Focus preservation resources on the best, and let the city continue to evolve

Comment submitted to HPO, regarding its Preservation Plan.

I am a homeowner, in a historic landmark building. I have been a National Trust member for my entire adult life, and have spent almost all of that time living in National Register-listed buildings. I consider myself an ardent preservationist.

It therefore pains me to say that the historic preservation process in DC is broken — as I have recently documented in Greater Greater Washington. The District has designated almost as many historic structures as New York City, which has 6.4 times as many total structures. Thousands of unremarkable buildings such as production-built rowhouses and strip mall parking lots, almost identical to thousands or even millions of others around the country, have been deemed by HPO and HPRB to be “locally significant” for seemingly no other reason than the fact that they exist.

Kennedy Street commercial strip

Kennedy Street is a rare rowhouse corridor that’s still allowed to evolve with new structures, instead of being frozen in amber by overzealous historic preservation

I became a preservationist because I am pro-urbanism, and want to maintain the rich urban fabric of small-scale buildings, evolved over generations, that was common in pre-WW2 America. It is dispiriting to see that NIMBYs have hijacked the historic preservation process to stop that very process of urban evolution that created the places they claim to admire.

Instead of pouring all of its resources into finding more and more mediocre buildings to designate as “locally significant historic resources,” HPO should instead halt the process of reviewing outside nominations and focus its efforts on a comprehensive, District-wide survey of structures to identify those of high historic and aesthetic merit. Los Angeles has eight times the land area of DC and six times as many buildings, and completed a full survey of its structures within eight years. Meanwhile, DC HPO is now 40 years old, and has not completed a District-wide survey — ignoring many potential treasures in overlooked neighborhoods, while lavishing time and attention to ensure that no detail is overlooked for every single building in the District’s prosperous quarters.

Historic preservation also should not triumph over other aspects of the Office of Planning’s remit. The District has other planning priorities besides preservation, including creating affordable housing, allowing more people to live and work near transit and the regional core, and increasing renewable energy production. HPO and the HPRB must find ways to balance their own mandates with others’.

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Recently: winning the war on sprawl, over-preservation, office to residential, shared streets, tax bill

I’ve recently published several articles over at GGWash.

