Full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

Already in my front yard, but my side yard? The world will END

Already in my front yard, but my side yard? The world will END!

A high-rise is already across the street from this resident’s front yard. But build one across the street from the side yard? That’s “contextual disharmony”! These signs have the gall to proclaim an urgent need to “Save the SW community” from high-rises — and, ostensibly, from the awful people (like most of their neighbors) who would dare to live in them.

This language marginalizes and dehumanizes the majority of Southwesters, who already live in high-rises and so apparently don’t count as “the SW community.” (They’re hardly the only rowhouse residents in DC who think apartment-dwellers don’t have equal rights.) And since we high-rise residents don’t have land-wasting, water-sucking yards, we can’t litter the streets with dead-tree petitions that list our grievances.

I read and re-read the City Paper’s cover story about the former Southeastern University building, looking for even a glancing mention that the “multi-story building” proposed is surrounded not only by “dozens of two- to three-story townhouses” but also by several other multi-story buildings — including Waterside Towers, just across the corner, which dozens of the townhouses already abut. But no, the writer took the side of the “underdog” homeowners, sitting pretty in their $700K-$1.2 million homes, and who only want to be surrounded by other million-dollar houses.*

The NIMBYs can whine all they want about “contextual disharmony,” but towers + townhouses is exactly the urban pattern that defined Urban Renewal Southwest from the moment ground was broken on Capitol Park. The neighborhood’s own architects** called it “an interlocking pattern of high apartment buildings and town houses.” In a neighborhood where high-rise residents make up the vast majority of the 10,000 local residents, 300 signatures means little. Indeed, 300 signatures are outweighed by the 300+ residents and employees who will live and work in the proposed apartment building.

Others will argue about the sanctity of the zoning and the comprehensive plan — but those documents are politically defined, not monuments to sound planning; they merely enshrine existing conditions and a “do-nothing” approach. When the Office of Planning zoned Southwest in 1992 (OZ case 92-7) after the old NCRC (urban renewal authority) was disbanded, everything was zoned for precisely what existed at the time. I can walk down the hall from my apartment and through three different zoning districts, all without going outside. If my building burned to the ground, it could only be rebuilt in exactly the same shape that was planned in the 1960s; even something that rearranged the same density differently on the site would be illegal. Thus, any change to the built environment in Southwest necessarily requires a zoning change, and that’s been true of almost all of the new developments being built.

Zoning only specifies an upper boundary to density, dating back to its origins as a legal tool that 1920s economic elites could use to enforce their own anti-“parasite” aesthetic tastes. Thus, only “overdevelopment” gets a legal definition and police-power enforcement tools, whereas the equally subjectively defined (but just as pernicious) “underdevelopment” isn’t a matter worthy of government interference.

The comprehensive plan, as I’ve hinted at, includes a fundamental contradiction: Its text begrudgingly admits that great change must come to the city, but its map bravely assures an anxious public that almost nothing will change across almost all of the city. Like most climate-change plans, the contradictory Comprehensive Plan sets lofty goals — the easy part — but doesn’t quite follow through. It’s like a diet book that tells readers that cutting calories is great in the abstract, while also assuring readers that they don’t have to change a thing about their current diet of cheeseburgers and chocolate cake.

The Southwest small area plan was meant to raise the idea of updating the zoning and facilitating more development, but as usual any attempt at defining a long-range vision was subsumed by short-term reactionary opponents of this specific project. Eric Shaw’s insinuation in the CityPaper that there was unanimity around this site is false; I know that I specifically added comments in support of rezoning this site, and about generally accommodating new development on select sites.

Other long-standing institutions in the neighborhood — specifically, Greenleaf Gardens, the mainline Protestant churches, and the government facilities in the “auto service center” around the DMV and post office — all got spot upzones through the small area plan. Their sites were redesignated as “medium density” rather than “moderate density,” in order to facilitate the eventual sale of their air rights through redevelopment. Ironically, SEU’s inability to secure an identical upzoning happened not on the merits — it’s much closer to transit and to everyday retail than the “auto service center,” and the church across the street got a density bump — but probably because it didn’t last long enough as an institution to argue its case before OP.

Yes, it’s silly that the developer bought the property banking on a zoning change; that’s not a strategy I would have put money behind, and not one that would work almost anywhere in Northwest. But developers do it all the time, since both zoning and the comp plan are more closely related to NIMBY objectives (read: the world is perfect as-is and shouldn’t change, so everyone hold their breath!) than to actual planning goals.

Apartments in Georgetown, across from Tudor Place (5 acre estate)

Apartments have been staring down upon Tudor Place, one of the most elegant estates in Georgetown, for almost a century — yet the world still goes on.

