfront is not worthy of investment. Nearby Nationals Park is similarly surrounded by vacant lots, with renderings of nine-story Type I buildings blowing in the breeze.

In NoMa (east of the tracks) and the western end of H St. NE, projects like 360 H and AVA H Street were redesigned after 2008′s market crash so that they didn’t require Type I construction. The redesigns reduced costs, reduced the developers’ need for scarce financing, and made the projects possible — but also reduced the number of units built. AVA was entitled for almost 170 units, but was built as 138 units: building 20% fewer units cut structural costs by over 40%, according to developer AvalonBay.

Elsewhere, some other development projects have similarly been redesigned with faster Type III construction, even as future phases assume Type I construction. Capitol Quarter, the redevelopment of Capper/Carrollsburg near Navy Yard, might win an award for the shortest time between announcement and groundbreaking for the mixed-income Lofts at Capitol Quarter. Several blocks west, the first phase to deliver at the Wharf will be the last phase that was designed; in fact, the idea of redeveloping St. Augustine’s Church as a new church with a Type III residential building above came years after design began on the high-rises to its west. Rumor has it that across the street, a developer is redesigning an 11-story high-rise as a Type III building, foregoing five floors of housing in order to get to market faster.

New technologies can break the logjam

If it weren’t for the Height Act, developers wouldn’t just sit and wait on sites like these. They’d probably just build Type III buildings, and if there’s still demand, they could build Type I downtown towers with 20+ floors. But due to the Height Act, DC is one of the only cities in America where there’s a substantial market for 7-8 story buildings.

To break this logjam without changing the Height Act, DC’s building community can embrace new light-frame construction techniques that can cost-effectively build mid-rise buildings without the need for steel beams and reinforced concrete. Local architects, developers, and public officials could convene a working group to bring some of these innovations to market, and thus safely deliver more housing at less cost.

Cross laminated timber (CLT), a “mega-plywood” made of lumber boards laminated together, has sufficient strength and fire resistance for high-rise structures; it’s been used to build a 95′ residential building in London and a 105.5′ building in Melbourne. The ICC has approved CLT for inclusion in its 2015 code update — but the city has leeway to approve such structures today under a provision that allows “alternate materials and methods,” and cities like Seattle have started to evaluate whether to specifically permit taller CLT buildings.

Construct-ivism
[The Bullitt Center, a zero-impact building in Seattle, uses CLT for most of its upper-story structure.)

Type II buildings, often built with light frames of cold formed (aka light gauge) steel, can achieve high-rise heights but are limited by the ICC to the same heights as Type III. (For example, 360 H Street was re-engineered from Type I to Type II, and lost two stories in the process.) Prefabrication, hybrid systems that incorporate other materials, and new fasteners have made mid-rise Type II buildings stronger and most cost-effective. However, as the RS Means chart above shows, Type II might be cheaper than Type I but remains more expensive than Type I. Similar prefabrication has been applied to Type I mid-rises on the West Coast to reduce their costs.

By embracing these advancements in structural engineering, as well as providing relief from onerous parking requirements, DC could more easily and affordably build the mid-rise buildings that will house much of the city in the future.

(Thanks to Brian O’Looney, partner at Torti Gallas and Partners, for sharing his expertise. A version of this post was cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.)

Where are DC’s lunch crowds?

Let’s say that you run a small foodservice business that’s looking for a location in DC. Your business offers food throughout the day, but relies primarily on the high-volume, low-margin office lunch trade. Your best-performing locations are in 24-hour areas with high employment density, medium population density, and lots of students. Seeing as Washington is not exactly Cambridge, where should you seek out welcoming crowds?

Conveniently, the Census offers “OnTheMap,” which is a way to generate online maps showing employment density (and commute flows). Here’s an employment density map of downtown DC:

job density map: greater downtown DC

Note how steeply job density drops off along Massachusetts Avenue, the northwest boundary of DC’s CBD: density roughly halves with every single block.

Indeed, in the entire broader metropolitan region, there are only a handful of business districts that meet the median quintile of job density, like downtown Baltimore, Bethesda, Tysons Corner, Old Town Alexandria, and most curiously, an industrial estate in Springfield. However, these areas still have only 1/4 to 1/3 the job density found in downtown DC. As mentioned before, downtown DC has densities far beyond anywhere else in the region.

Washington-Baltimore job density

Population density maps are rather easier to find, and offer a useful contrast; sadly, there aren’t very many mixed areas with both lunch and dinner crowds. Right along the Mass Ave boundary is one option, particularly at the junctions where it’s most permeable (e.g., Dupont or Thomas Circle). Another intriguing possibility is NoMa: it’s one of a few neighborhoods where the 2010 density maps shown above would be significantly out-of-date, and the opening of Union Market has drawn a cluster of foodie businesses to the area.

Three local leaders’ perspectives on pivoting toward sustainability

I found some quotes I’d scribbled down from a New Republic event last December (link has streamable video of the entire event) about how state and local governments are responding to climate change. The first panel, in particular, had a refreshing focus on the built environment, thanks to two remarkable mayors who truly understand the value of building sustainable communities.

Jim Brainard, Mayor of Carmel, Indiana:

“Land is inexpensive [here], so it’s easy for lenders to say, ‘let’s just build sprawl.’ But cities end up having to support all that infrastructure: for instance, it costs $7 million to upgrade a mile of road.”

“The real challenge is in the suburban development pattern areas. We threw out 10,000 years of city planning expertise… The new cities of the last 50 years frankly don’t work so well.”

On how Carmel financed the higher cost of downtown development, including structured parking: “Developers, in my experience, are quite willing to build anything they think they can make money on. We reached out very purposefully to the lending community, brought them into the discussion. It got a lot easier [once they realized that] you can borrow against that added [capital] cost, because it adds value in the end.” (Here’s a photo tour of downtown and some new neighborhoods; as with a lot of greenfield NU, the architecture could be better, but at least the urban design is well-informed.)

Bob Dixson, Mayor of Greensburg, Kansas — a gem of a speaker who seriously deserves to be on the lecture circuit.

Reframing sustainability: “The right, prudent, and responsible thing to do for future generations, so that future generations can experience the same great nation that we have.”

“Are you a renter of your community or an owner? Will someone else take care if it for you or will you step up and volunteer? Are we going to own our issues or just rent them, and expect Pennsylvania Avenue to take care of it?”

“We can get back to being front porch people and have true conversations. The best way to prepare for a disaster is to have conversations and community.”

“We had all those [standard engineering] manuals in city hall, but then the wind came and blew all those manuals away.”

Bill Ritter, Former Governor of Colorado and Director, Center for the New Energy Economy, Colorado State University

“The people of the West actually favor the EPA, it’s just that their representatives don’t.”

“Vast pools of private capital are waiting on the sidelines because of policy uncertainty. Putting a price on coal at the state level will create certainty, but instead [Congress] will keep debating it and create more uncertainty.”

“I don’t think that a lawsuit is a constructive thing against Kentucky. Are there coal lessons to be learned from other [rural] transition economies, like tobacco?”

Perhaps big changes to utility regulations are easier than small ones: ” ‘We don’t want to work against you, utilities, we want to work with you.’ Could public[ly owned] utilities lead the way? We need to redesign how we rate-base those things that you want us to do.”