  • Sprawl is slowing, but that doesn’t have to mean higher housing prices.” The downtown high-rises under construction only tell half the story of Greater Washington’s housing growth story. While all those cranes are easy to see from afar, what isn’t immediately apparent from the airport (but might be from a plane) is that many fewer acres of the countryside around us are being bulldozed for subdivisions–which for the past century has been where most lower-cost, low-rise housing was built. As a result, the region as a whole isn’t building enough housing for our rising population… Not only is supply overall not keeping pace with demand, but a large fraction of the new supply is in the housing market’s priciest segment: expensive high-rise construction, on expensive downtown land.
  • DC has more historic buildings than Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined. Why?” Nearly one in five properties in DC are protected by local historic designation laws. DC is so prolific at handing out historic designations that we have more historic properties than the cities of Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined, which together have almost eight times as many properties as DC. While this policy has ensured harmonious architecture across much of central Washington, it also means that Washingtonians are much more likely than residents of other cities to have their construction plans delayed or denied on subjective grounds by a historic review board.
  • Historic preservation in DC saves the loudest neighbors, not the finest buildings.” DC’s surfeit of historic structures results from several factors, notably the broad application of rather vague criteria for designation. As Roger Lewis has written, “the HPRB decision is inevitably a judgment call because much of the evidence for historic designation is inherently subjective.” Since every resident “squeaky wheel” is invited to request historic designation for just about any site in the District, many do — and overwhelmingly, they succeed.
  • DC’s countless thirtysomething office buildings stare down mid-life crises.” No other region can match Greater Washington’s density of 1980s and 1990s office buildings — we built over a million cubicles’ worth, almost as many as in the much-larger New York and Los Angeles regions. Now, these buildings are facing mid-life crises; many require substantial additional investment, as key building systems (like air-conditioning, plumbing, elevators, and roofs) require overhaul or replacement, just as the office market has changed.
  • Not every obsolete office building is cut out to become apartments.” Some, but not all, of these old offices can become residences, depending on their location, price, and layout. Despite considerable media coverage, office conversion has been comparatively limited in greater Washington for a variety of reasons, including a relatively healthier office market and a lack of specific incentives for the practice. Residential conversion offers some promise, but will not be a panacea for either the over-supply of offices, or the under-supply of affordable homes, because not every obsolete office building can be converted to housing.
  • Metro needs a loop to lasso riders from this growing corner of DC.” The way the District is growing is creating another rail bottleneck on the other side of town that will have to be addressed in the future. The Capitol Riverfront is easily the fastest-growing part of DC right now, and by some accounts one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in America. If all 11,978 new housing units proposed within the Capitol Riverfront get built, the area around Navy Yard station would have the largest household population of any Metro station. Metro’s ridership forecasts, which now factor in development proposals, foresee that the area’s rapid growth might require additional investments, like a new subway line.
  • How are the Wharf’s shared spaces working out?” When the Wharf opened last month, it instantly became the largest expanse of “shared space” streets in the country. Over the past few weeks, it seems like these streets are largely working as they were designed. Even though a few of our commenters were skeptical about whether the approach would work here, so far there haven’t been any major complaints or adjustments needed.
  • The GOP tax plan would make housing and infrastructure more expensive.” Eliminating Private Activity Bonds and New Markets Tax Credits, as the House GOP’s tax code overhaul proposes, would have deep ramifications for funding infrastructure and affordable homes in the region.
  • The latest Republican tax bill changes commuter benefits, but probably not yours.” Tax law will only indirectly affect most area commuters.
  • Added 26 January: “A bold California bill would ease transit oriented development. How would a similar approach affect DC?” A bill recently introduced into the California legislature boldly proposes that every transit corridor in the state be rezoned to permit mid-rise apartments. In Slate, Henry Grabar writes that it’s “just about the most radical attack on California’s [housing] affordability crisis you could imagine.” In the Boston Globe, Dante Ramos writes “the bill may be the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

 

Recently: instant neighborhoods, unmasking institutional capital, dockless bikeshares compared

Cranes around Navy Yard, from roof of 100 M SE

Three things I’ve written elsewhere this week, the first two inspired by the mechanics of my neighborhood’s growth:

1. “Instant neighborhoods” don’t make for great cities, but DC insists on them in GGWash. I really do relish living in a neighborhood that’s growing and changing quickly, but it’s a little bit unnerving to think that we may be repeating the biggest mistake of Southwest’s past — the hubristic assumption that our best-laid urban plans can anticipate every need, for all time.

2. Meet the everyday people who own these iconic Washington-area buildings in  GGWash. Amidst a lot of dark insinuations about outside money, it’s kind of funny to uncover the rather more quotidian reality of who’s paying for all these new buildings.

3. I wrote a Twitter thread about riding all four of the new, dock-less bike sharing systems that have launched in DC this past week. Click through for the reviews:

 

The problem is inequality, not speculation

Need homes? Build homes (even the Communist youth thought so in 1946)

In 1946, even the Communist Party USA agreed that the obvious solution to a housing shortage was to build housing. Why is that controversial now?

In a recent fit of contrarian cutesiness (which I partly responded to earlier, here), Chuck Marohn wrote about out-of-control housing prices: “The simple answer is downzoning.”

That’s as dishonest an answer to the question as Tommy Lasorda, in those vintage Ultra Slim Fast commercials, saying that the secret to out-of-control weight is spaghetti-and-meatball dinners — the daily treat, rather than the three calorie-restricted, high-fiber shakes that you choke down the rest of the day.

Marohn balances his call for downzoning with a casual mention of his previous “floating height limit” idea — allowing, across all zones, somewhat bigger buildings than the norm. This would, in essence, upzone the vast majority of metropolitan American land that’s currently zoned solely for low-rise single-family residential, while lowering allowable heights in the much smaller proportion that’s subject to more-lenient commercial zoning. (Of course, in his contrarian telling, a call for raising allowable building heights for 90% of America is titled “the case for height restrictions.”)

