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.

Majority rule, minority rights — or Moses and NIMBYs

Terror alert

I snarkily wrote up a little headline last Monday: “Belmont Bypass’ Immediate Neighbors Slam Outreach, Will Vote On Keeping Bottleneck.” Then Daniel Kay Hertz wrote a somewhat fuller reponse, pointing out that a few people would vote on a project that impacts rail service for hundreds of thousands.

(Not surprisingly, the referendum failed, with 583 votes against. In June 2014, the three rail lines that would benefit from the bypass carried 6,353,313 passengers.)

Many broadly beneficial, but locally detrimental, projects are subject to being torpedoed by hyper-local concerns. As with any Locally Undesirable Land Use (LULU), the benefits are broadly distributed but the costs are highly focused. Many will gain a bit, but the benefits are in the distant future and somewhat speculative, so the issue has soft salience to the majority. On the other hand, a few will lose a lot, so those loss-averse few have a strong incentive to fight tooth and nail against threats to their homes. It’s just human nature.

Later comments directed at both Hertz and I raised the specter of Robert Moses bulldozing East Tremont for the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Yes, there are some surface similarities: properties expropriated for a transportation improvement. Yet these projects differ incredibly, not just in what is being done, but more importantly in how they are done.

A new highway arguably fails a cost-benefit analysis once social costs are calculated: It exacts leviathan costs, from destroying communities to contributing mightily to destabilizing the planet’s climate. (This probably even applied in Moses’ era, before thousands of miles of highways were built, subjecting further investments to the law of diminishing returns.) A new transit connection has a much better balance sheet. The Belmont Bypass has particularly high leverage, since it finally unleashes the bottlenecked potential of the miles of four-track structure beyond it.

More important is how the project is executed. In a democracy, the majority rules with respect for the basic rights of the minority. Moses infamously low-balled property owners when seizing land, and paid tenants (and rent-controlled tenants in an era of high housing inflation arguably hold a claim resembling property) almost nothing; such expropriation is clearly contrary to the Fifth Amendment or to the UDHR‘s Article 17.

Several property owners stand to lose their property to the Belmont Bypass. In such a high-profile situation, which public opinion broadly in their favor and multimillion-dollar properties on the line, I imagine that this group will receive just compensation — quite unlike the residents of East Tremont, who were largely ignored by the press, whose cries for help went almost entirely unheard by their legislators, and who lacked funds to file lawsuits.

Yes, a slightly larger population will be inconvenienced by construction for a few years, and this crowd appears to have provided most of those damning 583 votes. While pollution, even non-toxic pollution such as carbon, can justifiably be construed as violating others’ right to life, the noise and dust from construction can be mitigated to a significant extent.

In short, the substantial benefit that the majority will derive can justly be seen as outweighing the relatively minor rights claims in this instance, and the comparison to Robert Moses is spurious.

Of course, it’s rare for citywide transit agencies to make decisions at the hyperlocal level. Yet it’s absolutely typical for decisions to be made about permitting additional housing at almost a parcel level; in that case, the marginal benefit to other regional residents is so marginal as to be doubted entirely. Yet affordable rentals, in particular, are a LULU that local NIMBYs have successfully engineered the regulatory regime to discriminate against. Ryan Avent writes in the Economist: “The benefits and costs of population growth occur in a way that practically guarantees highly restrictive building rules.” Michael Lewyn takes the view that “cities cannot be trusted to weigh the citywide interest in new housing against neighborhood concerns… the chances of abuse are simply so high that a higher authority must step in.”

New economic geography: fewer centers, more edges

from a plane

There’s obviously no room to build anything, anywhere.

October’s Economist Survey on the global economy by Ryan Avent included a shout-out to his Piketty-informed thoughts on housing prices. In short, the productivity gains from current technology have increased inequality between people and places. The returns on specialized skills are worth more in an era of cheap communication and transportation, great cities aggregate many people with such specialized skills –and furthermore, agglomeration effects appear to be growing even as communications costs decline. Even virtual reality won’t be able to replicate the everyday, subtle reinforcement of ambition that great cities provide; as Paul Graham writes:

The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle… A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off.

Ideas have become so complex that those with specialized skills need to gather around others with complementary skills just to understand topics, much less to achieve the discovery or innovation stage. And, well, interesting people like one another; not for nothing has “assortative mating” taken off, spawning study of managing “the two-body problem” in fields like academia and medicine. (Hint: bigger cities, with bigger labor markets, are more likely to solve the problem. This has become a boon to universities recruiting in large metro areas, while those in small college towns struggle.)

