Testimony on Comp Plan update, Ward 6

Thanks to Councilmember Allen for this opportunity to speak. I’m Payton Chung, LEED Accredited Professional in Neighborhood Development, and I have 20 years of experience in urban planning policy, notably in urban design and affordable housing.

Comprehensive planning is how a city adapts to an inevitable future. No plan, and indeed no action a city can take, can prevent that future from occurring.

One inevitable aspect of the future that deeply worries me, as one of the three billion humans living near sea level, is climate change. I previously testified that the updated comp plan does an adequate job of outlining several of the challenges and forward steps that DC will need to take over the next decade to forestall and adapt to the climate catastrophe. If left unchecked, many of Ward 6’s most vulnerable areas, for example the James Creek corridor along Delaware Ave SW, will be uninhabitable within my lifetime. I also testified earlier that the next iteration of the Comp Plan should address this existential threat to DC’s future as its foundation, not as one element among many.

I’d like to briefly touch upon the price of housing. Increased rents cause new buildings, not the other way around. Once rents surpass a level that can pay the surprisingly high underlying cost to build new houses, then new buildings will get built. Stopping new buildings might avoid offending some people’s aesthetic sensibilities, but does absolutely nothing to change the underlying demand for new housing. We can see this in the fact that rents have increased faster in Capitol Hill, with almost no new housing construction, than in Capitol Riverfront, which has lots of new housing construction

I’m glad that the comp plan accepts that more houses are needed right here in Ward 6. Ward 6 residents enjoy many transportation choices, and so we produce far less carbon per capita than most Americans. The most effective contribution that neighborhoods like ours can make to the climate crisis is to let some more people in on our secret, and allow more neighbors to benefit from this fantastic location. To be clear, almost all of DC’s population growth results from babies that are born here, so growth is a matter of letting children stay here, not a matter of outsiders vs. insiders and us vs. them.

DC alone can’t change growing income and wealth inequality, or the fact that new houses are expensive to build – though it must continue to expand subsidies to help lower income residents access homes in high opportunity areas. But moderate- and middle-income residents could afford new construction on the private market, if only it were legal to build new homes everywhere, not just in a few tiny areas that I’ve called “instant neighborhoods,” and the comp plan calls Land Use Change Areas. This comp plan update begins to soften the distinction between Land Use Change Areas and Neighborhood Conservation Areas. That distinction has succeeded too well at comforting the District’s already comfortable single-family homeowners, sometimes overwhelming LUCAs with lots of change all at once, and pushing all new housing demand into high-rise apartments, which are the absolute most expensive kind of house to construct.

DC’s zoning makes it illegal to build all but the most expensive possible houses: detached palaces surrounded by huge yards in Ward 3, or high-rise studios surrounded by costly concrete and steel in Ward 6. Yet somehow, we act surprised that housing costs are out of reach. Allowing a broader variety of housing choices across the entire spectrum of housing types and neighborhoods, and particularly making it simpler to add new units in less costly low-rise apartments, will better balance the housing market and make sure that our housing dollars, whether private or public, go further.

Idle speculation: podium apartments, floating above a parking lot

Podium construction: if it's good enough for these guys, it's good enough for you

As of 2015, the IBC now permits multi-story concrete podiums. At first, this was mostly of interest because it permitted even taller “double podium” apartment buildings, with up to eight stories framed mostly in wood.

This diagram (by Nadel, Inc. for Multifamily Executive) shows the effect between The Podium and The (Double) Podium: you can squeeze an additional floor in above grade, and because it’s concrete (heavy line) it can be used for residential, retail, or parking.

Yet using that magical concrete-framed second floor for residential (which could just as easily be wood-framed) seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Instead, the second floor could be a mezzanine parking level for the wood-framed residential above — as was done in the mixed-use Grey House at River Oaks District pictured above, or in this mixed-use development on LA’s Olympic Blvd.

The real breakthrough possibility for the parking mezzanine isn’t atop retail, though: it’s atop yet more parking.

It just so happens that a 65-75′ wide module fits either a double-loaded apartment building or a double-loaded parking aisle. Therefore, a four-story building (three floors of Type V residential, one level of parking) can be stacked atop an existing aisle of parking — without diminishing the existing parking lot, and without excavating any parking.

It’s the suburban infill version of “have your cake and eat it, too”: keep your parking and add infill housing, too.

3 over 2

Developing these air-rights infill parcels used to require some pretty tremendous trade-offs. The first such projects that I saw were designed by Gary Reddick, a Portland architect who won a CNU Charter Award in 2004 for two such projects. Jury chair Ellen Dunham-Jones subsequently wrote about these in HDM:

In Seattle and Portland, where there are very good markets for residential development, Sienna convinced a variety of non-residential building owners to sell the air rights over their parking lots or roofs for housing. In Portland’s desirable and compact Northwest neighborhood, Sienna saw the parking lot of a specialized medical center as a potential housing site. After producing a pro forma, the firm approached the owners and showed that it could provide them with a covered, forty-three-space parking lot (with only three fewer spaces than before) and a million-dollar profit in exchange for stacking an additional layer of parking (with a separate entry) and two stories of condominiums. The built project, Northrup Commons, screens the parking with duplexes entered from the streets and adds two floors of apartments.