He pins the blame for metro Portland’s housing affordability crisis — and, by extension, the broader housing-affordability crisis afflicting bicoastal Blue America — on property speculation, saying that developers are bidding up residential land prices around transit in hopes of winning rezoning to build multifamily TOD. Thus, his call for downzoning, to frighten off those vile speculators. There certainly exist a few situations where transit-oriented speculation distorts markets — I’ve written about these pretty extensively in GGWash, pointing to why “parking craters” surround Metro stations instead of 8-story high-rises.

But these are fringe situations, affecting only a few square miles across the entire country. Even when I lived in the highly desirable, transit-accessible neighborhood of Bucktown, where zoning was infamously corrupt, the upzones that the local alderman brazenly sold did not result in the dumpy single family houses being replaced with parking-light apartments, as Chuck’s hypothesis holds. In fact, the exact opposite occurred: dumpy, parking-light apartments were replaced with swanky single-family houses! In countless other areas which have been downzoned, housing prices have increased regardless of speculation.

Why? Because the price increases in Bucktown, and on Portland’s east side or Los Angeles’ west side, have little to do with transportation (Chuck’s bailiwick) — and much more to do with rising income and wealth inequality, both within and between regions, combined with a largely static land-regulation regime that hasn’t adapted. The gains accruing to the wealthiest means that the wealthy can bid up housing prices, substantially raising housing prices in high-income regions where both demand and barriers to entry are high. As I wrote earlier, this imbalance has held on for decades in some cities, particularly in coastal California, and the political dynamic that sustains it appears to be utterly implacable.

As I also wrote earlier, the economies in different regions have diverged in a way that has fed this dynamic. Economists Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh and Pierre-Olivier Weill found that “house price dispersion” between regions increased much faster than income inequality between regions (which has also been increasing): their statistical measure of the variation in house prices increased by 38 percentage points, vs. 8.6 points for wages, from 1975-2007. As their paper explains,

The increase in productivity dispersion creates flows of workers towards high-productivity metropolitan areas, driving local house prices up because of limited housing supply. Conversely, households flow out of low-productivity areas, driving local house prices down. This increases house price dispersion.

The situation has gotten even worse since the 2007 crisis, with housing prices in wealthy Census tracts increasing almost twice as fast as those in more modest areas.

Just to be sure, the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies examined metro-level data about the uneven recovery in house prices more closely and observed:

a strong case for the gap between recent changes in supply and demand exerting a strong upward pressure on house prices… the overriding importance of the imbalance between population growth and housing stock growth in explaining trends in prices…

Sure, pointing the finger at transit, multifamily, and TOD burnishes Chuck’s prickly-independent bona fides, a long tradition in Upper Midwest politics. But he’s searching only within his narrow sphere of expertise (transportation) to find the cause of problems that have much larger global causes — and which don’t lend themselves to his hyper-local bootstraps approach.

Update: Portlanders have already studied and diagnosed their problem — as in Bucktown, it’s inequality and McMansions, not multifamily zoning. Their solution is not downzoning, but rather to switch up the zoning in lower-density neighborhoods, increasing the number of units allowed while reducing FAR allowed.

WMATA night service testimony

Sent to the WMATA board via CSG’s template:

I am Payton Chung, a regular Metrorail rider and chair of the DC Sierra Club’s smart growth committee (although I speak for myself). I use Metro both late at night as well as on weekend mornings (when the Sierra Club begins day hikes), and I oppose a permanent cut in Metrorail’s hours.

If the service-hour cuts become permanent, Metro will have more limited operating hours than any large US rail transit system, and at lower evening frequencies. Metro should learn from how other major US rail systems perform inspections and maintenance without shutting down the entire system. I lived along the Blue Line in Chicago, which is a two-track line (parts of which were built 100 years ago) that operates 24/7. When track maintenance is done (and a major renewal is underway presently), it is done by suspending service on part of the line and providing shuttle buses.

