DC will not become ‘like Amsterdam.’ It’ll be better.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said this week “that the District will not become ‘like Amsterdam,’ as though being ‘like Amsterdam’ would be a bad thing,” says a blog post by the Netherlands Embassy.

The embassy backed up their umbrage with a stylish infographic showing off several metrics where Amsterdam handily surpasses the District — particularly in transportation choices, as Amsterdam offers its current residents more waterways, more bikeways, and more streetcar lines.

For one point, the infographic concedes that the District is bigger and better than Amsterdam: Washingtonians can now legally possess over 11 times as much marijuana as Amsterdammers. But since the Netherlands has more permissive laws regarding the retail sale of marijuana than the United States, many visitors (like, perhaps, Mayor Bowser) instinctively use “Amsterdam” as shorthand for a place with libertine drug laws. (Dutch society has a long history of taking a uniquely hands-off approach to social policy.)

On several other points, though, the infographic shows that although DC isn’t quite there yet, we’re well on our way. DC already has ambitious plans to beat Amsterdam on two points: the Sustainable DC Plan projects another 250,000 Washingtonians, for a total of 868,000 to Amsterdam’s 810,000; and the Move DC plan has plotted out 343 miles of bikeways, including 72 miles of Dutch-style protected bike lanes, which easily beats the mere 250 miles of bikeways in Amsterdam.

DC is also making significant progress in closing the 12-museum gap with Amsterdam. With an ever-growing number of museums here, DC is well on its way to overtaking Amsterdam in this particular metric. (I don’t have statistics handy, but it seems likely that DC has fewer but larger museums, which probably have an edge in terms of collection size and total visitors.)

On two other metrics, though, we have a long way to go. At the current rate of construction, it will be a while until DC manages to build its 16th streetcar line — but note that the Dutch embassy conveniently doesn’t count Metro lines, as DC boasts six to Amsterdam’s five (almost), as construction on their north-south line is almost as delay-prone as our streetcar.

The yawning gap between the two cities’ canal networks is only half as dire as the Dutch say. Yes, Amsterdam has 165, but DC actually has two operating canals, not one: The embassy may have been confused by the name of Washington Channel, which is a brackish waterway built to drain tidal flats and to keep open a shipping channel. In other words, it’s hydrologically far more similar to Amsterdam’s canals than the freshwater C&O.

In any case, I’ll concede that more of Amsterdam is below sea level than Washington. In an era of rising sea levels, though, that’s probably not something worth trumpeting.

On definitions: equitable communities, magpie infrastructure, vibrant centers, gentrification

Bellevue goes upscale

Bellevue was not one of the “suburban vibrant centers” examined for a NAIOP report on office occupancy trends.

Some recent reports left me appreciative of their aims and ends, but not exactly how they got there, and in particular with how other analyses have defined key terms.

1. The Living Community Challenge certainly provides an inspiring goal to reach for, notably in its use of elegant performance criteria that broadly require “net positive” environmental performance on site — broadly, that new developments can strive to shrink their ecological footprints to fit within their actual footprints. It also pretty seamlessly integrates the Transect throughout, and in a balanced way that sometimes rewards and sometimes penalizes both ends of the spectrum.

However, having participated in the creation of LEED for Neighborhood Developments, it’s telling that some of the same battles in that scheme have emerged within this one. Prescriptive approaches still occur throughout, and some of the personal-health ones are somewhat wishy-washy. (The emerging science of health impact assessments may have been a useful complement here.) The equity section (“petal”) has a lovely intro, but its imperatives don’t address many social criteria — affordable housing is a notable omission — and almost entirely use prescriptive standards. Another long-running debate was over the use of prerequisites in the rating scheme: It seems strange that a baseline, “Petal Community” certification can be done while ignoring a majority (four of the seven) of the petals.

I’ll be interested to learn more about the Challenge in the coming weeks, and to see how others feel about whether it’s rigorous and balanced.

2. Kriston Capps brings up Mikael Colville-Andersen’s term “magpie infrastructure” in a recent CityLab piece. Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, examples like the Bloomingdale Trail aside, rarely needs architects’ attention — their structure-first solutions are usually fundamentally anathema to bicyclists’ lazy inclination to not climb hills. By and large, people should be encouraged to stay at grade, and landscape architects and engineers should be entrusted with their care.