This turns out to be tough to replicate elsewhere. Because the residential comes with its own parking requirement, fully replacing the on-site parking requires adding parking somewhere else — either building a new parking lot elsewhere, or digging underground, at super-high cost ($11 million at one Seattle project). Most of the Sienna projects, including Northrup, used sloping sites (common in the Northwest) to tuck one parking level partially or fully underground.

tyson

Since the resulting buildings would block visibility and doesn’t result in an active ground-floor frontage, this particular infill seems best for infilling around Class B offices that currently sit adrift in a moat of parking — such as the above complex on Old Courthouse Road, at the southern fringe of Tysons Corner (image from Bing Maps). Or, many properties along this stretch of the infamous Executive Boulevard near White Flint (image from Google Earth):

exec

* A rough assumption here is that each 1,000 sq. ft. apartment would have one parking space, which works out to about 3:1 residential:parking floor space. The ratio seems to work for the Houston example, which promises its residents the ability to park in-building rather than having to venture outdoors. Sufficient parking for rich Houstonians is probably enough for anyone.

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:

 

Amazon’s HQ2 RFP prioritizes site readiness and talent, not incentives

Parking crater at Spooky Park, Yards

Site availability, not incentives, are of “paramount importance” to Amazon.

A lot of the early press around the Amazon HQ2 announcement zeroed in on the usual economic-development narrative of a company shopping around for incentives. Yet a close reading of the RFP reveals that incentives are actually a middling concern for Amazon.

The RFP reveals (as Benjamin Romano also writes) that Amazon feels that it’s outgrown Seattle; they feel as if they’ve hired everyone in Seattle who could work for them, and growth requires tapping into a new labor pool. The company isn’t hungry for cash; it needs people, space, and speed.

I’ve plucked out the various considerations listed in the RFP and rearranged them roughly in order of urgency:

“Paramount importance”

  • “Finding suitable buildings/sites,” i.e., initial size of 500,000+ (up to 1.0 MSF) available in 2019, expandable nearby to 3.5 – 6 MSF over three phases and potentially up to 8 MSF beyond 2027
    • Keep in mind that a high-rise office building takes about a year to build, so groundbreaking should occur by mid-2018
    • For perspective: the TSA just awarded a build-to-suit contract for a 625,000 sq. ft. headquarters on a greenfield site in Springfield, Virginia, where the buildings are drawn, the developer has cash in the bank, the land is already cleared, and the office will open in late 2020
  • “Optimal fiber connectivity”

“Must be” or “required”

  • Close to a significant population center that can fill 50,000 jobs (many of them technical)… Direct access to significant population centers with eligible employment pools
  • Strong university system
  • Compatible cultural and community environment, diverse population, higher ed, officials eager to work with company

“Critical”

  • Highly educated labor pool
  • Initial and ongoing costs
  • Travel/logistics for employees and to other facilities
  • Site has access, utilities, zoning

“High-priority considerations”

  • Stable and business-friendly environment and tax structure

“Key factor”

  • Travel time to major highways and arterial roadway capacity

“Significant factors”

  • Incentives offered by state/province, local communities

“Important”

  • Near airport with daily flights to SEA, NYC, QSF, WAS
  • Stable and consistent business climate (demonstrated via testimonials from other large companies)

“Ideally”

  • <30 miles to major city
  • <45 minutes to international airport
  • <1-2 miles to highways
  • 0 miles to mass transit (rail or bus)

“Preference for”

  • Metro with 1M+ people
  • Urban or suburban location to retain/attract technical talent
  • Communities that think big

“Want to”

  • Employees will enjoy living there, recreation, education, high quality of life

“Could be, but does not have to be”

  • Urban/downtown
  • Similar layout to Seattle campus
  • Development-prepped site

Site-specific statistics that must be provided, and therefore will be considered:

  • General site information
  • Ownership structure, notably if government owned
  • Current zoning
  • Utilities present
  • Total incentives offered and terms, if legislation is needed, estimate uncertainty thereof, timeline
  • Highway, airport travel
  • Transit options, including bike and pedestrian

Regional statistics that must be provided, and therefore will be considered:

  • Labor pool information
  • Ability to attract talent regionally
  • Opportunities to hire software engineers
  • Recurring sourcing for software engineers
  • “All levels of talent”
  • Executive labor pool
  • Existing and potential university-employer partnerships
  • List of higher ed institutions with relevant degrees
  • Number of recent grads
  • K-12 computer science programs
  • Transit and transportation options
  • Traffic congestion ranking
  • Quality of life
  • Recreational opportunities
  • Diversity of housing options
  • Availability of housing locally
  • Housing prices
  • Crime data (“also”)
  • Cost of living (“also”)

So, what locations make sense on the East Coast?

