Why inclusionary zoning has a cash-out provision

Daniel Kay Hertz has a recent post about how Chicago’s inclusionary zoning (IZ) policy is insufficient at creating enough units to meet Chicago’s affordable housing needs.

When I was working for the Chicago Rehab Network 11 years ago, I wrote up the broad outlines of what was eventually adopted as Chicago’s IZ policy. I certainly concur that it is not going to solve the affordability crisis in Chicago anytime soon, but I still think it’s a reasonable approach to providing workforce-level affordable housing within the context of how Chicago builds housing — and once it was implemented, IZ multiplied the number of affordable units that Chicago’s Department of Housing could take credit for (primarily through LIHTC).

During the process of drafting this policy, we anticipated and understood that IZ would absolutely not be a cure-all, regardless of how future politicians would try and take credit for it. Furthermore, as Alex Block points out in a comment to the post, IZ absolutely does attempt to do two, contradictory things: (1) integrate gentrifying neighborhoods by creating new, permanently affordable units and (2) creating as many units as possible.

Since CRN is a coalition of CDCs, almost all of whom work exclusively in poor neighborhoods, the CDCs stood to benefit more from approach #2, and so the law probably errs in that favor. Even CRN’s members who worked in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods, though, would rather have served two families in Oakwood than one in the South Loop, and the cash-out provision allows them to do so. I certainly don’t blame them, even if the net result does to a small extent perpetuate socioeconomic segregation.

As part of the process of creating this legislation, we conferred with developers of both low-rise and high-rise units, who shared their pro formas with us, and with very extensive research done by groups like MPC and BPI, mostly relying on established policies in primarily low-rise places like Montgomery County, Md. and Burlington, Vt. We saw very few examples of successful policies that worked in a high-rise context. And since a large share of the development in Chicago, then as now, was in downtown high-rises, we needed to find some way to get buy-in from high-rises.

In short, affordable units within high-rises turn out to be very difficult to create and administer. High-rises are costly to build per square foot, and there isn’t much latitude to trim the costs through things like unit sizes and finishes. Most crucially, high-rises are subject to numerous cost thresholds, beyond which the primary incentive of IZ (“free land” in the form of higher density) can become worthless — e.g., a 7-story building is actually far less profitable than a 6-story building. And once a high-rise is completed, it’s difficult to balance the operating costs of luxury amenities (concierge, pool, etc.) across market and affordable units. (This is somewhat less of a problem in MoCo, since the Washington area’s very high AMI allows for luxury studio apartments to be counted as “moderately priced dwelling units.”)

So, given these difficulties — and given the CDCs’ thirst to capitalize a housing trust fund that could significantly expand their efforts at helping low-income families in neighborhoods (rather than moderate-income singles downtown), we went with the “cash-out” provision that pretty much exempts downtown high-rises.

As for exempting small developments, that’s solely related to the fact that the requirement kicks in based on the number of units, and it’s impossible to deliver a fraction of a housing unit.

It’s not just a phase: urban population dynamics have changed

National Park Seminary new EYA townhouses

EYA townhouses in Forest Glen, Md.

Ben Adler from Grist wrote about a recent NYT trend piece about how suburbia is hollowing out, with few young families to replace the empty nesters. He puts too much emphasis on gross migration and population change, without drilling into how those components have been changing:

A handful of coastal and upper Midwestern cities are attracting more young professionals than before and are retaining them for longer… Even where gentrifiers are moving in at a pace sufficient to reverse outmigration, they’re barely making in a dent in reversing the tide.

Migration population losses from cities paint an unnecessarily dire view of urban prospects. There is a good reason why large metros would tend to lose people to domestic migration — and, for the 20th century, pretty much always did. A statistically significant group of young people move to large cities, get married there, have kids, and then move away in search of more appropriate housing. Two people move in, three move out: presto, population “loss,” even though the same number of people moved in and out. Similarly, for decades a steady flow of retirees southward, away from large cities, was a good thing for society – an indicator that healthier seniors were physically able to move, rather than remaining house-bound.

Yet long-established movements like these (plus shrinking household sizes, plunging overcrowding, the twin crises of deindustrialization and crime, and employment displacing relatively dense central-city residential), may have largely run their course.

Yes, this does indicate that “the school problem” remains,* but indications are that cities are attracting more young people, and retaining them for more years. This is occurring both before and after the critical life milestone of marriage: new households are overwhelmingly singles, couples, and unrelated persons. Whereas many of the 1950s pioneers who settled what are now inner-ring suburbs were young families headed by 20-somethings, or maybe 30-somethings, today many married couples (without kids, or with young children) stay in the city for longer.

