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.”

 

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Friday photo: A balcony to nowhere

Twinbrook Hilton, faux John Portman

Twinbrook Hilton, Rockville, Md.

Architect John Portman was fond of putting “balconies” around the edges of his hotels’ massive atria. Perhaps this was part of the concurrent “conversation pit” trend that afflicted malls of that era, maybe people really did just pause and gawk at the tremendous volumes while walking to/fro the elevators, or maybe he liked the “columns around the Forum” look that they lend to the interior. Yet… nobody quite knows what to do with them today.

Who, after all, has need to stop and gather in a hotel hallway, the very definition of a neither-public-nor-private space? Why not go to the lobby, if it’s a public conversation, or into a room?

At the faux-Portman Twinbrook Hilton in Rockville,* the management was sick of complaints from atrium-facing rooms (one-third of the total) about nighttime noise. One option was to replace the atrium-facing windows with airport-style noise-insulating glass, but ultimately it proved cheaper to just wall off the entire atrium with a curtain-wall system – including putting these silly aluminum doors to wall off the balconies. Maybe someday they’ll put furniture out there, which surely will just gather dust. Or maybe there really are people who use these spaces, like maybe gossipy 8th graders on school trips who don’t want to keep their roommates/chaperones awake. (Isn’t that what Snapchat is for?)

Of course, that particular solution is still better than the temporary option I once spotted at the true-Portman Bonaventure, apparently aimed at LA’s exhibitionist-fitness-enthusiast crowd:

Pod people

Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles, Calif.

* I remember once staying here as a child and getting evacuated from the building by an overnight fire alarm, in my first (but definitely not last) high-rise fire alarm experience.

Friday photos: Jane Jacobs in Georgetown

 

Farewell Georgetown, C&O Canal

Grace Street, between Chaia and Dog Tag Bakery

There’s one passage in Death and Life where Jane Jacobs singles out the District for praise. Not surprisingly, it’s for the back streets of Georgetown, which (of course) house some of my favorite little eateries.

In city districts that become successful or magnetic, streets are virtually never made to disappear. Quite the contrary. Where it is possible, they multiply. Thus in the Rittenhouse Square district of Philadelphia and in Georgetown in the District of Columbia, what were once back alleys down the centers of blocks have become streets with buildings fronting on them, and users using them like streets. In Philadelphia, they often include commerce.

Cady's Alley shared street

Cady’s Alley, a shared street, with Leopold’s Kafe

Georgetown passages

C&O Towpath at 31st St., with Sushi to Go. Baked & Wired, Il Canale, and Snap Cafe are around the corner.

Georgetown passages

The newly opened Sovereign lies just behind the 100% corner at Wisconsin & M, at the end of an unnamed alley. More retail is planned for the interior of this block, between M, Wisconsin, Prospect, and Potomac.

Friday photo: Shared space, residential parking-lot edition

Sofia Lofts, San Diego, CA

The ULI Case Study that I wrote about Sofia Lofts, a 17-apartment development in a neighborhood in eastern San Diego, was recently posted. I was particularly intrigued by how the developer/architects used shared space to maximize usable open space while meeting the letter of the law with regard to parking requirements:

For the balance of the 21 [parking] spaces planned, six more garages are accessed via the courtyard. The plans show seven more spaces within the courtyard itself, immediately in front of the garages — but to keep the space inviting, the spaces in the courtyard are off limits for tenant parking. It’s a small net loss for NDD, which discounts the rent for some tenants who forgo on-site parking, but results in a common area that looks like an expansive garden, rather than a parking lot.

The materials used within the courtyard were also chosen to make the garden feel like a place where cars just happen to be allowed. Part of the driveway near the alley is paved with concrete, but the center of the property is covered in pea-sized gravel. The texture of the gravel slows down cars to walking speed, adds visual and auditory interest, and permits rainwater to filter through. Its inspiration comes from a house in Italy that the Nakhshab family lived in; as Soheil recalls, “The courtyard we would always play in had that type of gravel, and we are seeing the tenants’ children doing the same thing.”

Help, a mall ate my walk shed

Mall entrance

The entrance to Hong Kong’s airport express train is somewhere within this mall. The cross-border bus terminal entrance is somewhere else entirely, and the actual “public” spaces are completely dispiriting.

When I was a small child, John Portman-style complexes were architecture’s futuristic vision: Someday, we’d all live in hermetically sealed downtown compounds of office and hotel skyscrapers set atop multi-story podiums.