The RFP only calls out two criteria as “of paramount importance”: fiber data service, and having a shovel-ready site of 0.5-1.0 million sq ft, with on-site or adjacent expansion to 8 MSF.

The site not only should be zoned already, it needs to have utility capacity in place. The 2019 timeline leaves zero time for rezonings, public hearings, geological surprises, soil contamination, lease buy-outs, tenant relocation, wish-upon-a-star transit lines, etc. It means either clean dirt that’s ready to go, or a monster of a cold-shell building that already has construction crews hard at work.

It’s hard to overstate how enormous this project is. It’s more than the total commercial (retail, office, hotel) space that now exists at National Harbor. It’s more than the total commercial space contemplated in the long-range plans for Downtown Columbia or White Flint — much less what’s already gone through zoning approvals. It’s bigger than the entire Capital One campus plan at the McLean Metro, or Under Armour’s Port Covington campus plan in Baltimore. It’s more office space than even what could be built under the Navy Yard area’s zoning. It’s twice as big as the Pentagon.

The Greater Washington office market is the country’s third biggest, after NY and Chicago (other large cities’ employment bases are more industrial). This is one of a few regions in America where developers regularly propose 1+ MSF office sites — largely hoping for giant federal leases. (Granted, cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas often give away zoning for the asking; Toyota doubled its Plano campus’ size during negotiations.)

Most local sites might have shovel-ready space for Phase 1, but not necessarily plans in place to accommodate phases 2-3-4. Only two come to mind: Tysons Corner and Crystal City-Pentagon City.

  • Tysons: 50,000 jobs is a 50% increase on Tysons Corner’s current employment, and 25% of the 2050 “buildout” number there. As far as I can tell, no one owner at Tysons can accommodate the full 8 MSF buildout, but sites could be combined at two locations:
    • McLean station: Scotts Run, next to Cap One, is the largest single project at Tysons with approvals for about 4.5 MSF of office. Another 0.5 MSF has been approved in two parcels to its southwest, and the Mitre campus can also expand.
    • Tysons Corner station: Lerner has entitlements for an additional 2.3 MSF of office south of the Galleria, Arbor Row has approvals for another 1.1 MSF to its north, and Macerich has approval for another 0.5 MSF office tower south of the station. The Galleria itself hasn’t been rezoned yet, although one idea that’s been presented adds about 1 MSF of office; there are also sites to its west (closer to Greensboro station) that would still be within walking distance.
  • Crystal and Pentagon City have seen 20,000+ federal jobs in defense and homeland security depart since BRAC; there’s over 2 MSF of vacant office available today. What’s especially notable is that most of the offices are already controlled by one very interested  landlord (JBGS). There aren’t many closer analogues anywhere in America to their partnership with Vulcan in South Lake Union: one deep-pocketed owner, one neighborhood, and a placemaking/planning framework that forecasts tremendous growth.
    • [Updated 13 March 2018] From a JBGS filing: “Our holdings alone can accommodate Amazon’s entire long-term space requirement and we have a cost advantage over our competitors given the existing in-place parking and substantial infrastructure. Crystal City has plenty of capacity to accommodate Amazon or any large user looking for a sizeable home in an urban market.”
    • Crystal City has long-term plans to renew the existing buildings and expand office space by about 5 MSF net, including active or expired plans for 0.7 MSF at the vacant 1900 Crystal and 0.65 MSF at 223 23rd St. There’s also about 1 MSF vacant today, and over 1 MSF in 2018-2019 lease expirations that could free up sites for incremental additions.
    • Pentagon City has an entitled site for 2 MSF at the shovel-ready PenPlace, and two adjacent sites are also approved for ~1 MSF of office apiece: Brookfield’s TSA/DEA block (leases are up in 2018-2019) and Kimco’s Costco site.
    • Potomac Yard has a power center to redevelop, where JBG is a partner and could build 1.9 – 5.3 MSF of office after the new Metro station opens after 2020. (There’s vacant land in Arlington, too, but it’s owned by Lidl’s headquarters.)

These sites compare favorably to other leading East Coast contenders: Schuylkill Yards or UCity Square in Philadelphia and Seaport Square in Boston are by far those cities’ largest sites, with superior access to intercity transport and higher ed, but both are approved for only ~3 MSF of office. (The Philadelphia sites are adjacent to air-rights parcels that may be available later, and for which plans have been floated, but the metro area has a considerably smaller technical talent pool.) The Boston submission ended up focusing on the Suffolk Downs racetrack, which is centrally located within the region but clear across downtown from the region’s plush suburbs and educational institutions.

The obvious sites in downtown Atlanta, like the Gulch, are still visions rather than plans, with fragmented ownership and poor infrastructure/access. It appears 2 MSF of Class A office is vacant downtown, but by far the largest and highest-profile block is Bank of America Center, a mile north — and much closer to Tech and Midtown. Too bad the Gulch isn’t on the other side of downtown.