Here in DC (where the city’s small size and overwhelmingly post-industrial nature makes the demographic transition especially sharp), Carol Morello from the Post observes:

the number of children younger than 5 has grown by almost 20 percent, from 33,000 to 39,000, according to census figures. In the same time span, the number of children ages 5 to 13 rose 7 percent. But there were fewer children 14 and older, suggesting that many parents still choose to leave the city when their children reach high school.

This also shows up anecdotally, as in the NYT’s quote of a Westchester County official (“Parents used to be 35ish, now they’re 45ish. What we’re seeing is not so much an exodus as a later arrival”) and this observation (at a recent ULI conference) by the biggest developer of townhouses inside the Beltway:

Within the DC region, the geographically compact core (about 3% of the region’s area) accounts for a huge share of net growth of 25-34s. (Drawn from 2010-2012 ACS.)

A larger share of households spending more years living in the city is a marginal boon to cities’ residential market share. Few Americans live in one place for life, anyways, but imagine the implication for apartment owners as their tenant pool both grows in size and stays longer.

Meanwhile, population decline hasn’t hurt some urban areas (like my old neighborhood of Bucktown, where densities on some blocks have fallen 90% since their WW1 peaks, and continued falling in recent years). These can feel more lively and active than ever, even with much-reduced populations, because incomes are way up. More disposable income can substitute for a smaller population; retailers look for underserved pockets of spending power, not necessarily people.

Yes, at the end of the day, cities need to provide homes for a growing global population and so should welcome growing populations. However, gross population shifts need to be disaggregated and viewed cautiously.

On another note entirely, I’d like to honor the recent passing of Donald Bogue, 1918-2014, who taught me much of what I know about demographic processes. (My “Relocated Yankees” paper was done as a final project for his class.) Even though he was well into his eighties when I took his class, his approach was the best of UChicago: thoughtful, broadly read, engaging, and kindly critical, and he helped to tie together a lot of loose ends that I’d thought about for many years. He leaves behind a tremendous published legacy — scores of publications in the Library of Congress, for instance — and his work on topics like Skid Row still has strong resonance in planning today, for example in understanding the historical intersections between homelessness and place.

* Don’t look at me for any answers; this isn’t a school policy blog.

Shorts: parking craters, carbon tax, Census tools


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.

If “everyone” were moving back to the city, would you?

“That would depend on what you mean by ‘everyone’ and ‘the city,’ of course.”

Liberties Walk, Philadelphia

Recently, Kaid Benfield linked over to my recent post about “peak sprawl”, tying that phenomenon to broader changes in the housing market. I always have more to say on this particular topic, but this particularly stood out for me: those Boomers who look down their noses and sniff “you’ll undoubtedly grow up and move away (because that’s what I did)” refuse to understand that it really is quantitatively different this time. In an RCLCO market survey, “31 percent of Millennials prefer a ‘core city’… it is twice the portion of the preceding generation when polled at the same age.” As quality of life — crime, traffic, pollution, etc. — has undoubtedly improved markedly in cities and declined in suburbs, the city grows comparatively more attractive.

What’s more, young people aren’t just saying this — they’re acting upon these tastes. Over at Planetizen, Michael Lewyn points to statistics showing that cities are doing a much better job today of attracting young people. Yes, young people have traditionally moved to cities — back in the 1970s, 20-somethings were the only age group with positive net migration into many central cities — but not at anywhere near the rates that we’re seeing today. As a proportion of population, youth in-migration into SF has doubled since the 1970s, into NYC has tripled, and into DC has increased twenty-fold.

A lot of national wags love to dismiss DC as a “ boomtown” overfed by a compliant (if not “tyrannical,” etc. etc. etc.) federal government, but that takes far too reductionist a view of the region’s economy. Population growth in this region was not appreciably different between the shrinking/reinventing-government ’90s and the metastasizing-security-state ’00s: 16.3% in the ’90s and 16.4% in the ’00s. More recently, another shift in government spending has similarly had no effect: in 2013, the city lost 6,000 federal jobs (the region has lost federal jobs every month since October 2011) but continued to see Texas-sized population growth.

The difference is not how much growth, but where that growth happens: DC’s suburbs saw their population growth rate drop by 10.6% from the ’90s to the ’00s, whereas DC’s population growth rate skyrocketed by 6700%. It’s the same number of people, but going to different destinations. The same pattern is true nationally, and in both fast- and slow-growing metros.

Cities are capturing not just a large proportion, but an increasing proportion, of the largest generation in American history (and, Lewyn also points out, limiting their out-migration losses among older generations as well). The result isn’t just a momentary fad, it’s a large-scale migration with far-reaching consequences. The 1970s “back to the city movement” of young urbanites, so familiar from Woody Allen and David Mamet narratives, were so few in number that they could all crowd into the Upper West Side, Lincoln Park, and North Beach — whereas today’s young urbanites now threaten to disrupt entire cities.