My family stayed in several of these hotels on trips; sometimes, my mom would tell me about how she, as a child in Hong Kong, had dreamed of a city of skyscrapers and layers of indoor shops, all suspended above grade so that buses, boats, and cars could fill the ground plane.

That hyper-dense Modernist vision eventually came to pass in much of central Hong Kong, fed by not only its unique geography but also by its unique private-provision model for both rail and property. There’s danger, it turns out, in putting developers in charge of your rail stations; the “gift horse” of free infrastructure comes with strings attached.

When private firms are put in charge of designing pedestrian circulation networks, they will place their values — primarily shuffling eyeballs past storefronts — over the public’s need for legible, direct links from A to B. The tremendously high value of rail access behooves developers to elbow their way closer to the station; the location imperative isn’t to be near transit, it is to be at transit; to make it not just easy, but necessary to traverse their property. And, once the development has cornered the transit station, it will seek to entrap the resulting pedestrian flows within a spiderweb of passages. As Chris DeWolf writes:

Last month, a survey of 657 Tsim Sha Tsui pedestrians conducted by urban design watchdog Designing Hong Kong revealed that 77 percent prefer using street-level crossings over footbridges and subways… “The problem is that bridges and tunnels force you into particular routes that limit your ability to take the shortest path,” says Designing Hong Kong convenor Paul Zimmerman. “People also pick attractive routes. That’s a very qualitative statement, but part of what makes a route attractive is being able to see other people, to window shop, to have an experience. With subways and footbridges that becomes quite limited.”

An early version of this phenomenon can be seen in Montreal’s underground city, the most valuable retail frontage is as close to the train platforms as possible. Thus (almost as in casinos) the developers twist and turn the corridors to herd people past the shops. Future iterations of the phenomenon will soon be unveiled at the World Trade Center mall and at Hudson Yards.

Edit 17 Jan 17: Henry Grabar in Gothamist writes of “the oculus”: “If Grand Central is a train station with some shops, the Oculus is a shopping center with some trains.”

New PATH - WTC underground passage

Want to get to the PATH, or cross West Street to get to the Hudson? You’ll have to walk down this hall, and oh by the way there are plenty of shopping opportunities.  

A similar landscape may be emerging at Tysons Corner, where the in-process retrofitted suburbia — now and forevermore ridden with alienating highways — shows little sign of ever becoming a Greenwich Village sort of urbanism with small blocks of public streets lined with small-but-tall buildings. Instead, the spatial complexity that’s emerging is of a very different, much more Portman-esque sort. Philip Kennicott writes in the Post:

The decision to elevate the stations — a far less expensive approach than burying them — may well presage this sleek new world of elevated plazas and public areas, disconnected from the ground. A new office building across from the Tysons Corner station is built atop a parking garage, so that at ground level one faces a seemingly impenetrable plinth. Already, a web of pedestrian bridges — some built by Metro, others by private developers — is emerging, keeping us safely above the world of machines and hydrocarbons and asphalt…

One wonders if you will emerge from these stations with [a] sense of pleasant surprise and rootedness in the urban landscape… Likely not. Rather, you will emerge, slightly disoriented by the ever sameness of the commercial and physical space around you, wondering for a moment if you have arrived at the right station, before your basic sense of purpose — to get home, to find a restaurant, to locate a shop — kicks in, and you begin to move by habit and instinct through a pleasantly unobtrusive world of concrete and glass that could be anywhere.

Tysons Corner Center expansion

Tysons Corner Center’s “Metro Plaza” under construction. At left, the bridge to the station, at right, the bridge to the mall.

At Tysons Corner Center, the megamall at the heart of Tysons, building a bridge keeps the distance from station to mall is 300 feet — a 1.6 minute walk. The bridge siphons customers directly into the mall, creating tremendous value in three dimensions: “You’ve got a first floor on the first floor and a first floor on the second floor, so you’ve solved the verticality problem” [of pulling mall foot traffic from the entry to different levels], Timothy Steffan, an executive for mall owner Macerich, told the Post’s Jonathan O’Connell.

This Disney-esque strategy of spiriting people directly into an immersive environment has ample precedent: in fact, Roppongi Hills, a fantastically successful redevelopment in the heart of Tokyo, also uses an elevated plaza to deliver customers from the subway onto the development’s podium. The experience for customers who drive in is akin to what Rick Caruso’s malls or skyway’d downtowns provide: parking garages deadening the street environment all around, but a fantastic public space within. Sure, bus and bike customers have to deal with an ugly exterior, but the privileged modes (driving and heavy rail) get the red carpet.