In that spirit, I understand that temporary service suspensions may be necessary from time to time. However, these suspensions must be of limited duration, must be outlined clearly in advance, must achieve specific maintenance and repair goals, and absolutely MUST be paired with adequate alternative service. The Coalition for Smarter Growth has outlined several principles along these lines.

Metro already suspended late-night service months ago without providing replacement bus service. As a result, Metro has been wasting money running nighttime buses that begin/end their routes at shuttered Metro stations like Pentagon, King Street, and Rhode Island Avenue. Regardless of WMATA’s ultimate decision regarding service hours, this farcical and inexcusable situation must end.

Thank you for the opportunity to address the region’s critical mobility needs.

Idle speculation: downtown Brunswick, Pierce School

Some people watch “House Hunters” for hours on end, and others peruse Curbed to imagine themselves inside huge mansions. Personally, I’m partial to idly imagining what could happen with those quirky old buildings that show up on the commercial listings.

brunswick

Rough outline of the two Brunswick properties. (Pictometry, via Bing Maps)

1. The property: Two business-zoned buildings on the main street of Brunswick, Maryland, a commuter-rail town that’s 15 miles to Frederick or 18 miles to Leesburg. The train trip to Washington Union Station is about 90 minutes, or it’s a a good bike trip — 55 miles up the C&O towpath from Georgetown, or via the W&OD and pretty country roads from Arlington. Brunswick has an almost-intact core of historic houses and shops, perched above the Potomac River, with great views of hills and woods and a railyard (yay). It’s a railroad town that was incorporated only in 1890, so its detached frame houses have an unusually Midwestern feel. There’s free weekend parking at the MARC station, at lower left in the photo.

  • 3-story (plus walk-out basement) main street commercial building at 102 W. Potomac St., $875,000. 14,000 square feet in a 1908 Romanesque Revival building. Includes mid-block gravel parking lot, which is beside this building and behind church.
  • Former New Hope United Methodist Church, 7 S. Maryland Ave., $450,000. 15,000 square feet in a 1851 building facing a side street, including a 200-seat chapel (on left, gabled roof) and a 1,300 sq ft fellowship hall (I’m guessing that’s on the right, under the flat roof).

The problem: Brunswick is cheap, but it’s just a bit too far from the metro area to draw commuters (45 minute drive to either Dulles or Rock Spring), and it’s not exciting enough to be a day-trip destination. Old churches are expensive to reconfigure and maintain, and churches can be picky sellers. The commercial building is priced well above its assessed value of $571,800. The buildings’ configuration puts 3/4 of the space at ground or basement level, which is problematic given the limited market for retail.

Suggested buyer: An inn-restaurant catering to food/wine tourism, using the McMenamin’s model. Brunswick is accessible by commuter rail and highway, and sits between the renowned and thriving wine/beer/cider industries of Frederick County and Loudoun County — which have surprisingly few non-auto-oriented lodging options for weekend tourists. (Besides some B&Bs, Leesburg has one inn.) Downtown Brunswick is sleepy, but has signs of life: there’s already a brewery a block over, a coffeeshop in an adjacent old church, a B&B two doors down the side street, and a railroad museum. The building has event spaces, a catering kitchen, enough space for about 15 rooms upstairs, and on-site space for deliveries, tour buses, etc.

An alternate plan: the Potomac Street building might pencil out as loft apartments upstairs and a production-on-premises retailer (e.g., these neighbors) in the lower floors.

2. The property: Former Pierce School, 1375 Maryland Ave NE, Washington, D.C., $7,250,000. This decommissioned public school, just a block from the Atlas Theater and H Street, achieved some notoriety when it was last on the market in 2014 [WSJ, UrbanTurf]. A multifamily developer bought the old school and converted it to 10 units — seven normal-sized loft apartments, two flats in an adjacent house, and one absurdly tricked-out, 9,500-square-foot penthouse with ceilings up to 32′ high, five bedrooms, an office, a screening room, and a roof deck.