What’s more, two other interacting shifts in lifestyles have vastly expanded the market for urban housing catering to younger Americans. Even if one makes the (increasingly tenuous) assumption that urban rental housing is only for those brief years between college and childbirth, and that “everyone” needs to move to distant suburbs for child-rearing purposes:

1. Ever-later marriages: the average age at first marriage has risen 5.5 years since 1960. Whereas 80% of young adults aged 25-34 were married in 1960, today only 46% are. The inherent flexibility of urban areas’ smaller housing units means that they can do a better job of accommodating the growing number of non-family households.

2. The ever-expanding universe of single householders: from 15.1% of households in 1960 to 26.7% today (easily outnumbering married couples with children by about 4:3). Thanks to Eric Klinenberg, this phenomenon has been better documented lately — but discussions around housing still center around the needs of families rather than of all households. (More on that in upcoming posts.)

Those who discount the second point ignore, at their peril, the rise of pluralism within the worldview of the first generation raised after “the death of the meta-narrative.” The mass market, epitomized by giant corporations like Sears or the Big Three TV networks, has splintered into myriad fragments. Increased acceptance of diversity and globalization mean that there’s no longer one right way of doing something, or living one’s life; instead, multiple viewpoints are equally valid. Even in religious matters, young Americans are much more likely than older Americans to say that there are multiple valid perspectives. “It’s all good” carries a more profound meaning than “I’m alright;” it also means “I’m good, you’re good.”

Some of society’s fragments may find the good life in cities, others may prefer suburbs, but to posit that “everyone” eventually will choose the same suburban nuclear-family lifestyle is a dangerously simplistic (and, in my eyes, almost offensively heteronormative) characterization. And in the meantime, the physical form that can best adapt to fragmentation and change is walkable urbanism.

As often happens in these discussions, the definitional problem of where to draw “the city line” also rears its head. Yesterday’s delineation between “suburb and city” makes little difference in today’s metro-centric discussions, where the real distinction is between sprawl and urbane, or “drivable suburbia” and “walkable urban places.”

Pictured: Philadelphia is one of many central cities where young people are not just a large proportion, but also a growing proportion, of central city residents. Its increase in attractiveness to young people is incalculable, since it went from net outmigration in the 1970s to substantial net inmigration in the 2000s.

The city itself acts as a platform for entrepreneurial ecosystems

Off the Grid: Proxy Hayes Valley

A recent Economist report by Ludwig Siegele examines how the business model, and culture, of the new entrepreneurial culture radically differs from the Fordist, all-under-one-roof mode of production that immediately preceded it:

[T]he world of startups today offers a preview of how large swathes of the economy will be organised tomorrow. The prevailing model will be platforms with small, innovative firms operating on top of them… In some ways, [entrepreneurial] ecosystems can be seen as exploded corporations. Finance departments have been replaced by venture-capital funds, legal ones by law firms, research by universities, communications by PR agencies, and so on. All are nodes in a loose-knit support network for startups that does what in-house product-development teams used to do.

This combinatorial approach to business is fundamentally well suited to dense urban fabric, which relies upon smaller increments of development — and thus intrinsically offers the choice and flexibility demanded by both contemporary consumers and the experimental businesses that serve them. In a sense, both the urban grid and the urban fabric are just platforms for business growth: an urban business district has higher costs — but compared to an insular suburban corporate campus, it’s an “exploded” ecosystem of firms that each do their own thing well, and thus maximize their own productivity. Instead of a single mediocre cafeteria, we demand — and increasingly get — more and better choices. The urban collage has found its counterpart as a business model, and naturally the two get along swimmingly:

[S]tartups are doing what humans have always done: apply known techniques to new problems. The late Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, described the process as bricolage (tinkering)… [S]tartups are a big part of a new movement back to the city. Young people increasingly turn away from suburbia and move to hip urban districts, which become breeding grounds for new firms.

In turn, each of these specialist firms needs to generate its own economies of scale:

Tom Eisenmann of Harvard Business School explains that startup colonies are platforms with strong network effects, a bit like Windows and Facebook: the more members they have and the more activity they generate, the more attractive they become.

In researching the AIA’s Cities as a Lab report last year, I chanced upon a single image that I thought encapsulated the possibilities of how the startup mentality has fundamentally altered business and cities: the Off the Grid food court, seen at the top of this post visiting proxy in Hayes Valley. (Photo by Niall Kennedy.)

Sure, back in 1993, I would have expected that by 2013 someone in San Francisco would have a renewable-energy restaurant. Individually, all of the ingredients in this scene existed in 1993: the Hayes Valley neighborhood, left-behind spaces by freeway overpasses (this was a segment of the Central Freeway), roadside flea markets, architects as developers (think John Portman), shipping containers, food carts/trucks, photovoltaics, LEDs, point-of-sale systems, etc.