Colossal loft conversions might fit the bill elsewhere, as with the warm shell of Chicago‘s Old Main Post Office — one of the country’s biggest buildings at 2.5M sq. ft., and so impossibly huge that its size had been the stumbling block to several previous plans. It happens to sit astride a subway line, highway, and fiber lines, and within a block are three approved plans for five new build-to-suit office towers.

It could also spread across a few six-figure spaces on the Brooklyn waterfront; although the area’s comparatively small office market isn’t promising, industrial space is relatively plentiful.

The Dallas Morning News’ old printing plant and the mostly-empty Dallas Union Station building have a combined 425,000 square feet, and happen to sit next to not just many empty lots but also an iconic sphere thing.

Central city or suburbs?

Regarding HQ1, Bezos is on record saying, “We could have built a suburban campus… I think it would have been the wrong decision.” Amazon VP for global real estate John Schoettler echoes: “Jeff said the type of employees we want to hire and retain will want to live in an urban environment…. We could have gone to the suburbs, and we could have built a campus.”

Bezos was also heavily involved in siting the Washington Post’s new office. A key consultant says: “One discipline Bezos brought in was money… He saw [a fringe site] as a lot of empty holes, not urban-istic.”

Update May 2018: Arlington, TX confirms they were told “it wanted an already-developed urban core.”

Which locations have a deep enough talent pool to draw from?

A large labor force, primarily technical but also executive, is another “required” factor. Crain’s Detroit points out that “Amazon’s biggest business impediment is labor”: it has over 6,000 current vacancies in Seattle, 75% of which are technical. Real estate brokerage CBRE recently published a report, based on BLS data, comparing cities’ “tech talent” (“software developers and programmers; computer support, database and systems; technology and engineering related; and computer and information system managers”).

Three of CBRE’s charts stood out to me:

  1. 50,000 Amazon employees will include tens of thousands of software engineers, yet only 10 metro areas have more than 100,000 tech employees to begin with. For context, consider Amazon’s current need for 4,500 technical employees: hiring those people in Pittsburgh today would require poaching 11% of its tech workforce, 9% in St. Louis, or 7% in Raleigh. In Toronto or New York, you’d only have to convince 2% to leave their jobs, and in the Bay Area or Washington-Baltimore it’d be less than 1.5%.
  2. A key advantage for DC, Boston, or LA is that only these three regions export CS graduates in large numbers. Seattle, Atlanta, DFW, and the Bay Area already have to import thousands of tech employees a year; since there’s only a limited pool willing to pick up and move, recruiting thousands more every year could be that much more difficult. (The RFP specifically asks about university hiring partnerships.)
  3. Regarding costs, CBRE did an interesting analysis looking at the cost of running a 500-employee technology office. DC, Boston, and Seattle all come in at about the same price; SF is about 20% more. The big winner in that table is Toronto, with its large workforce and low wages — which more than offsets the relatively high cost of real estate there.

 

Smart growth and your Sierra Club local

Taking refuge
In California, trees hug you

I was recently updating the DC Sierra Club chapter’s web page on smart growth, on which I’ve added a few links to resources about the Club and Chapter’s heritage of smart growth advocacy. Even I was surprised at how thoroughly the Club’s key policies embrace smart growth.

The overarching “Sierra Club Strategic Plan Overarching Visionary Goals” document lists as two of its 21 strategies:

Maximize energy efficiency across all sectors, including transportation, urban design, and land use. […]

Protect our air, water, land, and communities from pollution. Promote environmentally sensitive land use and urban design to minimize sprawl, provide a healthy environment for all, and minimize resource use.

Interestingly, the strategy that calls to “Protect and restore wildlands and waterways” continues that those wildlands serve a specific, objective, quantifiable purpose: “to provide large and connected habitats.” Not to protect the favorite views of favored humans, or to protect property values for landowners, but to rescue non-human species from the threat of habitat fragmentation.

The Club’s Infill Policy, adopted in May 2019, is unequivocal:

An essential strategy for reducing urban related carbon emissions is supporting dense, mixed-use communities and land uses that prioritize walking, biking or transit to meet daily transportation needs, as well as balancing jobs and housing within the region. If we make communities not only dense, but inclusive, then fewer people will have to drive till they qualify for housing financing, saving even more emissions.

Development should be dense, inclusive, and located within or connected to existing communities and neighborhoods…

Development areas served by public transportation, shared transportation, public infrastructure (wastewater, water, roads, etc.) should be zoned for dense/multi-family/mixed use development in order to reduce emissions and waste. New areas should not be zoned for exclusively single family housing only.

Development should be allowed at the highest densities within walking and bicycling distance of transit stations.

Regulations and public incentives should expand housing choices in neighborhoods that offer access to educational and economic opportunity.