The problem: The (correct) thinking in 2014 was that the property fell through the gap between two kinds of buyers: landlords and upper-bracket homebuyers. As the seller told UrbanTurf, “the penthouse unit, being so large, does not appeal to a traditional multi-family buyer, and the many folks that wanted the penthouse did not want to be bothered by rental units.” (As the real estate saying goes, “fall in love with your pro forma [spreadsheet], not your project.” Oops.) The asking price has gone back up, after having fallen to $6.5M, and even at the lower price DC’s rent control limits the upside.

Suggested buyer: A boarding-house, perhaps run by a national cultural institute that wants to foster international artistic ties, or a particularly wealthy commune (er, co-living arrangement). As hinted above, the RF-1 zoning doesn’t permit subdividing the penthouse into smaller units by-right; it would have to be rezoned (a contentious process) and then major construction would ensue. But since the building was a school, there are unusual uses permitted under its zoning (PDF):

  • Art center, incubator, or school; local serving community service use (sec 252)
  • Boarding house, maximum 8 residents, minimum 3 month stay (sec 301)
  • Nonprofit or government uses (by special exception)

The penthouse could be reconfigured as an arts incubator with six resident artists (on 3+ month rotations), with its ample entertaining rooms reconfigured as shared studio/teaching/event spaces. If the penthouse truly requires $12,500 a month (the asking rate when it was put on the market in 2015) to pencil out, it’s a much easier sell as creative office space for $16/sq ft.

Or, with modest reconfiguration, the building could make a luxe university branch campus with offices and classrooms upstairs, and dorm rooms carved from the apartments.

How housing supply/demand imbalance remained for an entire generation

Chuck Marohn puzzled a bit over housing costs over at Strong Towns last week, writing that “You can’t sustain increasing demand while also sustaining increasing prices and increasing supply.”

Wiltberger St NW

Would you pay $700/sq. ft. for this 2-bedroom alley house? Somebody did, paying 170% above its 2006 tax value. Sure, valuation growth like that isn’t sustainable, but what about our cities is?

You can if (1) demand grows just a bit faster than supply, or if (2) incomes are growing, or if (3) slightly more income can go towards housing — and certainly so if all three occur. Indeed, all three of these dynamics have sustained housing price inflation in gateway cities over the past generation.

This inflation has been politically possible because many existing residents (and thus voters) are sheltered from the resulting affordability crisis. Only a minority of people are exposed to housing affordability; most current residents are sheltered from price increases, having purchased or rented their housing at yesterday’s market prices. It’s pretty much only in-migrants who have to pay today’s housing prices, and since they’re migrants, they don’t vote. In-migrants are also a surprisingly small share of Americans: in any given year, fewer than 3% of Americans move across state or national borders.

1. Between job growth, smaller households, and natural growth, housing demand is increasing faster than population (and construction) in many metro areas. This has been the case in California for decades; the LAO’s 2015 paper estimates that since 1980 (my entire lifetime!), California has built 100,000 fewer units every year than it should, and yet (a) demand to live in California continues, although definitely abated; (b) prices have skyrocketed; (c) construction has added some new supply.

2. Median incomes nationally have been flat for the past generation, but macroeconomic shifts have led incomes in the richest gateway cities to soar (also see this Economist briefing). This is especially true at the top of the distribution, due to rising overall inequality. The minority of households that are exposed to high prices may very well be able to afford those prices in these cities, explain Gyourko, Mayer, and Sinai in their paper on ‘superstar cities’: “Recent movers into superstar cities are more likely to have high incomes and less likely to be poor, than recent movers into other cities… In short, residence in superstar cities and towns has become a luxury good. The cities’ increases in housing price appear to outstrip known productivity increases and the value of any additional amenities.”

Since only a small proportion of housing units trade hands each year (only 1-2% of households move into brand-new housing in any given year), “superstar cities” with rising incomes at the top and relatively few houses available see “new money” outbidding others for those few units, pulling prices up. Because house prices are based on comps, prices for other houses also rise. As Matlack and Vigdor write, “In tight housing markets, the poor do worse when the rich get richer.”