In short, there are fewer centers and more edges. Scarcity being what it is, the centers (and only the centers) are winning more capital, and the edges are losing.

The result has been a highly uneven reallocation of wealth, whereby some places are winning in the form of skyrocketing property prices. These high prices create a substantial drag on the economy: increasingly high rents in the most productive locations steal from the most productive. This steers:

  1. Capital towards landlords, enlarging a rentier class (as Piketty notes) and starving more productive sectors.* This creates a vicious circle, as the NIMBY cartel further tightens its regulatory capture over the land use regime, and extracts ever-higher rents.
  2. Labor towards less costly, and less productive, places, creating economic losses. One recent study quantified that economic loss to the United States in 2009 at 13% of GDP — equivalent to sawing off the entire state of California.

—–

This might be worth unpacking further at a later date: Just reforming land-use regulations, or even entirely repealing the “shadow tax” of zoning, still won’t do enough to produce more affordable housing. Even if zoning is reformed to “make more land,” that land’s still subject to construction’s “hard costs,” which are just too high nowadays.

Construction costs have risen faster than inflation, and far faster than stagnant workforce incomes. Slides 5-6 of this presentation [PDF] by Thomas Hoffman from Enterprise points out that even with free land, even the cheapest construction now costs 50% more than the affordable rent for a low-income family.

Sure, embedded within construction costs are other perhaps-useless regulations, but housing affordability in gateway cities is a problem with many root causes, and with many solutions as well.

—–

* Rent or mortgage principal paid, aka “housing service expenditure,” does not have a multiplier effect on GDP because it’s not factored into GDP. However, it’s worth noting that in 2000, HSE amounted to nearly $1 trillion, which supported only some of the 1.1 million jobs in real estate (NAICS 531). Reducing rental prices would take investment income from landlords and give them back to consumers, who would probably spend in other sectors that generate more jobs per dollar.

Parallel trends: bigger houses, tinier apartments

size of new houses

It’s lately become very fashionable to contrast the concurrent trend towards ever-larger new houses and ever-smaller new apartments. Recently, Richard Florida,* Kaid Benfield, and even the Streetsblog podcast have all mentioned this peculiar contradiction.

But scratch a little bit at the surface and you’ll find that it’s an artifact of the Great Recession, not an existential conundrum. Consider that the Census’ Survey of Construction, the source of said statistic, only measures a universe consisting of new single family (usually for-sale) houses. However, these share of total new housing construction that is in single-family houses continues to fall. Just from 2011 to 2013, multi-family houses went from 29% to 33% of all new housing completions. Meanwhile, their size hasn’t budged: it’s consistently been around 1,100 square feet (+/- 50) since 1999.

The chart above also comes from Census data, and tells a more complete story. The average size of new houses built in the USA, both single- and multi-family, declined from 2011 to 2012, then ticked up to a record in 2013. It hasn’t been on an upward march forever. Another reason why this data point isn’t quite as important as it might seem at first glance: many fewer Americans are in new houses, period.

houses creeping back up

Construction may be up slightly, but it’s still well below its peak. Completions fell 70% from the 2004-2006 rate, and now we’re back up to 60% below that (completely unsustainable) rate. From builders I’ve heard at ULI panels and the like, new move-up product is still selling in the suburbs, but first-time buyers are staying in rentals longer, largely due to tighter financing. Hence, fewer small homes are getting built, as younger households stay in existing stock for much longer, and the average home size is increasing. (Oh, and remember: we’re talking about fewer smaller single-family houses. The number of multi-family houses, small and medium-sized, is increasing.)

Thus, the real story is that the for-sale single-family starter home, as a product type, is dying off. For example, when my brother recently purchased his first new house (at 35, considerably older than the typical new buyer at, say, Levittown), he didn’t get a starter home. He went directly from an existing multi-family unit to a move-up sized house.

* Making the additional methodological error of taking the definition of “central cities” seriously.

Two perspectives on the future of urbanism(s)

Kentlands just hosted its 25th anniversary celebration, a milestone that now firmly places it among the various New American Towns that dot the lower Potomac valley. In this time, what has New Urbanism accomplished, and where does the future lie? Two perspectives, both from the vanishing world of print-only publications, are excerpted below.

mid-rises

New mid-rises in Toronto.