The Policy on Urban Environment, adopted by the board in 1986, states (emphasis added):

…the Sierra Club urges planning and policies which stimulate…
Infill” residential and commercial development on unused or under-used land within city boundaries…
Preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with residents protected from unreasonable economic and physical disruption…
Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes…
These development patterns and transit improvements would conserve energy, water, land and building materials while enhancing the pleasure and safety of urban life and reducing travel distances.

The Transportation Policy, adopted in 1994, supports policy and systems that “encourage land uses that minimize travel requirements; strengthen local communities, towns and urban centers.”

The broad Energy Resources Policy (PDF) directly refers to smart growth and transit. In section VII.A.3:

Reduce the need to drive passenger vehicles by shortening the distance between workplace, home, shopping and school, using “smart growth” planning and improved transportation options. Provide safe and appealing options for walking, bicycling and mass transit, including light rail passenger trains, which will reduce vehicle trips, emissions, fuel consumption, and the demand for new roads and pavement. Well-designed mixed-use communities create long-term reductions in energy usage. Appropriately designed public transportation systems are an essential component of a sustainable energy society… Congestion pricing should be applied, when feasible. Parking costs should be efficiently and conveniently unbundled to give consumers and employees more control over how they choose to spend their money.

If your local Sierra Club entity is proving unnecessarily obtuse in not living up to these policies, I’d suggest engaging by appealing to the Club’s strong sense of tradition, deference to higher authorities (encoded in the “One Club” policy), broader principles, and yes, policies. One specific idea: ask them to review the “Guidelines Governing Decisions on Schools, Hospitals or Other Projects Serving Economically Disadvantaged Communities.” Those require specific steps before Club entities decide to oppose or endorse a public facility, with a specific mention of “low-income housing project” (and thus many large-scale infill developments subject to inclusionary requirements). Notably, the Club must have a face-to-face listening session with those who will benefit, and write a 2-page assessment of the proposal and “any feasible environmentally superior alternatives” — which cannot include displacing housing to sprawling locations. Even where opposition by the Club may very well be warranted, the policy requires that it be thoughtful and considered, rather than knee-jerk.

Deck chairs on a sinking beach

I was pondering the testimony I delivered last May to the HPRB:

Where it all began

The original boundary stone at Jones Point.

Global warming poses a grave and imminent threat to not only humanity’s future, but to our shared past as well. In a recent issue of Preservation magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation president Stephanie Meeks wrote that “as preservationists, it is incumbent on us to reckon with climate change bravely.” If left unchecked, the higher sea levels caused by global warming threaten the very existence of countless historic structures within the District of Columbia, including a great many of the surviving structures from its earliest days. For example, the original cornerstone of the District of Columbia (at Jones Point in Alexandria) was originally constructed on dry ground — but now sits below today’s sea level, hidden by an obtrusive concrete seawall and visible only through a protective cover. From the Jefferson Memorial to Randall School, Mayfair Mansions to Tingey House, global warming could very well obliterate scores of DC landmarks.

(The HPRB approved the application that day, and the building is moving towards construction this year.)

The sad thing about my statement today? Global warming will go pretty much unchecked under the present policy regime. Points-of-no-return are rapidly approaching for the terrestrial ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica; even with the boom in clean energy technology, there’s no stopping sea level from rising several meters or even many meters. Ten feet, twenty feet seem matter of course now; hundreds of feet is within the realm of possibility.

Is everything that we’re fighting about within our low-lying cities about to go for naught — are we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

As Ian Urbina noted in the Times in November, property sales in flood-prone coastal areas are already slowing suspiciously. It’s impossible to know exactly why, but the rising incidence and cost of even “nuisance” flooding (as extensively reported by Ryan McNeill, Deborah J. Nelson and Duff Wilson from Reuters last year might well be causing people to think twice about purchasing in flood-prone areas.

What happens when the defenses start to run out? Will land suddenly, or gradually, become worthless? One fascinating “natural” experiment to watch is in Palm Springs, where the Desert Sun’s Rosalie Murphy wrote about the consequences of the expiring land leases that underlie half of that city. Condos are going begging for buyers, since expiring land leases can’t be encumbered with fresh mortgages — but commercial development often continues apace, since the mortgage terms are shorter.

I appreciate that the Trust is thinking more intersectionally, to the point of reframing its work as “reurbanism.” But given the forecasts, it’s tough for me not to see a lot of local skirmishes over waterfront sites as pretty pointless.

Friday photo: The old new towns


Excerpted from Letitia Langord and Gwen Bell, “Federally Sponsored New Towns of the Seventies,” Growth and Change 10/1975.

Earlier this week, startup incubator Y Combinator made a bit of a splash by hiring a lolcat entrepreneur to work on its “New Cities” program. The entire endeavor appears to be completely ahistorical. So, in an effort to help them out, here’s a reminder of the last time someone (the federal government) splashed out a lot of money to build cities from the ground up in America.