I know this seems insane, but income inequality has gotten so far out of hand that in many cities super-luxury housing is under-supplied, with tremendous consequences all the way down the housing ladder. There are over a thousand Bay Area households with million-dollar bank accounts for every single house that came on the market last year in Atherton, the choicest of Bay Area towns. Hence, house prices in Atherton have doubled in four years.*

3. Metro economies have evolved in lots of small ways to cope with higher housing prices at the margin. At first glance, “the poor will always be with us,” but in reality metro areas differ very substantially in terms of their economic makeup. Having moved from low-cost Chicago to high-cost DC, I’ve noticed that this slowly-accumulating, giant gift to high-cost-regions’ landlords has been cobbled together by squeezing a few dollars here and there from other sectors:
– Higher labor costs: the minimum wage here is about 15% higher, and high-labor-input services (like haircuts) cost substantially more here, because the staff earn more.
– A shift towards higher-wage work and reduced labor inputs (see #2 above). There are, of course, lots of well-paid jobs in DC; nearly half of households here earn over $100K. Many dual-income “power couples” who have no problem with the local cost of living. But there are surprisingly few on-site support staff for them, and instead there’s often off-site help. Even in labor-intensive industries like restaurants, on-site prep work can be minimized by relying on commissaries and distributors based in cheaper cities. (You can forget about Jacobsean “import substitution.”) Anecdotally, I’ve heard that employers are willing to make do with thinner staffing here than elsewhere.
– People work more; DC’s female labor force participation rate is 15% higher than Chicago’s.
– Housing itself can’t be substituted (everyone needs somewhere to live), but houses can be. People downgrade their locations or living standards, living in smaller or lower-quality housing units in less desirable neighborhoods than they otherwise would. They also “pay” for housing with long commutes, often from what are technically other metro areas.
– People borrow more. DC has more mortgages and higher student-loan bills than any other metro.
– People spend more on housing, and less on other goods and services. Brookings’ Natalie Holmes notes that the 20th-percentile unit in DC costs 48% of a 20th-percentile income, vs. 38% for a 20th-percentile individual in Denver.

That these coping mechanisms exist by no means implies that high prices are benign. From a local economic development standpoint, high housing prices don’t just deter potential employers, but also vacuum up dollars that could be more useful elsewhere in the local economy. Rent checks, unlike haircuts or restaurant meals, don’t have big job multipliers. As a Global Cities Business Alliance report puts it:

Citizens are spending money on accommodation that they would readily divert to goods and services if their housing costs were lower… the money ‘trapped’ in the housing market runs to billions… Unleashing this spending would in turn boost business revenues and create more jobs. Assuming that businesses were to channel all additional revenue into employment, we estimate that Beijing could generate more than 400,000 new jobs, Mexico City more than 200,000, São Paulo more than 143,000, and Hong Kong nearly 148,000.

* Chuck’s follow-up post posits that property owners are speculating on upzoning. This line of reasoning is beloved by so-called “SF progressives,” who relish pinning the blame for everything upon evil, greedy developers and the obnoxious “kids these days” who inevitably fill their apartments. Yet this densification/speculation theory cannot explain the skyrocketing housing prices that are at the very epicenter of America’s metro affordable housing crisis — in places that have zero multifamily growth and zero transit investment, but LOTS of high-wage jobs, like Atherton, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, or Chevy Chase in Maryland, or the Hamptons. Atherton is the most extreme example: the town banned all multifamily housing and sued to stop transit, and yet house prices have doubled in four years.

Perhaps, instead of transit-oriented speculation, exclusionary, single-family-only snob zoning has left supply and demand imbalanced. Believe it or not, the demand for $3M houses in Atherton vastly exceeds the supply of $3M houses, so the $3M houses have been bid up to become $6M houses. I know this seems insane, but there are over a thousand Bay Area households with million-dollar bank accounts for every single Atherton house that came on the market last year.

There are also many fashionable urban neighborhoods where housing prices have spiraled even while housing unit density is declining: the demand for mansions is so high that humble apartment buildings get demolished for glamorous single-family houses. (Once again, life imitates the Onion.) This was even the case in my onetime home of Bucktown in Chicago, where the ward boss infamously handed out spot rezonings upon “request”; in theory, these could have been used to add units, but in practice the McMansions just got fatter.