Amazingly not Portman: Plaza of the Americas

Skyway urbanism in Dallas

My first instinct is to warn “creative” policymakers to be careful what you wish for: these projects result in such high cost and complexity that the only financially worthwhile result is a giant mall. They’re so huge, boring, and bland because of private value capture. Finding room in a private developer’s pro forma to build expensive underground rail infrastructure requires selling stupendous quantities of expensive corporate real estate, which will never be cool and lively. It also requires generous, greenfield-esque parcel sizes. In the worst case scenario, the project fails, and there’s nothing worse than a white elephant in the middle of the room.

Yet as dispiriting as these initial examples are, there’s a glimmer of hope that they’ll eventually be okay. With enough time, enough density, and enough owners, even these bland malls could evolve into something interesting. Hong Kong’s experience shows how the weird linkages that result from generations of ad-hoc decisions and relentless foot-traffic flows have created a hyper-dense end result that can be beautifully complex in a postmodern, emergent-urbanism way. This isn’t immediately apparent from the workaday commercial architecture, but can be mesmerizing when expressed in diagram form — as the recent book Cities Without Ground shows (high-res image slideshow). A two-dimensional plan, or even a figure-ground diagram, is useless when expressing vertical spaces.

Hong Kong architect Peter Cookson Smith described this structure in more essentialist terms in The Urban Design of Impermanence (pg. 84; excerpt):

A cityscape of streets, internalized routes and multi-level links, even without clear articulation, is open to casual exploration, and there is little need for city form to be overly organized or pronounced in order to be legible… This underlines an essential difference between the formal framework of Western public spaces and the more diffused and informal realm of social space associated with the Hong Kong street, where the relationship between public and private spaces is less tangible, and the routes between them work just as effectively in three dimensions as in two.

Perhaps China’s homogeneity and sheer density (bear in mind this is about 1-2 orders of magnitude higher than urban America’s) might increase social trust and thus break down the hierarchy of spaces — people there feel more comfortable wandering down dark alleys. Yet perhaps we could shortcut to that future: emerging spatial technologies, like smartphone-based mapping, are quickly obviating highly legible spatial hierarchies. Customers can now just as easily find a shop hidden in the back corner of a buildings as one that shouts its presence with highway-sized signs.

Or maybe not. Toronto’s PATH system is now 40-odd years old, serves more than 100,000 pedestrians a day (so many that its closure would send downtown into gridlock), and has apparently outcompeted street-level retail spaces. It’s also a navigational nightmare of corporate sameness, according to Spacing’s Kieran Delamont:

The PATH is a mall, first and foremost. Beyond access to over half a dozen food courts, at least two massage parlours, and more sushi restaurants than I cared to count, I put it to you that, with its existing wayfinding system still in place, the PATH offers nothing especially preferable over supra-terranean navigation… It is a seemingly endless maze of mall corridors, hallways, and atriums. Unless you are a person for whom the distinctions between Jamba Juice and Jugo Juice are particularly meaningful, everything in this place feels exactly the same; with each new tunnel you encounter in here, the space expands physically while being visually constricted. Because this space lacks the distinctive landmarks that you often find above ground, there is very little to distinguish it from every other mall you’ve been in. The more of it you explore, the less it feels like you could ever remember any of it…

The balance between mall and transit network is slanted heavily towards the PATH’s commercial interests; the dominant incentive of the landowners is to keep you in their slice of the PATH, not to move you through efficiently.

What we need are architects and developers who understand that, and aren’t afraid to create more interesting, if less-legible and less predictable, places — perhaps even fractal-like, medieval-esque street plans in three dimensions.

Sai Yeung Choi St

America’s lower urban densities mean that our over-commercialized transit districts may never quite achieve this level of spatial complexity, but by golly, why not try? 

[Previous transit-station walk shed coverage: walk sheds & excessively grand rail stations, walk sheds & water transit]

CNU conversations: If CBAs are broken, should they be turned upside down?

Demolition

Redevelopment of Alexandria public housing near Braddock Metro in 2013. The slightly taller buildings with gables in the back include replacement units.

A subsequent conversation at CNU bemoaned how “tollbooth zoning” (as Ben Ross calls it) has turned everyone into their worst nightmare of a money-grubbing Chicago machine pol, rasping “ubi est mea?” over a cigar.