It’s worth noting that, 40-some years later, only The Woodlands has evolved into something resembling a city, with its own economic base — but probably due to its location in metro Houston, which sustained population growth of 20%+ per decade from 1970 through 2010. Several of the others remain half-built, pleasant-enough bedroom communities, and a few of them hardly ever got off the ground.

It turns out that city-building, and especially economic development, is an iterative, incremental process that’s highly resistant to shortcuts. Yes, economic booms do happen in unexpected places, but almost all of those are associated with large institutions and relatively unskilled labor. Re-creating the intricate economic interdependence of a 21st century metropolis will prove a monumental challenge, especially in an era of subdued labor mobility.

Some guesses as to implications of autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicles, driverless cars: ask two people what they think, and it seems like you’ll get three opinions. Here are my reactions to four recent publications on the topic — keeping in mind that previous reports of distance’s death were an exaggeration. (As CBRE’s Revathi Greenwood notes, vehicle speeds won’t change, and so Marchetti’s Wall still remains. Even if the drudgework of driving is taken away, travel time still has a cost, and we’d rather be at our destinations already — e.g., “are we there yet?”)

WSJ (columnist Christopher Mims):

  • AVs will be limited to small areas for the foreseeable future. “We’re likely to see vehicles that don’t require drivers but can only operate on a fixed, well-mapped route in cities with fair weather… the consensus of those I interviewed is that it will be many years before we get cars that can truly go anywhere.”
  • Existing trials (Singapore, Pittsburgh, Babcock Ranch), which are limited to relatively small, intensively researched areas that are frequently remapped. Level 2/3 autonomy will remain limited to expressways, which have a protected ROW.
  • Echoes some of Recode’s timeline (perhaps similar sources were interviewed).
  • Takeaway: Autonomous shuttles will appear within campuses, urban districts, and planned communities, initially as “walk extenders.” “Robot valets” will enable more remote parking and reduced parking footprints. Freeway driving may shift to autonomy, but uptake is limited by consumer acceptance (see next).

Kelley Blue Book consumer survey:

  • Americans are still broadly uncomfortable with the idea of Level 5 autonomy.
  • Level 4 autonomy is most popular with current US consumers, who still want to be able to take the wheel. Level 3 seems less comfortable than Level 2.
  • However, key early-adopter groups feel more comfortable with complete autonomy: luxury car buyers, consumers with experience with Level 2 AVs, and people used to the backseat: ride-hailing customers and teenagers.
  • Takeaway: The transition to AVs is dependent upon social acceptance, and currently many Americans want to maintain the status quo. The transition might take a while (more Americans will have to try AVs), but may be steep once it happens.

Rocky Mountain Institute forecast:

  • Mobility services in major US metros are a potential $120 billion annual market by 2025, including $60 billion just in large Sunbelt metros.
  • Because AV and EV technologies reduce operating costs and increase capital costs, they will find broad acceptance in high-utilization fleets first, where their low costs will subvert the individual-car-ownership paradigm. (2017’s EVs will be cheaper for fleets than gas cars.)
  • AVs will cut the cost of rides by 60% to be cost-competitive with car ownership by 2018, with another 60% decline in costs as economies of scale are realized. The switch from personal cars to AV fleets will occur between 2020-2025, with long-term demand for cars falling to ~6 million.
  • Lower mobility costs will result in a $1 trillion annual consumer surplus to be spent on other sectors. (Keep in mind that spending on autos has a low multiplier effect.)
  • Even if VMT doubles and more power plants are built, these two technologies will result in sharply lower CO2 emissions (nearly -1 GT CO2E by 2040 = ~13% cut in today’s emissions).
  • Takeaway: Parking demand may sharply decline, but what parking is left will need significant EV infrastructure. Loading/valet zones will quickly need to be implemented. Consumer spending on cars could be pivoted to other spending, like higher-quality real estate.

City Observatory (Joe Cortright) [part 1] [part 2]:

  • RMI’s cost estimates of <$0.50/mile are roughly in line with other published estimates, with lower costs associated with smaller/lighter vehicles. This is lower than the per-mile cost of not just driving, but even short transit trips.
  • However, $0.50/mile is much higher than the perceived $0.15-$0.20/mile marginal cost that most Americans assume for private-auto trips. (Most Americans only consider the cost of gas when driving; costs such as depreciation/wear, insurance, repairs, monthly parking, and wasted time are all considered sunk.)
  • “Pay by the slice” mobility, like car-sharing, tends to encourage shorter trips. Pricing will probably be more, not less complex, with various “surge” surcharges that use information to optimize the balance between travel demand and supply.
  • Rush-hour capacity will still be an issue, especially in high-density downtowns. Rail transit, walking, and cycling will still move more people in less space.
  • Takeaway: Mobility won’t be “too cheap to meter,” as optimists once said of nuclear electricity. As such, central locations will still matter, even if price differentials flatten somewhat. (TNCs are already “filling in the lines” between transit corridors and increasing the value of secondary urban locations.) Whether dense downtowns built around rail/walking remain useful is an open question.