Closer to MCA’s home, the current BIG exhibit at the NBM includes Loop City (video; skip to 2:30), a proposal for an elevated rail loop around Copenhagen + Malmo. The proposal lifts up the stations so that trains decelerate on the approach and accelerate as they exit — a clever idea lifted from subways like Montreal’s. When done below-ground, this brings trains closer to the surface just where they’re needed, but when above-ground, the same approach antagonizes the energy needs of the passengers (who need to climb ever-higher escalators to get to the platforms) and the energy needs of the trains.

Another obvious flaw is that the proposal repeats the Corbu-in-Algiers mistake of thinking people would want to live in flats beneath a railway, without realizing that below-the-tracks spaces are almost always only valuable in situations (I’m thinking in Ginza, the Viaduc des Arts, or 9 de Julio) where such space is just the cheapest way of getting valuable ground-level, street frontage. Even maglevs are pretty awful to stand right underneath.

Besides, haven’t we tried grade-separation of different modes before?

3. NAIOP recently published a report offering slight encouragement to the notion that office users are increasingly choosing mixed use environments — namely, 24-hour CBDs and 18-hour “suburban vibrant centers” (their terminology, not mine) — over single use suburban office parks. Their findings indicate that rental rates are indeed higher in CBDs, but that CBDs haven’t seen as much absorption as suburbs, whereas “vibrant” parts of suburbs had a verifiable edge in the leasing market. There’s certainly plentiful anecdotal evidence, and this has been the mantra of “Emerging Trends” and other qualitative reports for quite some time, but I’ve seen few attempts to quantitatively analyze the phenomenon.

Yet the two sets were compared quite differently. The comparison of CBDs vs. suburbs was strictly quantitative, an approach that didn’t control for the quality of the urban environments — downtown absorption was hurt by including a great many “dead” downtowns (Dayton, St. Louis, Hartford) among the comparison set. Most of the liveliest downtowns have seen strong positive absorption, since it’s less the CBD location than the mixed-use amenities that draw users.

The “vibrant centers,” on the other hand, were compared using a robust paired-case approach: single-use suburban areas were paired with mixed-use suburban areas within the same part of town. They even came up with a pretty strict definition of such centers and their comparison sites, using Walk Score and building-level maps. This better methodology dives into why people are migrating towards such sites, and goes beyond the not-terribly-nuanced submarket definitions found in typical office market reports.

Although the lower absorption figures for CBD office may look discouraging at first glance, it’s necessary to consider both that higher rents might result in tenants using CBD space more economically. Square feet don’t necessarily correspond with people, much less dollars. (Edit 26 Feb: City Observatory has a new report indicating that job growth has indeed been more robust in CBDs than in suburbs.) In addition, the supply constraints on new downtown office might suppress demand from space-hungry users — e.g., many large companies are expanding both in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, but adding more jobs in the Valley where construction isn’t limited by constraints like Prop M.

4. For good measure, here’s one instance where the methodology and the results both turned out okay: Governing’s recent analysis of gentrification at the Census tract level. The scale of the analysis is correct, the results pass the smell test, and the variables used (rankings of changes in household income and physical [home values] and cultural capital [college attainment]) seem reasonable.

A few more thoughts on beautiful Brutalism

Board formed concrete

Writing “The five best Brutalist buildings in DC” required a lot of attention to definitions. The article’s less about the “best” Brutalist buildings than about examples of Brutalism that fit in well with their urban surroundings (or, in one case, rural surroundings). I love the Hirshhorn Museum’s courtyard, for instance, but it’s pretty awful towards everything around it, so it didn’t merit a mention in the article.

That said, I did check each of the buildings against Reyner Banham’s original 1955 article on Brutalism, which established these three criteria:

1, Memorability as an Image;
2, Clear exhibition of Structure; and
3, Valuation of Materials ‘as found.’