In Chicago, it was simple — you paid, you played. You want to build something? Fine, pay up and we’ll talk. In cities today, it’s pretty much the same. We’re systematically under-zoning (and over-planning) everything to maximize the possible value granted through zoning relief, and demanding the difference back through legalized bribes we call community benefits agreements.

Yet because CBAs’ contents are up for negotiation at one point in time, communities end up with whatever’s convenient, not what’s actually needed. The results can be baffling. One local municipality has a surfeit of small, black-box theaters that don’t get used, since theaters can only be purchased in increments of one, and the cheapest performing-arts giveaway is a black-box theater. (Someday, I’ll pull together a tour of the laughable “arts spaces” that zoning’s required around Penn Quarter.)

The most obvious solution would be to buy upzones using cold, hard cash on a per-foot basis, but that’s not allowed — if it’s a tax (or impact fee), it requires a nexus. [Update: Of course, Chicago has since devised a cash-for-upzoning scheme.] So instead, communities get whatever the developer feels generous enough to give. Not to mention that the entire process, since it’s all boils down to political power, favors those who already have political power — large, well-connected developers vs. squeaky-wheel communities. Small developers get shut out of any opportunity to build, and disempowered communities (the homeless, for instance) never get a chance.

Now, since we’ve established that the zoning is entirely arbitrary anyways, why not flip the equation and start with the community benefits? The quantity of stuff permitted on the site ultimately doesn’t matter as much as the quality of what goes there.

This “upside down pro forma” is already being done in several instances, notably in situations where municipalities are seeking to maximize affordable housing output. For instance, cities that have committed to 1:1 public housing replacement — as HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program does — have long had to work backwards to find enough market-rate units to make the pro forma pencil out. Alexandria has operated under a 1:1 public housing replacement policy since 1972 (“Resolution 830,” PDF), and the results are very impressive — seamlessly integrated urban fabric, both socially and physically.

Canada never had HOPE VI as federal policy, and its municipalities have a firmer hand in land use control. (For instance, Ontario’s Section 37 permits cash payments within a negotiated CBA. Sounds filthy, but actually cash is nice in that it’s easily measured.) So, working backwards from the benefits to the proposal isn’t unusual.

Woodward's

The art inside the Woodward’s enclosed retail court shows a police riot that took place nearby.

In Vancouver, the mind-bogglingly complex Woodward’s redevelopment used a public RFP process to stack a vertical mixed-use community with just about everything onto an abandoned department-store block right on Skid Row.

In Toronto, zoning bonuses paid for a 68-unit artist live/work space. Regent Park’s redevelopment has created 1:1 replacement units, plus 15% so far. As part of the development agreement, space for social infrastructure was built early on; the Daniels Spectrum “includes several state-of-the-art performance spaces, a locally run café, a green roof, and two floors for various educational, arts and community groups that have long operated in and around Regent Park. Many relied on informal or rented space, and some had been uprooted when the demolition began. The need for this kind of social infrastructure remained.”

Regent Park redevelopment continues

Regent Park in Toronto, where a commitment to better than 1:1 replacement housing (and additional retail and social services) is resulting in much higher densities.

That’s certainly one approach for maximizing the community benefits, but it introduces a few huge risks. It still only works for huge projects, it still relies on political power, and it still subjects the CBA to the fads of the moment. And what happens if the approach fails? The developer might just decide there’s nothing in it and walk away. (Another argument for good phasing.)

Friday photo: a minimalist memorial

Richmond riverfront

The 1865 Exhibit,” a surprisingly moving exhibit (full text) comprises of a terse timeline (pictured here: “Richmond surrenders”), plus primary-source quotes from the three-day liberation of Richmond. Obviously, the surroundings help: swirling waters, road and rail traffic on bridges old and new, the city skyline and the woods.

A soldier with the 11th Connecticut, quoted in James Loewen’s Lies Across America in its chapter about the curious then-omission of Richmond’s liberation from the city’s landscape:

Our reception was grander and more exultant than even a Roman emperor, leading back his victorious legions with the spoils of conquest, could ever know… The slaves seemed to think that their day of jubilee had fully come. How they danced, shouted, waved their rag banners, shook our hands, bowed, scraped, laughed all over, and thanked God, too, for our coming.

Sometime soon, the walkway (built over a dam that fed an adjacent canal) will again cross the river.