What’s changed since then is that each of these have evolved, thanks more to regulatory than technological innovation,* into ready-made, easy-to-use, off-the-shelf platforms that can be “recombined” into an endless set of novel experiences — the very essence of what makes urban life so exciting.

* Read the full report for more! Even more telling is the chapter outlining how different districts around the Research Triangle were shaped by how different planned districts have flourished by matching their respective eras of innovation — beginning with corporate campuses in 1960s Research Triangle Park, moving on to the university-led model planned in the 1990s at Centennial Campus, and finally coming full circle to new entrepreneurial ecosystems in downtown Durham (and a future “downtown RTP”).

Bless this (complex, adaptive, fine-grained) urban mess


Kaid Benfield’s December articles about downtown had me pondering the role that downtowns play in metropolitan economies today:

I’m inclined to agree with Douglas Rae’s book “City”: the industrial American city, and its uniquely focused downtown, were the historical exception rather than the rule. Pre-war downtowns also had railroad-based transportation systems (perfect for bringing a lot of people to one central point), a more geographically centralized employment base, higher levels of social trust, and less inequality than we have today. The city in history was typically polycentric, and we’ve returned to that formulation.

Another shift since the postwar years, partly tied to increased inequality, is that cities now exhibit a much stronger sectoral geography. Whereas downtown used to be a fairly central location to reach a broad base of consumers, in many cities it’s now at one edge of the “favored quarter.” In DC, downtown was historically at the very eastern edge of the favored quarter, but growing wealth in spots like Capitol Hill have significantly changed that equation — and increased downtown’s desirability as a business location.

The era when downtown could “be all things to all people” is over: not only because of geography, but also because the Modern era of a mass market has ended, and there’s no possible way that any one place can cater to the vast array of divergent tastes that exist now. After a historically brief moment when everyone watched the same TV while eating the same processed foods, we’re in the customized era where 5,000 channels is still not nearly enough. Sure, the efficiencies that industrial modernism brought us are here to stay, but greater customization leads to richer and more authentic experiences, and thus make us happier (if not necessarily richer).

Yet the same fragmentation, pluralism, and polycentricity provides downtowns (and traditional urbanism in general) with a unique competitive advantage:

“Full-spectrum traditional places” will thrive because their fine-grained urban fabric features smaller increments of development, which better accommodate a broader, more complex mix of human activities. This approach can more easily cater to multiple narrow slices of the population than a mega-scaled edge city. It’s a more resilient approach: it’s telling that, to some extent, new urbanism was born from a prior financial crisis, when white-elephant redevelopments crashed under the weight of overwhelming debt loads and upfront infrastructure requirements.

Besides, as Richard Sennett argued in “The Uses of Disorder,” dealing with the seemingly overwhelming disorder of cities instead teaches individuals to understand and value the complexity of both life and human relations. Jane Jacobs similarly sought to demonstrate that the city was valuable because of its systems’ complexity, a value that the reductio ad absurdum Modernists she fought against could not understand — but a crucial value which gives urban systems their adaptiveness and resilience.

Urban disorder (since Sennett’s day, much tempered by plunging crime rates) is a useful analogue to the incredible variety of experiences that people now find online. Indeed, it turns out that as information technology makes order out of the chaos of information found online, the translation of these technologies to real places have resulted in a flowering of online services that streamline the disorder of the city — e.g., finding the ride that’s going your way. These services thrive upon complexity, and may help make the choice of city living even easier for a wider array of individuals than today. Our patience for dealing with complexity might remain the same, but technology makes it easier to cut through the clutter and enjoy the benefits of propinquity without quite as many hassles.

MLK Library as preservation controversy

King Library
Take a photo tour of DC’s MLK Library

With the architectural future of DC’s central public library, the Mies van der Rohe-designed Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library, currently being debated, I’m sharing presentation notes I wrote up for a recent historic preservation class — both a critique of MLK as a work of art, and a timeline of the recent (and still somewhat ongoing) controversy over preserving it as a library.

Overview & Program 

9th & G NW at Gallery Place. 400,000 sq. ft., 3 basements (including parking, storage, meeting rooms) & 4 above ground levels

Constructed 1968-1972 — began just before riots following MLK’s assassination touched even downtown DC, leading for calls to name library after King. (Was only memorial to King in DC from 1970-2011.) Mies died in 1969; other buildings were also in the pipeline but finished before, so this was “last Mies building.” Building is <40 years old (usual cut-off for National Register designation)

Replaced a Carnegie library on Mount Vernon Square (MVS), now home to the local historical society and used as event space.