If any of the seven buildings are “on the cusp” per Banham, the CFPB and Canadian Embassy fit in too well with the perimeter-block typology of the city around them — and therefore don’t quite have the cartoonishly simple standalone imageability* typical of the Brutalist sculpture-as-building. Yet both are very clear in plan and intent and have imageable elements. Perhaps the Canadian Embassy’s devalued materials make it more of a postmodern spin on Erickson’s own Brutalism, but that’s a fun tautology.

Commenters have disputed Dulles Airport’s inclusion, perhaps because they actually like it and want to reserve “Brutalism” for stuff they don’t like. Yet it easily meets Banham’s definition, and furthermore celebrates a vast expanse of béton brut like no other local structure.

Other links I wanted to include, but that didn’t quite fit:
– Sometimes, even a clumsy Brutalist building can be better integrated into the urban fabric through changes to landscaping and circulation; such repairs are underway at Boston’s City Hall.
– Over in supposedly kinder Ottawa, Brutalism was the house style for many cultural institutions, and insensitive changes to these buildings are proving controversial.
– The BBC is currently airing a two-part series on Brutalism.
– Some very highly expressive concrete canopies are on view now in an exhibit at the Art Museum of the Americas about the work of Félix Candela, whose soaring but paper-thin concrete shells enclosed everything from bandshells to cathedrals throughout Mexico.

* Favorite story about this: A cab driver in Shanghai didn’t know which Hyatt hotel I wanted to go to. (It turns out that Hyatt was Sinicized in Cantonese, perhaps because the chain opened in Hong Kong before China, so when written in Mandarin it’s pretty much gibberish.) Instead of fishing around for the address, I drew the shape of the building, and we were off.

Modest proposal: depave Foggy Bottom’s riverfront, but leave I-66

Neil Flanagan recently wrote about current and past proposals to heal the urban-renewal scars that separate the Kennedy Center — which should be a terrific urban amenity — from the city around it.

Erasing RCP by the Kennedy Center

The KenCen, along with the Watergate complex and what’s now the Saudi embassy, stands in a tiny island isolated from both the city and the river by two parallel highways. Neil’s post focuses on a long history of proposals to bridge the chasm of I-66, built alongside this island as part of the grand urban renewal scheme that obliterated Foggy Bottom’s industrial heritage.

Yet the 1920s-era Rock Creek Parkway that runs on the riverfront through this stretch is perhaps a greater urban offense. It’s a limited-access highway that squeezes strolling pedestrians and cyclists into a narrow riverfront strip. It intervenes between the bike path and the river at one point, creating a particularly confusing, and dangerous, joint in the otherwise admirably complete trail network along the region’s waterways, and pretty much completely interrupting any pedestrian flow between the Mall and the waterfront. (Speaking of harrowing junctions, its at-grade intersection with I-66 creates a terrifying two-stage left turn at the end of I-66’s Independence Avenue ramp.)

And it could be eliminated with just two ramps — the ones shown in red in the map, linking the existing and underused ramps that link I-66 Extension to the Whitehurst Freeway, to Rock Creek Parkway. Adding these two ramps would enable cars that currently use Rock Creek Parkway to use the woefully empty I-66 that runs just two blocks east — and thus permit depaving Rock Creek Parkway (in pink), south of Virginia Avenue and north of the Lincoln Memorial.*

Creating a linear park along the river between the Thompson Boat Center and the Lincoln Memorial would more clearly link three great linear open spaces — the Mall, Rock Creek Park, and Georgetown Waterfront Park and the upstream parks. (A clearer, perhaps grade-separated walkway behind the Lincoln Memorial would still be needed.) It would finally connect the KenCen and Watergate to the water, and break apart the asphalt chains that encircle the old Watergate Steps. It would also attach this little urban island to the city (well, Georgetown).

It would accomplish these aims at a cost far lower than decking over I-66, a proposal that has failed several times for want of funding. The surrounding renewal-era fabric would require retrofitting if such a deck were built, since most of it was built with high walls that ignore I-66.

Yes, direct access between Memorial Bridge and Rock Creek Parkway would be eliminated. Drivers would instead have access to the Roosevelt Bridge, which is currently denied, and could use Virginia and 23rd to reach Lincoln Circle and thus Memorial Bridge.