What everyone agrees upon is that this is the first huge shift in metropolitan mobility since the 1940s-1980s shift towards mass car ownership. It’s important to remember that American suburbia is a political and social construct, not a fact of life, and that policies put into place immense structural supports for American suburbs.

McMillan isn’t next to Metro, which is less of a problem than you think

McMillan Reservoir

You can see the Capitol Dome from here. Photo by Eric Fidler, via Flickr

Yes, the McMillan Sand Filtration Site is one mile (from either end of the site) to the Red Line. It’s even 0.6 miles to the nearest express bus route (Georgia Avenue’s 79), and key network improvements are still in the planning stages. Yet from the point of view of someone who wants to reduce auto dependence (and the concomitant pollution, injury, and sprawl), what matters most is that MSFS is close to downtown, rather than close to Metro.

Transportation planning research has consistently shown that location relative to downtown and to other land uses is far more closely associated with the amount of driving than location relative to transit. Ewing and Cervero’s definitive 2010 meta-analysis (cited by 679 other scholarly articles) examined over 200 other studies, then combined the correlations found by 62 different studies:

Yes, it turns out that the number of miles that people drive is four-and-a-half times as closely correlated with the distance to downtown than with the distance to a transit stop. This strong relationship between driving and distance to downtown is borne out in local survey research by MWCOG/TPB. Note that whether an area has Metro access (like Largo or White Flint, vs. the Purple Line corridor) doesn’t actually seem to impact the number of drive-alone (SOV) trips.

Some suggest that development proposed for this site should instead go elsewhere. If the development is denied, those residents and employees and shoppers won’t just disappear, they’ll just go somewhere else. They won’t go to superior locations even closer to downtown and Metro (because those are so very plentiful!), but rather to far inferior locations. For instance, the life-sciences employers might choose an alternative location within our region that has already approved a similar mix of uses — such as Viva White Oak, Inova Fairfax, Great Seneca Science Corridor, and University Center in Ashburn, all of which are much further from both downtown and Metro.

This isn’t just the suburbs’ fault. Within the District, even more intensive development than what’s proposed at MSFS has already been given the go-ahead at locations such as the Armed Forces Retirement Home, Hecht Warehouse, and Buzzard Point. All of those sites are also inferior to MSFS from the standpoint of not just transit accessibility and distance to Metro Center, but also on all of the other factors shown to reduce VMT.

If the “Reasonable Development” types truly do care about reducing driving, I must have missed their years of caterwauling over the approval of all these other sites — not to mention the countless suburban developments that together pave over 100 acres of open space every single day in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. That’s why I give more credence to the people who do actually care about paving over the region, like the Piedmont Environmental Council — a/k/a the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Friday photo: ENOUGH!

ENOUGH

A college friend stole this sign off a neighbor’s lawn and gave it to me in 1999 (good thing MoCo isn’t the DPRK). Of all the political lawn signs I’ve had, including a few from early Obama campaigns, it’s my obvious favorite.

Apparently, the sign was made to protest the 1998 Friendship Heights Sector Plan, which set the stage for the Wisconsin Place and Chevy Chase Collection “over-development”s.

All this “over-development” has done the local homeowners a whole lot of good: since 2000, their housing values have more than tripled.

It turns out that this very same group is involved in the recent Westbard protests (of course), wailing about how Westbard is part of a war against Western civilization. Given their history, I suggest taking their hyperventilated claims with a healthy dose of salt.

What Would Jane Jacobs Do about zoning?

Tomorrow would have been Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, and so it’s a fine time to reflect upon her magnificent legacy of (empirically correct) ideas. Unbeknownst to many of her fans, she has a significant built legacy. 20 years ago, Toronto asked no less than Jane Jacobs about how to rezone two renewal areas on either side of downtown.

Distillery District

Toronto’s Distillery District, within the King-Parliament area that Jane Jacobs had a hand in rezoning.

The Kings Regeneration Initiative” targeted 400 acres of land along King Street, an east-west arterial with a streetcar. King-Spadina on the west side of downtown and King-Parliament on the east side were both declining CBD-adjacent industrial areas. Then-mayor Barbara Hall invited Jacobs to an advisory group on the regeneration project. “Paul Bedford, Toronto’s chief planner during Mayor Hall’s term, said that Jane kept encouraging him to take risks and to experiment,” writes Barry Wellman. The resulting code was a tremendous departure from how Toronto, and most other North American cities, regulated development:

Jacobs described the process in remarks given at Boston College’ law school:

Yet if the zoning were to be changed to permit dwellings, the developers would be blocked by rules applying to apartments, most especially parking requirements. Land coverage was high and parking couldn’t feasibly go underneath these sturdy but old buildings. Under the guidance of our very intelligent mayor at the time, these and almost all other regulatory controls were removed, except for fire and building safety codes. One rule was added: a ban against destruction of buildings, to prevent aesthetic and environmental waste. You would be amazed at how rapidly those dying districts have come back to life and blossomed. The principle at work here has been the addition of what the previous mixture lacked…

In the case of Toronto’s dying districts of downtown that were revitalized by radically overhauling the regulations, the mayor’s hardest job was goading and re-educating her own planning department, including the youngish man who then headed it.