* Not to mention that nobody at all stood up for plans to build million-dollar houses at two sites in Southwest where they would have had negligible impact on neighbors: the Wharf’s Pier 4 (mentioned here; they actually would have reduced noise and traffic, relative to the ship loading) and at the Portals.

Which reminds me of another pet peeve: The Fifth Amendment does not guarantee any Constitutional right to forever-appreciating property values. If there was one, there would definitely be a “disparate impact” claim to be made.

** I.M. Pei, “Urban Renewal in Southwest Washington,” AIA Journal 39 (January 1963): 66.

“Build all the new housing in downtown’s backyard” isn’t working out well for DC

Construction around Navy Yard Metro

Part three of my multi-part series about housing production in DC went live on GGWash this week. Further installments will examine the impact of so much new housing construction on how central-city neighborhood planning — and begin to examine alternative forms that new housing besides central-city high-rises.

Part 1 – DC built 13% less housing over the past decade than its own citywide plan calls for: In 2006, DC adopted a Comprehensive Plan to guide its development efforts. At the time, the District’s population had just started to perk up after six decades of decline, and the plan reasonably foresaw that growth could continue into the future. The District’s population has indeed grown substantially, but its housing stock isn’t keeping pace.

Part 2 – The lion’s share of DC’s new housing is only going in one part of the city: Over the last decade, DC has built 13% less housing than its Comprehensive Plan calls for. Of the new housing that is going up, most of it is confined to the central city even though the plan recommends only 30% go there. Meanwhile, most parts of the District are building little or no new housing.

Part 3 – Most of DC’s new housing is in high-rises, which most people can’t afford to live in
At first glance, the District’s central-city housing boom might seem to be completely benign: as long as new housing is being built, does it matter where it is? But by funneling almost all new residences into central-city high-rises, the District is all but requiring that new housing be built with only the most expensive construction techniques, on the most expensive land. Potential residents need more choices.

Friday photo: Build in town, not edge towns, to cut carbon

edge town

The results are definitively in: when it comes to cutting carbon pollution from new development, location is far and away the most important factor. Even bad infill development will easily beat even the best greenfield design in terms of avoiding car trips — the single most climate-damaging activity in most Americans’ daily lives.

Kaid Benfield illustrates the point by contrasting the VMT per capita within some of the best suburban and urban neighborhood designs of recent years. Grounding his analysis in research, he writes:

[L]ocation is by far the most significant indicator of how much driving typically takes place to and from a given neighborhood. This is because of something called “destination accessibility”: outlying locations have fewer jobs, shopping opportunities, schools and other typical trip destinations within easy reach than do more central locations, causing average driving distances to be longer. (It is also generally easier in more central locations to substitute transit and walking for what would otherwise be driving trips, but such “mode shifts” are statistically less significant to vehicle miles traveled than are driving trip distances.) As a result, carbon emissions from outlying locations, per person and per household, tend to be higher – typically a lot higher – than those from closer-in locations.

It takes a lot of effort to create new “connected, complete communities” from scratch, since a “complete community” depends upon a myriad of services. When the first household arrives in an incomplete “edge town” (like Kitts Creek, shown above), they may be able to walk to other houses and some services. New services won’t arrive until there’s sufficient population to support them — and in many cases, rely upon people living even further out. Contrast that with a new house within an existing “complete community,” which already has all of that community’s services at their doorstep, from day one.

I’ll note that mode shift is less statistically significant because, outside of a few urban cores where destinations are so close by that walking is enjoyable and driving a pain, driving accounts for a substantial majority of Americans’ trips. That makes development within those few urban cores that much more important, in the scheme of shifting Americans away from automobility.

Thus, the most effective land use tool that urban planners have to address the global warming crisis — and at minimal public cost, to boot — is to make infill development easier.

Applied on a global scale (or even at a citywide scale), the potential is vast: 2014’s New Climate Economy report estimated that “compact, transit-oriented cities” could keep 1.8 billion tons (CO2 equivalent) of global warming pollution out of the air annually by 2050. That’s equivalent to decarbonizing the entire US transportation sector, or the economies of Russia or India.

DC built 13% less housing over the past decade than its own citywide plan calls for

A version of this post was posted at Greater Greater Washington.

Nine years ago, the District of Columbia adopted a Comprehensive Plan to guide planning efforts throughout the city. At the time, the District’s population had just started to perk up after six decades of decline, and the plan reasonably foresaw that growth could continue into the future. Yet even though the District’s population has grown substantially, its housing stock isn’t keeping pace.