* On second glance, the north Lincoln Memorial loop may be needed to allow Independence Avenue traffic to flow onto Memorial Bridge.

Downzoning R4: Zoning Commission testimony

Price per square foot premium

My name is Payton Chung, I live in yes, an apartment in Ward 6, and I am testifying with regard to Case 14-11.

This rezoning amounts to a severe reduction in the potential number of housing units within the District. This action seems incongruous with the Office of Planning’s recent arguments that the District is adding a thousand residents each month, which will result in exhausting its “zoned capacity” for new development within 25 years — and perhaps sooner, if ambitious plans like the Sustainable DC plan bear fruit.

OP has suggested that existing single-family neighborhoods should accommodate some of that growth, through accessory dwelling units and corner stores. Yet now OP has reversed course, shutting the window on secondary units in one-third of the central city, and in some regards (like with height) making R4 more restrictive than the lower-density R1, R2, and R3.

The supposed principal rationale that OP offers, that further restricting an already severely constrained supply of housing will somehow make housing more affordable to a select class of households, is spurious and discriminatory towards smaller households like mine. As former OP director Harriet Tregoning once said, “Part of the challenge is to right-size our housing stock so we can have the type of housing that matches the needs of our residents.”

Tregoning pointed out then that larger housing units are already amply supplied within the District. Today, there are 2.4 large housing units in DC for every one household that needs one. More specifically, 33.5% of our housing units have three or more bedrooms, but 13.9% of our households have four or more residents.

This imbalance results in the market awarding a substantial discount to large units. On a per square foot basis, three-bedroom units sell for 15% less than the citywide average, while zero and one bedroom units pay a 15% premium. And yet OP wishes to exacerbate this crisis by further constraining the supply of small housing units, with no guarantee that larger units will be at all affordable.

I happen to enjoy living in a high-rise apartment building, but it is neither feasible nor desirable to shoehorn all residential growth solely into the rapidly diminishing areas available for high-rises — which are, of course, subject to the Height Act. High-rises have intrinsically high costs due to their fireproof construction, elevators, and interior corridors.

It’s no accident that most of North America’s great urban neighborhoods, from Boston to Brooklyn to Chicago to San Francisco, are comprised of small, low-rise buildings with 2-4 units apiece. Such buildings are affordable to build and maintain, yet create just enough density to keep eyes on the street and shops within walking distance. In fact, Milwaukee reveres two-unit pop-ups as the city’s characteristic housing type — former mayor John Norquist described its so-called “Polish flats”  as a housing type “specifically designed both to accommodate and to accelerate the economic improvement of the family.”

Almost 40% of Boston households live in 2-4 unit buildings, and so do nearly one-fourth of households in New York City and San Francisco. Yet here in DC, scarcely one in nine of our households do.

This text amendment certainly has a number of supporters, but in the end we must also consider its inadvertent result: to deny thousands of people the option to live in neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Park View, Trinidad, and Capitol Hill; to further diminish the prospect of more walkable retail within these neighborhoods; to sharply limit investment in some of the region’s most centrally located areas; to make Washington even less affordable to the young strivers who are, more than ever, its lifeblood.

Thank you for your time.

Shorts: Critical Masses

Critical Mass I Ching

A few short topics for January, all around the theme of achieving critical mass in three very different markets for metropolitan services.

1. Nathan Donato-Weinstein, reporting for the Silicon Valley Business Journal about Google’s October purchase of buildings along San Francisco Bay:

Google — which like many expanding tech companies is focused on reducing its car and shuttle trips as traffic worsens during the current boom — may be eyeing transit options beyond freeways. Pacific Shores is a half mile from the Port of Redwood City, where a Google pilot project earlier this year tested running ferries from San Francisco and Alameda to the port. The Water Emergency Transportation Authority, which administers the San Francisco Bay Ferry routes, has studied regular public ferry service to Redwood City, with a potential public terminal practically next door to Pacific Shores.
“I know they really liked the ferry and the concept. Their challenge was getting people off a boat and putting them on a bus to Mountain View, and that was taking 25 minutes,” said Kevin Connolly, director of planning and development for WETA. “This might be one way to address it.” […]
A Redwood City terminal would cost about $15 million. But the county doesn’t have ongoing operational funding, Connolly said.
A major built-in user such as Google could help make service pencil out, he said.