Has always been DC’s central library, housing numerous special collections and programs including Washingtoniana on 4th floor, civil rights history, children’s, and adult literacy

The International Style

In Poppeliers et al, 92: “Concrete, glass and steel… Bands of glass became as important a design feature as the bands of ‘curtain’ that separated them… Balance and regularity… Cantilever and ground-floor piers”

International Style elements prominent in King library include an emphasis on the structural grid flowing inside and outside the building, wrapping around building with the I-beam mullions. Material palette is classic “less is more” Mies, honestly expressing the structure: black painted steel panels and beams, clear/bronze glass, tan brick, terrazzo and granite floors (no travertine, though), Helvetica Extended font on signage

The building displays many hallmarks of Miesian design (see this great MoMA online exhibit), particularly in its palette of materials, proportions derived from the golden ratio, and the use of ornaments like I-beam mullions. The quintessentially Modern design draws attention to its glass curtain walls and to the seamless flow between interior and exterior design elements through its large expanses of glass — most notably in a recessed ground floor lobby space that extends outside. (Gallery of Mies van der Rohe building photos.)

This is the only Mies mid-rise that I’ve seen; everything else is 1-2 stories or a skyscraper.

Interesting to note that architecture had largely moved on from Mies’ studious minimalism by 1972, embracing sharper angles, a wider palette of materials, and even some decorative flourishes. This was a bit old-fashioned at the time.

History, Threat, Controversy

1972 (Sep): building dedicated

1976: Air conditioning and heating both fail, temporarily closing library twice

1998: Anthony Williams, then CFO of DC (appointed by President Clinton) wins election as mayor, succeeding Marion Barry; Control Board cedes back executive authority. Launches several large construction projects, including Washington Convention Center [2003] and Nationals stadium [2006]

1999: pedestrian mall along G St removed

2003: Williams reported to be interested in $150M new library at old convention center site.

  • Construction began on new convention center (C.C.) north of MVS, opening up site of old C.C. (south of MVS) for development. City owns both C.C. sites. 
  • Hines consortium selected to develop old convention center site, included civic use in program.
  • 9th & G was revitalizing, and the corner would be sought after for retail, office, or another cultural use — numerous office redevelopments along 9th St, many recent retail and private museum developments along G: renovated Portrait Gallery, Spy Museum, Crime & Punishment museum, Verizon Center, Hotel Monaco, etc.
  • Many other cities (particularly in West) have built grand new central libraries as part of downtown redevelopment schemes, reflecting new library programs: Seattle (Koolhaas), San Jose, Salt Lake, Denver, Minneapolis, Montreal, Vancouver BC. Interestingly, many of these cities were replacing Brutalist libraries also built circa 1970.

2004: Williams convenes Future of Public Library System task force. DC Preservation League, in nominating the site to its 2004 Most Endangered List: “[T]he only building in Washington, DC by any of the ‘big three’ (Mies, Wright, and Le Corbusier) Modernist architects. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library has stood as the only monument to Dr. King in the nation’s capital for the past 30 years… the only [library] ever designed by Mies, was constructed with a flexible interior plan and the capacity to add a fifth story when needed…”

2006 – The big push by Williams

  • January: task force appointed by Williams recommends $450M overhaul of libraries, including $280M for new central library (includes $100M opportunity cost of taking site from Hines) and $170M for neighborhood libraries. “Besides being depressing, and aside from all the deferred maintenance, the Mies building is a very inefficient building,” said developer Richard Levy, who heads the library board’s facilities committee.
  • February: federal budget includes $30M match for $70M in local funds for library system construction. (Laura Bush was a librarian.)
  • May 1: Library Transformation Act introduced by Mayor Williams into Council, requires “preserves the historic character of the building.” Estimated revenue of $60M from a 99-year lease + $50M from a 30-year PILOT (TIF-like mechanism that applies to leased land), leaving a $70M funding gap for the new library, to be filled by $40M TIF + $14M federal. Referred to council committee, not voted out
  • May 2: Hines unveils master plan for old convention center site, includes 2.5 acres for “potential new library”
  • Summer: Public Library Foundation solicits additional schemes (e.g., adding wings surrounding Carnegie Library)
  • Summer: DC Preservation League & Committee of 100 nominate library as landmark, raise concern over cost of new library
  • September: Adrian Fenty wins Democratic mayoral primary (and general election in November); during campaign, supported Williams plan for new central library

2007 – Fenty backs down

  • January: elevator replacement begins (they last worked in 2001)
  • Spring: discussions begin with library, HPO, and “interested groups”
  • June 27: Fenty shelves new library plan, report on library repairs
  • June 28: HPRB unanimously votes to list King Library as landmark, forwards to National Register; library director testifies in favor
  • July: elevators fixed
  • September: MLK Design Guidelines Committee formed, DC Public Library Foundation retains firm to draft Design Guidelines
  • November 22: added to National Register (building is 35 years old)

Key Issues

  • Does a building under public ownership need to be landmarked?
  • Are public owners necessarily good stewards? Will they respect design guidelines to shape future updates?
  • Can a public owner perform “demolition by neglect”?
  • How can public owners benefit from preservation incentives, since tax incentives mostly apply to rented commercial buildings?
  • How do assumptions about construction costs shift public dialogue about preserving historic structures?
  • Are construction costs for replacement vs. rehab comparable?
  • Are all well-used public buildings going to become landmarks?
  • Do “keystone” public buildings need to be new in order to have an economic development impact? Is it easier to finance new buildings? Is TIF/PILOT funding transferable between sites?