Three years before the comp plan was adopted, Mayor Anthony Williams pointed to recent population gains when he announced a bold goal to bring 100,000 new residents to the District within a decade [PDF]. The 2006 Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force recommended adding 55,000 new housing units over 20 years (a recommendation reaffirmed by a 2012 housing strategy update). Not only would that figure meet long-term population growth goals (accommodating 114,400 residents at the then-current household size of 2.08), but it seemed attainable: The District issued building permits to 2,860 housing units in 2005.

The comp plan incorporated much of the Housing Strategy, noting in its Housing Element that “The increase in [housing] demand has propelled a steep upward spiral in housing costs, impacting renters and homeowners alike… The housing shortfall will continue to create a market dynamic where housing costs increase faster than incomes.” To address the shortfall, the plan’s very first policy opens with the statement: “The District must increase its rate of housing production if it is to meet current and projected needs through 2025 and remain an economically vibrant city,” and raised the forecast slightly, to 57,100 additional housing units over the plan’s 20-year horizon.

The city as a whole isn’t meeting its goals

Yet despite all the new construction over the past decade, including two building booms, DC’s currently on track to miss its 2025 goal by 13%. Instead of building 2,855 units per year, DC’s averaged fewer than 2,500 each year over the past decade.

dc permits

The big reason why is that homebuilding nationally came to a near-standstill during the 2008 crisis, and the District was no exception: building permits crashed by 81% from 2005 to 2008, and remained at low levels through 2010. Many proposed projects, like CityCenterDC and Half Street, came to a halt when banks collapsed. Yet all that time, the city’s population, and thus the demand for new housing, continued to grow.

Construction has since rebounded to new highs, with 39% more building permits issued each year between 2011 and 2014 than in 2005. Still, the new boom hasn’t yet erased the 3,000-unit backlog from the slow years.

To get back on track, building permits would have to keep up at recent years’ record-setting pace for at least another three years — and perhaps longer, since the next ten years will also inevitably include another economic slowdown that will subdue construction.

Housing growth has lagged population growth

Even though housing construction has lagged projections, the city’s population has continued to grow. Instead of moving into new housing, all of these new residents have in recent years just filled holes in the existing housing stock.

Vacant units — the slack in the District’s housing market — have steadily disappeared in recent years. Between 2010 and 2013, the Census reports that the number of vacant housing units in the District plummeted by 13,319 (or 31%), far outpacing the 6,850 units that were added to the District’s housing stock.

It’s convenient that so many vacant housing units just happened to be available just when the District’s population began booming, but that feat can’t continue forever. A growing population will, at some point, require new housing.

Indeed, current market indicators show that there’s still tremendous demand for newly built housing: Even though a record number of new apartments have been built, they’re being snapped up as soon as they’re available.

The recent slowdown in the District’s population growth isn’t reason to rest: It could be that slower population growth is a result of inadequate housing growth. Slower population growth largely results from reduced domestic migration, and the #1 reason behind domestic out-migration from DC is because of its inadequate housing. (No surveys track why people choose not to move to DC in the first place, but the reasons are likely similar.)

Yet meeting local environmental goals requires even more population, and housing

David Alpert’s article on Sunday referred to the District and the greater Washington region’s aspirations to a greener future, which require that the District add many more residents. DC’s Sustainable DC Plan, which was adopted in 2012, acknowledges that the District needs to “increase urban density to accommodate future population growth within the District’s existing urban area,” and sets a target of welcoming 250,000 new residents by 2032. That target implies at least 100,000 new housing units, a figure confirmed by recent studies from George Mason University and echoed in the region’s long-range plans.

Adding more residents to the region’s core will result in a substantially smaller environmental impact than adding those residents at the region’s edges. Accommodating more population growth within existing built areas, like the District, reduces the overall environmental impact of new development, and not only by diverting pressure to pave over outlying wildlife habitat and green space.

People who live in dense settings close to the regional core live more lightly on the earth as a matter of course: Residents of the urban core drive less than half as much as residents of sprawling suburbs — a fact that regional transportation plans rely upon to keep traffic congestion, and road expansion, down.

DC can take a fresh look at housing

As Alpert wrote on Sunday, “a great opportunity” to review DC’s housing needs “will come when the District begins the process of revising its Comprehensive Plan.” As part of that review, the Office of Planning should examine the comp plan’s policies in light of the District’s new, more ambitious goals — and the District’s failure so far to deliver sufficient new housing to meet demand.

Yet it’s getting harder, not easier, to build new housing in the District. New zoning restrictions, like the “pop-up ban,” have made it even more difficult and costly to build new housing units in large swaths of the District. Even when proposed developments meet existing zoning, they often face costly and time-consuming litigation.

Since the comp plan guides the zoning regulations, a revised comp plan should guide future zoning changes to make it easier for the District to meet its housing and environmental goals. A revised comp plan should also determine where new housing can and should go; a future post will show how the existing comp plan has fallen short in that regard.