I’ve written critically about the peculiar geometries (and thus poor economics) of water taxi transit before. Having high-density development built on landfill immediately adjacent to a deep-water port certainly solves some of those problems — but a ferry does need at least two ports. However, most other Bay Area jurisdictions have incredibly restrictive development policies along their waterfronts, and many of the Bay Area’s most desirable residential areas are well inland (and atop hills, in fact).

Perhaps last-mile bus service would supplement a 101-bypassing ferry on one or both ends. That adds in the time and hassle of a transfer; when combined with a lower peak speed (around 40 MPH) and increased susceptibility to inclement weather, it’s tough to see how it would be a faster, more reliable, or more fuel-efficient option. (2008 figures submitted to FTA, as reported by Wayne Cottrell in Energies, indicate that ferry operators in the USA have a median fuel economy of about 10 seat-miles per gallon of fuel.)

2. General Growth Properties plans a $2 billion investment in street retail, ultimately aiming to have 15% of its portfolio invested on high streets in the principal gateway cities of NYC, Chicago, Miami, Boston, DC, SF, and LA. Even in these high-rent areas, GGP sees “assets with significant unrealized growth potential,” with below-market rents and under-used vertical space.

General Growth Properties investor presentation slide

Many office REITs have focused on CBD office, but these properties have historically been neglected by large retail REITs. Adjacencies matter much more with retail than with office, which creates a “commons” problem that undermines streets with fragmented ownership.

GGP has hinted at two approaches to circumvent this. Like Acadia Realty Trust (an exceptional retail REIT that has redefined itself as a high-street owner), it might hope to aggregate enough properties to create its own mall-like ecosystem, and thus internalize the external benefits of its investment. GGP’s first big investment, an equity stake in the Miami Design District, certainly has that advantage. However, the DD is a singular example unlikely to be replicated elsewhere, so it appears that GGP will instead have to rely upon its high-rent neighbors to similarly aggressively upgrade their properties.

This could be a long waiting game, though, since a lot of urban property isn’t owned by others who need the same quick upside that a REIT does. Micah Maidenberg quotes a skeptic in Crain’s:

“The street-retail business, just like luxury hotels and other sorts of high-end projects, tend not to be a quarter-to-quarter-growth kind of business. It’s more of a long-term hold,” says Jeffrey Donnelly, a managing director at Wells Fargo Securities in Boston.

3. Two few weeks ago, I was visiting my parents in North Carolina and feeling under the weather. While looking up my out-of-area health care options, I came across an instructive article in Milbank Quarterly (by Daniel Gitterman, Bryan Weiner, Marisa Elena Domino, Aaron McKethan, and Alain Enthoven) about why Kaiser Permanente’s integrated group medical practice failed in the Triangle — where I’d previously been a satisfied customer.

My main takeaway from the case study was that, while “prepaid group practices” like Kaiser or GHC in Seattle (not to mention vertically integrated government systems like the VA) do offer tremendous cost efficiencies, they also rely on economies of scale that are difficult to set up from scratch.

The article estimates that KP’s break-even point is around 100,000 members in a metro area. That figure would have been a huge ask, given that the Triangle’s population was well below a million at that time, and spread out across a broad area. KP needs that kind of scale to build bargaining power, both:
– on the cost side, when bringing services in-house (the essential feature of their cost-containment model) or bargaining with hospitals and specialists; and
– on the revenue side, when selling their product to employers and employees who have to be sold on a choice that (a) most would find less convenient and (b) involves disrupting the “stay with my doctor” inertia many customers have.

It’s not a coincidence that prepaid group practices are best established in markets where either government employees or unionized employees bulk-purchase healthcare services. But HMOs are beginning to re-emerge now that the Triangle is bigger and denser, the ACA exchange has made the health insurance market less fragmented, and more doctors have organized into group practices linked to specialists via electronic health records. One new option in this year’s ACA marketplace for North Carolina (and especially valued, since last year only NC Blue Cross participated in the marketplace) is Coventry’s CareLink HMO, which uses Duke Medicine’s primary care network as the in-house practice.