The results have been breathtaking — and might surprise those for whom Jane is a hero for stopping bulldozers. Not only have the “Two Kings” not lost jobs, as many industrial lands taken out of production have, but the number of jobs has increased by 58%. Even more impressively, 46,000 dwelling units have been permitted in the Two Kings, many of them in very large new high-rises.

Of course, this approach would be much more difficult — if not impossible — to enact in America. It’s not that America over-regulates development per se, it’s that we regulate entirely the wrong things about development. As Jay Wickersham writes in the Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, the result is “an extraordinary situation. There is no other area in environmental law where the goals of the regulatory program are not just indifferent, but actively hostile, to the best thinking in the field.” From his introduction:

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jacobs shows us that Euclidean zoning has been hard where it should be soft and soft where it should be hard. Zoning has been hard, or overly rigid, in dividing our cities and towns into uniform, low-density districts, each dedicated to a single primary use. And zoning has been soft, or overly permissive, in its failure to set design standards for streets, and for how buildings front upon those streets, that would reinforce the fundamental character of streets as public spaces…

Supreme Court rulings restrict municipalities to just two regulatory tools* that can shape development: Euclidean zoning (regulating density and land use) and historic designation (regulating appearance, but only meant for very limited circumstances). Euclidean zoning’s fixation on limiting density and land uses enforces conformity; even when it permits change, it’s only towards a distant, built-out end-state set forth in a comp plan. Jacobs writes:

[T]he greatest flaw in city zoning is that it permits monotony… Perhaps the next greatest flaw is that it ignores scale of use, where this is an important consideration, or confuses it with kind of use, and this leads, on the one hand, to visual (and sometimes functional) disintegration of streets, or on the other hand to indiscriminate attempts to sort out and segregate kinds of uses no matter what their size or empiric effect. Diversity itself is thus unnecessarily suppressed. (D&L, 237-238)…

Instead, Death and Life‘s chapter 13 argues for “zoning for diversity”:

The purpose of zoning for deliberate diversity should not be to freeze conditions and uses as they stand. That would be death. Rather, the point is to insure that changes or replacements, as they do occur, cannot be overwhelmingly of one kind. (D&L, 253, emphasis added)

Jacobs was not against regulation, but as an empiricist she held tremendous regard for the way cities had evolved as complex systems over the centuries — and fought the woefully simplistic (and completely ideological, perhaps even “faith-based”) Modern-era planning regulations and programs then in place. Alas, those regulations remain at the foundation of American planning today. Wickersham again:

According to Jacobs, “[a]ll zoning is suppressive,” an interference with the unfettered movements of the real estate market. But Jacobs is not attacking regulation, per se, or even the notion of government planning… she is attacking the functionalist presumptions shared by many city planners. In this view, a city is a functional, repetitive machine, rather than an ever-evolving organism… Her goal is to strike a middle course: to preserve and enhance diversity by avoiding large-scale, cataclysmic physical and social changes (which can be caused by rapid influxes of private investments, as well as by publicly sponsored urban renewal projects), without permanently freezing a community’s character.

Density-and-use zoning is the metaphorical hammer of urban land use: every potential problem ends up looking like a nail, and gets hammered to smithereens. It doesn’t matter if the problem has nothing to do with density or land use, and it doesn’t matter that density and land use are (as the Kings show) pretty darn incidental to the grand scheme of things. The only tool that we have is the wrong one, but we’re going to use it anyways. Wickersham notes that even the modest attempts to circumvent Euclidean zoning through discretionary approvals, or worse yet to somehow require diversity, are doomed to failure from Jacobs’ perspective:

Because these reforms are project-specific, and not comprehensive, the counter-productive, as-of-right requirements of Euclidean zoning have been sidestepped, not removed. To tempt developers into the project review process, regulatory systems will offer a density or height bonus to offset the increased time and costs that are involved. Such incentives can cause all parties to undervalue small-scale, incremental renovation and infill projects—the incremental reinvestments that Jacobs showed us were so important for the stability of an urban district. Thus, favoring large private investments can cause the same kinds of cataclysmic change that Jacobs decried in the public urban renewal projects of the 1950s.

Update: Shawn Micallef has a fantastic summary of Jane Jacobs’ Toronto legacy on Curbed today. The headline of this post spoofs Spacing Store’s #WWJJD t-shirt.

* Non-regulatory tools, like redevelopment, are also legal but are so difficult and fraught with such complexity that they’re unlikely to have a substantial impact on regional-scale land use challenges. Form-based codes are the most promising alternative to Euclidean zoning in the US, but in practice require such a radical overhaul of the planning-and-zoning process that they have yet to achieve wide adoption; Miami is the notable exception that rewrote its plan and zoning code all at once.