Rationale for Preservation

The King library is a unique example of a mid-rise Mies building, besides the numerous other “only” distinctions that it holds. It deserves the protection of local and national historic recognition, as a locally unique example of the 20th century’s most notable architectural style. As a “universal space,” it is uniquely capable of adapting to changes in library programs as media continue to evolve; it was designed with the flexibility to last 150 years.

Unfortunately, accretions over the years have diminished the interior’s openness — a hallmark of Mies’s low-rise pavilion structures. However, these can be repaired and likely will, given the library’s renewed commitment to design.

DCPL recently initiated renovations, replacements, or expansions at 15 branch libraries, including historic buildings in Georgetown and Mount Pleasant. Several of the new libraries have very striking modern designs, including those in Shaw and Ward 7.

Kennicott writes in the Post: “Mies’s vision was symbolically perfect — at the time — for a library. It emphasizes a clear view into a glass box for books… These layers of accumulation, each a small response to a community need, deprive the building of the silence it needs to speak clearly. The rhythm of Mies’s black I-beams, which give the tiers of windows above street level their basic meter, can’t be heard against the low but constant cacophony of competing messages that have been attached to the building.”  

Still, is Mies’ Universal Space really functionally suitable as a library? The reading rooms are nice, and it has many library-specific features like book elevators (dumbwaiters), but:

  • Dark, undersized corridors in interior of building
  • Circulation confusingly hidden along back or sides of building — most of the new libraries handle circulation very well, epitomized by Seattle’s glowing escalators
  • Stacks exposed to light (even indirect, bronzed glass)
  • HVAC problems over the years contribute to deterioration of materials
  • Owners don’t have resources to maintain fixtures/furniture, fix or replace systems
  • Potential energy efficiency implications of old glass
  • “Covered front porch” attracts vagrants; there’s no way to better activate the space without compromising the front wall of building

Stipe’s prologue provides a few rationales that might apply to a defense of MLK Library:

  • “1. Physically link us to our past” — libraries are places of great collective memory 
  • “4. Relation to past events, eras, movements, and people” — MLK memorial, an International Style exemplar in a prominent location, and a formidable investment in Downtown DC at a time of precipitous decline
  • “5. Intrinsic value as art, designed by some of America’s greatest artists” — only structure in DC by a world-leading Modernist architect (well, except maybe Breuer)

Stubbs, on the other hand, argues “To save the prototype” and only the prototype: “There can only be one true original of an authentic work of art, although copies can be made.” The King library is one of many of Mies’s works, and not his best; it suffers in many ways. It’s an adept copy of Mies’ groundbreaking high-rise or pavilion works, but it suffered from a shortchanged budget and the form (reminiscent of a truncated Mies high-rise) is too unwelcoming for use as a library, which involves extensive internal circulation. Stubbs takes a rather dim view of modern architecture in general: “Tens of millions of buildings from this period are found throughout the world; many have neither proven durable nor served their inhabitants well… In the early years of the world’s adoption of the International Style, protection of interior spaces from direct sunlight… was minimal or nonexistent…”


Philip Kennicott, “Mies’s modernist D.C. library building is getting a complementary companion,” Washington Post, May 30, 2010, E09.

“Most Endangered Places for 2004: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library,” D.C. Preservation League, accessed 5 September 2011, http://www.dcpreservation.org/endangered/2004/mlklibrary.html

John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers, and Nancy B. Schwartz, What Style Is It (Washington: National Trust, 1983), 92.

R. E. Stipe, “Prologue: Why Preserve?” in A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-first Century (Chapel Hill: UNC, 2003), xxvii-xv.

J. Stubbs, “Why Conserve Buildings and Sites?” in Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation (Hoboken: 2009), 33-63

G. E. Kidder Smith, Sourcebook of American Architecture (Princeton: Princeton Architectural, 2000).

Alice Sinkevitch, ed., AIA Guide to Chicago, Second Edition (New York: Harcourt, 2004).

“King Library,” Docomomo, accessed 6 September 2011.