New steel & wood innovations that make mid-rise construction easier, faster, cheaper

Earlier this year, I wrote about some new materials and techniques that could make structural engineering for mid-rise buildings easier, faster, and cheaper. If widely implemented, these could make human-scaled mid-rises more affordable, more widespread, and frankly better looking.


Steel makes elements like this penthouse easier to build. (Alas, the exterior’s been toned down from this glassy early rendering.)

1. While I was in California, I saw two examples of steel-framed mid-rise buildings constructed using ConXTech, an Erector Set-like approach to steel frames that promises to save time and money through computer-aided prefabrication. Eddie Kim writes in the LA Downtown News that the Eighth & Grand grocery + apartment building, “There’s no army of welders diligently fusing each joint and beam. Instead, steel girders are being lowered and snapped into place.”

Dan Garibaldi from developer Carmel Partners told Kim that the technique cut costs some, but really saved time and added design flexibility, particularly crucial in a mixed-use project: “We contracted for the steel at a beneficial time so the cost differential is not nearly what it would be today… The main benefit is how quickly we can complete the framing. In addition, ConXtech allowed us [to build] an additional residential floor and create long spans that are not easily achievable in wood frame.”

ConXTech co-founder Robert Simmons expressly invented the system to compete with Type III-over-I construction. He told Kim, “we were looking at ways to create a competitive method of structural framing versus wood and I couldn’t do it with concrete, so I started looking at steel.” His firm worked on the concrete retail podium at Santana Row in San Jose, which suffered a massive construction fire — not unlike recent fires that destroyed under-construction, pre-fireproofed Type III buildings in Mission Bay and on Bunker Hill.

Santana Row

Not Type III over I.

Santana Row’s upper-story apartments (and hotel) were rebuilt using ConXTech steel, and there are palpable differences between it and, say, Rockville Town Center (another Federal Realty development, built as conventional III-over-I), notably more generous window openings and a subtler transition above the podium. At Santana, the base of the building often extends above the second floor, allowing not just for retail mezzanines but also adding vertical articulation.

2. Cross-laminated timber is a particularly exciting new technology for D.C. buildings: under current building codes, it can reach up to 90′ high — the height limit outside of downtown — and uses wood, which is locally available, easy to work with (i.e., fast and inexpensive), and has a comparatively small carbon footprint. Plus, it can look like the old timber lofts of yesteryear, a building type I’ve long been fascinated with.

Architect Michael Green’s Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, B.C. was recently completed; it reaches 90′ with its eight stories — or, technically, five stories and a penthouse over a one-story podium with a mezzanine, a bit of creative accounting perhaps done to satisfy code requirements. But whatever, Prince George might as well be on the moon, since it’s 500km from even Edmonton or Vancouver.

A heavy timber loft for the 21st century, built with rapidly renewable materials.

What’s more notable is this seven-story speculative office building that fits right into downtown Minneapolis’ loft district, designed by Green and developed by office titan Hines. Sam Black writes in the Business Journal, “Unlike Warehouse District buildings such Butler Square and Ford Center that were built out of huge logs, modern timber buildings use wood engineered from several layers of younger trees.

Today’s office tenants disdain boring concrete high-rises, and even the new-construction concrete “lofts” that began popping up in the 2000s are a weak alternative. CLT offers architects a chance to build an authentic timber loft building, from scratch, and without harming old-growth trees. Bob Pfefferle from Hines told Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star-Tribune, “it provides an authentic building that is respectful of the neighborhood. This will have the ambience of the old warehouses with timber beams that everyone wants, but solves all the problems of energy efficiency and light.”

Coincidentally, this month’s Arch Record has a sponsored feature on “tall wood” buildings. The IBC, it points out, limits commercial-occupancy wood buildings to six stories (vs. five for residential), hence the seven stories that Hines is proposing.

I can imagine that similar new-build loft offices could be popular in similar downtown-adjacent submarkets, and transformative for Sunbelt cities where sparse “warehouse districts” have little competing product. I’m thinking Austin, Denver, Raleigh, San Diego, Seattle, or maybe infilling Bay Area subcenters like West Berkeley and Redwood City