Will Mayor Bowser recommit to Sustainable DC & MoveDC?

In a recent speech to District Department of Environment employees, Mayor Muriel Bowser offered some warm words about Sustainable DC — but fell short of a full-throated endorsement:

The decisions that we make are often, I would always say, 50 year decisions… The decisions we make around transportation options, whether we put something someplace or not — again, 50 year decisions. What is clear is that we’re making decisions right now that affect the next generation, and shape the options for the generation after that.

We have to be very careful in government about how we distribute our resources, and how we take care of the community. We inherited it, and we have to leave it better for the generations that follow us…

I inherited the past successes… I inherited some good things, and one of those good things was Sustainable DC. And so what I know Tommy [Wells] will do with me is make recommendations on all the things we should keep, all the things we should push harder on, the things we have to add, and if there are things we have to change or delete we should do that too…. I was elected for a fresh start, not a start all over, and so we want to make sure that we’re building on the successes of your hard work… and push the District even farther.

Mayor Gray leaves behind a substantial legacy of ambitious plans, particularly Sustainable DC and its direct descendant Move DC, that began with citywide public involvement, set ambitious performance goals, and have started to guide real implementation efforts that would, if continued, really advance the long process of creating a truly sustainable District.

Just to put one of those performance goals into a global perspective, Sustainable DC has twin goals of increasing the District’s population by 40% and shifting 75% of commute trips out of cars. This roughly computes to a 22% cut in auto commutes from present levels, and a near-doubling of non-auto commutes. Alex Block points out that this is certainly doable, but it isn’t easy.

Yet this is a fine example of acting locally while thinking globally, as these are local policies that would have global consequences. The National Research Council & TRB estimate that a national shift towards denser development — including shifting more population growth into the District from the suburbs — would cut CO2 emissions from driving by 11% by 2050, even before any change in vehicle technology. That’s 132 million metric tons of CO2 each year, an amount exceeding all coal emissions from DC, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Or, put another way, smart growth cuts driving, which could cut as much CO2 as shutting down all of our region’s coal power plants.

Of course, we will absolutely need to do both — and much more — if we’re to have any hope of avoiding a certain existential threat to DC’s future. But only smart growth and energy efficiency cut emissions over the long run, and pay for themselves in the short run.

Abundant housing supply moderates prices, but only drastic oversupply cuts prices

Daniel Kay Hertz assembled a few current examples of how overbuilding in the rental apartment market is keeping rents down.

South Michigan

Market-rate and affordable apartments under construction side by side in the South Loop.

A commenter pointed out that the South Loop multifamily market cratered in 2009 — and more broadly, the downtown Chicago market was flat over the entire 2000-2010 real estate cycle. People who bought some of the first Loop loft conversions have not earned more than the rate of inflation. In 1999, the buildings at 208-212 W. Washington St. were purchased for loft conversion, which was truly unusual then. (I worked just a few blocks east, and was in the market for a condo when it was closing out.) Today, 212 W. Washington St. #2108 is on the market for $395,000, less than the $414,411 that its $319,000 sale price in 2002 inflates to. Other properties in the building have recently sold for less than their 2001 nominal prices. This is despite a “hot” market that’s “running out of condos.

(I brought up this example during the Height Act battle, when some obtuse conservatives claimed that skyscrapers caused, rather than merely correlated with, high housing prices in Manhattan. Well, Chicago builds more skyscrapers, which allows its downtown housing supply to match growing demand.)

More broadly, the entire 2008 financial crisis is one big national case study in house price decline. Namely, it’s the prime example of why house price declines are rare: housing is so highly leveraged, and so central to household wealth, that falling prices really hurt the entire economy. As Ryan Avent writes: “since buyers are heavily leveraged, losses in value are magnified, raising the risk that price declines become crises.”

In a Brookings post-mortem [PDF] on the 2008 crisis, Karl Case (yes, of Case-Shiller) notes that broad housing price declines are rare: “nominal prices never fell over any full quarter between 1975 and 2005,” and that fact gave bankers’ computer models undue confidence in ever-rising prices. Moderate oversupply rarely results in falling prices because housing markets have other ways of discounting — sellers trade time for money and just wait it out:

Another important aspect of housing market efficiency is that prices tend to be sticky downward. In most markets, when excess supply develops, prices fall quickly to clear the market. But housing downturns have been characterized by sticky prices. Sales and starts drop but prices are slow to respond…
Downwardly sticky prices lead to “quantity clearing markets” rather than “price clearing markets.” […] Demand drops. The inventory of unsold homes rises. Prices stick. Output falls. The inventory of unsold property remains high (because a house is a durable good, not a consumable). But household formation rates remain positive, and the new households eventually absorb the excess inventory and output rebounds. Assuming there is upward inertia, prices then rise and ultimately overshoot; demand again slows, starting the next cycle.

For rented real estate, contract rents are only one way to set prices. Other ways of discounting abound: free months of rent, tenant improvement allowances, improvements to fixtures or common areas, bundled services (like utilities), additional amenities, and outright gimmicks can effectively act as “discounts” even while nominal rents don’t decline.

Case also mentions that housing is a heterogenous good, where each property is different. In real estate markets, that usually plays out as a “flight to quality” where prices hold up for the best buildings, and prices fall for lesser locations and uglier buildings. This phenomenon has dampened urban dwellers’ memories of the 2008 crisis — they’re less likely to remember the price decline, since “home values have generally held up better the closer a home is to the city center.”

At a local or regional level, though, housing prices do decrease on a pretty frequent basis, and over-supply is usually why. In “Why Do House Prices Fall?,” a pre-crisis paper written by Daniel McCue and Eric S. Belsky for the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies, the authors found that severe overbuilding almost always leads to housing price declines.

“While only about a third of all spells of moderate overbuilding resulted in price declines, nearly two out of every three spells of severe overbuilding resulted in price declines, and eleven of the twelve spells of extreme overbuilding resulted in price declines, all of which were large.” [emphasis added, extraneous definitions omitted]

housing price declines

The graphs do appear to vindicate the notion that market forces alone can, without subsidies, cause housing prices to decline. The housing-permit equivalent of a 300-year flood will almost guarantee that prices will drop by around 15%.

McCue and Belsky note that such overbuilding has basically disappeared from major cities in recent years, though. Instead, these cities have extirpated the rare beast and now systematically underproduce housing. Since nobody can remember prior oversupply crises, they now feel free to deny that such a thing is even possible.

Note that of the three major factors McCue and Belsky tie to house price declines, overbuilding is implicated more often than either employment loss or overheated prices. Just high housing prices on their own rarely led to corrections; because housing prices are sticky, high prices just plateau for a while.

housing price declines

Even in the realm of luxury goods (which some wrongfully claim that housing is), a good old supply shock is always eventually able to bring prices back into line. Here’s the supply and price of Maine lobsters, whose prices collapsed as the recession cut demand for ostentatious restaurant meals, but where growing supply has kept prices down even as demand rebounded: “Lobster, long considered a luxury, is becoming a little more ordinary.”

lobsters

Sadly, San Francisco has underbuilt to the point where it would take a a 26% increase to its current housing stock to get the market back into balance.

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.*

(A 1998 FHWA study also proposed the same ramp at the northeast quadrant of the interchange, but instead of a loop suggested a signal and a left exit. It also proposed to leave RCP, and grade-separated the Ohio/RCP intersection.)

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.