Kriston Capps, “For once in a public building in Washington, there is excellence throughout,” Grammar.Police, accessed 3 October 2011, http://grammarpolice.net/archives/000929.php

“CityCenterDC In The News,” Hines|Archstone, accessed 3 October 2011, http://www.oldconventioncenter.com/news_inthenews.php

“Designation Procedures and Criteria,” DC Preservation League, accessed 3 October 2011, http://www.dcpreservation.org/districtscrit.html

EHT Traceries, Inc., Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library Design Guidelines (Washington: DC Public Library Foundation, 2008?), 22-26.

Rob Goodspeed, “What Will be the Fate of Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library?,” Goodspeed Update, accessed 3 October 2011, http://goodspeedupdate.com/2006/2051

Rob Goodspeed, “New Central Library Plans ‘Shelved’,” Goodspeed Update, accessed 3 October 2011, http://goodspeedupdate.com/2007/2113

“Library Transformation Act of 2006, Bill 16-734,” DCWatch, accessed 4 October 2011, http://www.dcwatch.com/council16/16-734.htm

“Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library the newest DC Landmark,” DC Preservation Advocate (DC Preservation League newsletter), Summer 2007, 1.

Elissa Silverman, “D.C. Library Gets Sorely Needed Lift,” Washington Post, July 24, 2007, B1.

Debbi Wilgoren, “Overhaul Urged For D.C. Libraries,” Washington Post, January 18, 2006, A1.

Debbi Wilgoren, “Libraries Could Get Federal Funding,” Washington Post, February 6, 2006, B1.

The lights aren’t broken, but the design is

Uplighting by Payton Chung
Uplighting, a photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

L’Enfant Promenade is so badly designed that it accomplishes the rare feat of making something darker by applying light. Lots and lots of lights, actually, which instead of illuminating the street surface instead just spill their coal-fired power as light pollution. This is just one of many things about this streetscape that are objectively wrong, as described by GGW commenter “Moose”:

L’Enfant Promenade is miserable. I work down there, and it’s too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter. No vegetation to help mitigate the effect of the wind canyon created by the buildings. The paving stones they used for both the road and the sidewalks are rough, and difficult for bikes and pedestrians. The “lights” they have on it don’t shed enough light at night to actually illuminate the sidewalks or road, but they do put out enough light to not let your eyes adjust to darkness (when they’re not blinking on and off, that is – there seems to be a short in the sensor or switch used to turn them on at dusk).

Yet somehow, the notion that this could be a landscape worthy of immortality (a supposedly rare privilege, as it places stewardship obligations upon future generations) actually exists out there in someone’s brain, and therefore tax money needs to be spent investigating that specious claim (perhaps at the DC Historic Preservation Review Board, if the GSA is to be believed about claims regarding Banneker Circle). Perhaps not since the SF Bike Plan has such a quantity of money been spent for planners to prove the obvious.

It’s no better by day, either. Nor is our jaundiced view just because it’s one generation old; it was hardly beloved even when it was shiny and new, if press and eyewitness reports are to be believed.

L'Enfant Promenade

Thankfully, this 1980s bulbs-and-brass interior was recently ripped away because again, it was objectively wrong — it never succeeded at being attractive, otherwise the shops around it might have done okay. Otherwise, surely someone would rush in and “rescue” it with some obviously-well-deserved historic protection.

Time warp

July shorts: aimless bicyclists, green roofs

Pearl St.
Do the French have a term for aimlessly bicycling around towns?

Cleaning out the fridge, so to speak, with several links & quotes:

1. Flaneur, randonneur: just wandering about, whether on foot in the city or on bike in the countryside, is a long-established practice in French but just doesn’t translate to English.

There’s no direct translation for randonnée (pronounced ran-don-NAY) — it can mean a long outing or trip, or a ramble in the countryside. For its practitioners, called randonneurs, it’s easier to define the event by what it isn’t: a race. There are time limits, which means riders can’t go too slowly — but they also can’t go too quickly.

2. Mayor Bloomberg speaking about the myth of the scofflaw cyclist at Citibike’s launch:

I’m sure there will be people who will, just like they are today, take their bicycles and do things that break the law. This will shock you but there are even people in automobiles who do the same thing. When you take a look at the number of people killed in automobiles, it sort of dwarfs everything put together on the road.

3. The world is filled with ironic NIMBYs, but this story still takes the cake: a retired Concorde pilot complaining about the noise from a playground.

4. Nate Berg sounded an appropriate note of skepticism over green roof cheerleading. It always really irked me that Mayor Daley would take credit for putting green roofs on big box stores in Chicago, even though the ratio of blacktop parking lot to green roof built by said stores is easily 3:1. A garden built on the ground, within a depaved parking lot, can offer more environmental benefits than a monocultural, thin green roof, and at a much lower cost. Oh, sure, someone might lose their parking space, but discouraging driving is yet another environmental benefit!