1. Spacing Magazine‘s 10th anniversary issue (which we [few] American subscribers get pretty late in the game) has a great article by Dylan Reid about “the future of urbanism,” or rather the challenges ahead:

This rise of urbanism is good. It is creating cities that are healthier, more efficient, and more sustainable fiscally and environmentally — and they are more enjoyable to live in. The fact that an ever-increasing number of people actually want to live in dense downtown neighborhoods is an astonishing transformation from two decades ago, and essential to urbanism’s success…

Urbanism’s problems don’t discredit it (although some would like them to); rather they mean that the movement needs to test, challenge, and extend itself rather than rest on its laurels…

Urbanists also need humility. The familiar urbanist solutions work in the older parts of the city and, perhaps, in concentrated blank slates like brownfields, but they won’t work out-of-the-box in the suburbs.

Reid then posits and elaborates upon ten challenges, first as statements and then as questions that elude easy answers, which I’ll quote here [with my clarifications]:

  1. How do we adapt and extend the benefits of urbanism to the suburbs in a way that will be welcomed?
  2. Can we figure out how to build avenues and greenfield neighborhoods that are vibrant?
  3. How do we ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the advantages of urbanism?
  4. How can we ensure that extending rail transit and walkability doesn’t simply push low-income households further away?
  5. How do we maintain viable spaces for creativity, or create new ones, in the face of gentrification?
  6. How do we keep small waterways without undermining the density and connections that make a city efficient and sustainable?
  7. How do we make sustainable local food available and affordable to everyone in the city?
  8. How do we maintain the role of manufacturing and food processing in our urban economy and start to integrate them into sustainable urbanism?
  9. How will we find the money and political will needed to fund the next waves of transit investment?
  10. How can we increase the number of year-round cyclists?

The list is heavy on questions of affordability, inclusion, displacement, and gentrification. While at first these might seem to be concerns primarily for fast-growing cities, they do speak to the need for urbanism to address a broader range of people, which would improve its prospects in slower growing cities as well.

Toronto is also exemplary in its embrace of mid-rise development along mostly auto-oriented strips — reinventing the highway strip into streetcar/BRT strips — but the implementation so far has been subpar.

Lively, affordable strip malls full of independent shops are being replaced by dull condo buildings with chain stores, because the new condo retail is too expensive and often too spacious for independents, and condo boards resist all but the safest tenants… Transit is tangled in politics and not getting built. The new buildings still feel isolated rather than part of a continuing streetscape.

2. Over in the more highfalutin’ Harvard Design Review, Alex Krieger asks a similar question:

One set of ideas about good urbanism may not be sufficient. We know from experience, and from the many prefixes that we attach to the word, that across an urban region there are multiple urbanisms, hardly all conjuring up the same well-scaled, well-defined finite “urb” guarding its enduring spatial character…

What is more interesting, and found in many mature areas of urbanization, is the juxtaposition of different patterns of settlement in close proximity. Competing urbanisms may actually be a good thing for an urban region…

My intent in applauding a range of urban environments found in a metro region is to question the ferocity behind the ideological battles under way among today’s various guardians of a particular urbanism. Isn’t a proliferation of ideas about urbanization a good thing? [….]

Conversely, and equally disrespectfully, many dismiss New Urbanism as if its proponents offer no insights about cities. This too is foolish. The New Urbanism movement has raised public awareness about the social and environmental limitations of extensive suburbanization; convinced many subdivision developers to think differently about their generic layouts; pointed to outdated zoning codes that privilege single-use districts; altered the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s view on what public housing should look like and how it should be best arranged; and highlighted the “un-usefulness” of the engineering profession’s concern for optimizing the movement of cars above all. These are not inconsequential achievements for a movement that progressive architects dismiss for the sin of promoting traditional architectural imagery. Newly minted Landscape Urbanists can also be dismissive when implying that those who wish to learn from traditional urban patterns are simply Luddites…

Jacobs explains, cities are environments of not one but multiple complex problems. While not always apparent, each aspect of urban complexity is somehow interconnected to others. Planning for human settlement, therefore, requires the seeking out of both direct and subtle interdependencies prior to posing conclusions or plans… Perhaps too few of us get to page 448 in Death and Life. If we side with Jacobs (and who claims not to), then we need today’s urban polemicists to continue to offer their insight, if fewer of their universal truths — to keep jousting intellectually and, more important, to endeavor to seek out the interdependencies among their positions.

Going forward, let’s all strive to understand the multiple complexities that comprise our cities.

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.