Friday photo: The pre-NIMBY era

Once upon a time, before there were NIMBYs

Once upon a time, citizens’ leagues sought greater population as an end unto itself, knowing that more people would bring more services and more opportunities. Dallas is still famous for its boosterism, but nowadays talk of more growth will probably bring out at least a few complaints about traffic congestion.

(Button seen at Old Red, the Dallas County history museum.)

CNU conversations: Retrofitting suburbia, organically?


The South Slope area just south of downtown Asheville, now known for its many breweries, had an earlier incarnation as a Motor Mile of auto-related businesses. Before the 1930s, it was mostly small houses.

Now that many cities’ favored quarters have started to run out of pre-war neighborhoods (e.g., streetcar suburbs) to gentrify, the next frontier involves mid-century neighborhoods. Yet the typical cycle of gentrification requires fully depreciated, “aged buildings”,” as Jane Jacobs wrote (and Margie Zeidler marvelously retells).

In these instances, the “aged buildings” — Levittown-era subdivisions, proto-strip malls, little office buildings — suffer from two flaws:

  • An old Modern building can be more liability than asset. The mass-produced materials of that era are often toxic and less-than-durable, and construction quality was sometimes questionable.
  • The density and connectivity are often sub-critical to create a walkable urban place. Infilling is an option, but it is by definition expensive.

Under Neil Smith’s “rent gap” theory of gentrification, these places are doomed to decay and decline until their higher use justifies full demolition and replacement — rehabilitation is hardly even justified. And given the tremendous need to backfill infrastructure, full replacement is particularly costly.

Tactical and modular approaches to infill show some promise at reducing construction costs. To reduce the costs of rehabilitation, certain smaller jurisdictions have thrived through selective non-enforcement of building codes (going beyond a “lean” approach). Even though the very notion of artist-led gentrification began with plenty of code violations, it all seems so much less romantic today.

One possible exception: industrial buildings tend to have flexible interiors, relatively central locations, and (most notably) high lot coverages. In places where their relatively poor street connectivity and access can be surmounted, relatively high job densities could be accommodated within the existing low-rise building stock.

CNU conversations: Striking before the neighborhood’s hot

DeKalb Market, Long Island University

Yet more thoughts from our (apparently quite long) lunchtime conversation about community-building.

We talked extensively about how, but where would these strategies have the greatest impact? It’s important to jump off the price escalator — to opt out of the gentrification process — early on, before outside capital floods into the neighborhood.

The “tipping point” in neighborhoods is always tied to outside money. First, an urban neighborhood is “discovered” by suburbanites looking to spend their extra $20s in cute restaurants, then by institutional investors looking for $2 million investments, and pretty soon the whole place jumps the shark. But if the small dollars are ever going to have a chance to win the game, they’re going to have to start early on — or else console themselves to small, subsidized slices of the neighborhood, post shark-jump.

“Favored quarter” locations in gateway cities are probably too far gone (more on this in a future post). Even the immediately adjacent areas have probably been bid up too far to be affordable without turning to outside capital. A Place Corp takes a substantial investment of time, rather than money, so the key is not to overpay.

One approach that can work where explosive change appears inevitable is what I’d call a “waterfall TIF.” This uses redevelopment revenue from a “sacrificial” area — for instance, an underutilized industrial corridor separating a gentrifying area from a stable area — to shore up the affordable housing stock in adjacent areas. Two examples:

  • The Hill District in Pittsburgh is a historically poor, African-American neighborhood overlooking downtown. The Lower Hill was demolished for urban renewal, displacing 8,000, but it was never fully developed, except for one arena. A recently adopted TIF to develop the site will direct property tax revenue “into two separate accounts: one for infrastructure needs in the Lower Hill and one for reinvestment in the Middle and Upper hill.”
  • In Houston, the Midtown TIRZ spent $15 million to purchase 34 acres of the adjacent Third Ward, including hundreds of vacant lots, which was then handed to nonprofits and thus taken off the market.

By the time the usual affordable-housing resources, like TIF funds and inclusionary units start to flow, it’s already too late — prices will already be on an upswing. For maximum effect, resources need to start flowing before new construction and new investment create new amenities, which raise property values. Of course, this requires neighborhood organization (and probably capacity-building) beforehand, to identify areas about to undergo change, and to plan for the process.

Think of it as an approach comparable to Transferable Development Rights, which have preserved many rural communities, just applied to urban communities instead. To use the photo as an example, imagine if some of the value created by the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning (affecting the sites in front of Flatbush) could also have steered capital funds towards rehabilitating and expanding NYCHA’s Ingersoll Houses (at back right).