5. During the years I bike commuted through the South Side, it always fascinated me that Chicago’s ghettos were often bereft of any commerce whatsoever: for the most part, there weren’t even fast-food joints along the way, even though plenty of people lived nearby. Other U.S. cities (much less thriving Canadian inner cities) didn’t seem quite as derelict: witness the busy, if run-down, retail streets of Spike Lee’s Brooklyn. Whet Moser uncovers research by Marco Luis Small that quantifies this: “In some cases, the difference is stark. Chicago has 82% fewer small restaurants, 95% fewer small banks, and 72% fewer small convenience stores than a black poor ghetto in the average city.”

Today’s McMillan SFS testimony to HPRB

[Testimony given to the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board this afternoon, in response to the recent HPRB staff report regarding architecture at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site.]

My name is Payton Chung, LEED AP ND, and I am a homeowner in Ward 6.

Thank you for providing this opportunity to comment on the revised master plan for the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. Moving forward with new buildings on this site, in a growing city with a housing shortage and a structural deficit, is the only realistic and financially feasible way to ensure public enjoyment of and education about the historic structures on the site. The proposal will not only, at great cost, stabilize the structure and thus open the site to the public for the first time in a century as a safe and usable park. It will also retain all of the above-ground and substantial portions of the below-ground structure interiors — in addition to the filtration cells that will remain within the park and reservoir lands to the west — while also reconstructing historic landscape elements like the Olmsted walk around the site perimeter, retain the site’s distinctive topography, and weave together the historic neighborhoods that surround the site.

The staff report’s recommendation that the buildings achieve greater architectural unity has merit, given the multiple programs and contexts present within and around the site. Greater architectural unity of the building bases could define the two maintenance corridors as urban rooms, while respectfully framing the sand silos. Similarly, though, it is entirely appropriate that the medical office buildings create an urban space from the auto dominated highway that is Michigan Avenue, and that requires a different architectural context.

Ensuring architectural unity for a site of this scale and complexity is a tall order, but the architects have made a good start and should be allowed to proceed to the Mayors Agent’s review with further guidance from the board.

Again, thank you for your time and consideration.

Towards a unified theory of midtowns

Midtown Atlanta



Downtowns, or central business districts, have been well-studied in the economic literature, but The Metropolitan Revolution is one of the few texts I’ve seen that not only mentions midtowns but posits that they hold the key to future regional economic growth. A midtown typically was a secondary business district that arose to serve the wealthy, uptown residential precincts, and eventually attracted some of the “nice” amenities that wealthy residents wanted to have close to home and away from the congestion of downtown. Yet, as eds & meds employment in particular have boomed, these tranquil bastions have become employment centers in their own right, and perhaps regional economic strategies should zero in on linkages between these areas and other regional economic nodes — and to the likely-interesting neighborhoods around them.

Pages 138-139:

What Detroit Teaches Us

Detroit is drawing a new geography of innovation, tearing down the traditional, artificial borders that have long divided downtowns and midtowns in the United States. Virtually every major city in this country has a strong central business district (mostly for the congregation of government, corporate headquarters, entertainment venues, and some cultural functions), a strong midtown area (where eds and meds and historic museums tend to concentrate), and a state-of-the-art transit corridor, mostly built within the past twenty years, connecting the two. Each of these discrete building blocks brings particular assets that, in turn, provide a platform for a key element of innovation district growth.

They point to Detroit, Houston, Cleveland, and Buffalo as prime examples, and mention Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Syracuse, and “even Las Vegas” in passing.

At first, I was a bit taken aback by the certainty of saying that “virtually every major city” fits this pattern, but I can’t think of many that don’t, particularly if one applies a geographically expansive definition to “midtown.” Strong examples include Westwood in LA, Longwood-Fenway or Cambridge in Boston, OSU in Columbus, or West End-Delmar in St. Louis. Sometimes downtown and midtown seamlessly blend with the CBD, as with Foggy Bottom & Georgetown in DC, McGill in Montreal, or Streeterville in Chicago.

It’s also intriguing to think that, with policies and investments directed towards creating a cohesive neighborhood, anchor institutions could be aggregated into a midtown which either never existed or deteriorated due to regional growth dynamics. UIC-Medical Center in Chicago is an obvious candidate; Howard-Washington Hospital Center in DC is another. In that instance, development of the McMillan site creates that missing physical link between the two.

Oh, and this call garners a subtle eye-roll from this generalist, who’s had a tough time monetizing that interdisciplinary knowledge:

[T]he people who deliver innovation districts would constitute a new network of metro builders who cut across disciplines, programs, practices, and professions. Modern society has deified specialists and technicians who diagnose and strive to fix discrete problems–say, traffic congestion or slum housing. Metro builders, by contrast, would be fluent in multiple city “languages”–architecture, demographics, engineering, economics, and sociology–and be cognizant of theory and practice. They would see the connections between challenges and work to devise and implement policies that advance multiple objectives simultaneously.