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!


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.

DC has “parking craters,” just not downtown. Here’s why.

Most American downtowns are surrounded by “parking craters,” as Streetsblog has termed them. Here in DC, downtown’s successful redevelopment has almost eliminated downtown parking craters, with one key exception. This success hasn’t completely eliminated parking craters from DC, though — it’s just moved them outside downtown.

parking crater at CityCenterDC

DC’s last privately-owned parking crater has a very unusual backstory. Gould Property owns the site free and clear, but only due to a land swap to get the Marriott Marquis built two blocks north. Gould had purchased part of the Marriott site back in the 1990s, when prices really were cheap enough to justify parking craters. The land basis and opportunity cost on this site is unusually low, especially since the former building on the site could not have remained.

Most surface parking lots are built as what zoning calls “an accessory use,” which means they’re an “accessory” to something else on the same lot. The parking lot at Sam’s Park & Shop in Cleveland Park or the Capitol’s parking lots, are “accessory” parking lots.

Parking craters, on the other hand, are usually not accessory parking directly tied to another land use; they’re paid parking lots whose owners are holding onto land that they speculate could be a future development opportunity. A parking lot requires minimal maintenance, but pays out some income in the interim. Most importantly, a parking lot is “shovel ready” — unlike a building with tenants in place, whose leases might or might not expire at the same time, a parking lot can be emptied and demolished on short notice when opportunities arise.

High rents and short buildings limit speculation

The opportunity that many “parking crater” developers are waiting for is the chance to build a big office tower. Offices pay higher rents to landlords than apartments (although in the best locations, retail or hotels can be even more valuable). However, the banks who make construction loans to developers rarely allow new office buildings to be built before a large, well-established company has signed a long-term “anchor tenant” lease for much of the new building’s space. If the building isn’t pre-leased, the result can be a bank’s worst nightmare: a “see-through tower” that cost millions of dollars to build, but which isn’t paying any rent.

Within downtown DC, robust demand and high rents mean that landowners face a very high opportunity cost if they leave downtown land or buildings empty for a long time. Instead of demolishing buildings years before construction starts, developers can make room for new buildings by carefully lining up departing and arriving tenants, as Carr Properties did when swapping out Fannie Mae for the Washington Post.

Less often, a developer will build new offices “on spec,” or without lease commitments in place. A spec developer usually bets on smaller companies signing leases once they see the building under construction. Downtown DC has a constant churn of smaller tenants (particularly law firms and associations) that collectively fill a lot of offices, but few are individually big enough to count as anchor tenants.

Because office buildings in DC are so short, they’re relatively small, and therefore the risk of not renting out the office space is not that high. In a city like Chicago, by contrast, few developers would bother building a 250,000 square foot, 12-story office building to rent out to smaller tenants. Instead, they could wait a few more years and build a 36-story building, lease 500,000 square feet to a large corporation, and still have 250,000 square feet of offices for smaller tenants.

While height limits certainly constrain the size of offices in DC, other cities with much less stringent height limits have also managed to eradicate most of their parking craters. Boston and Portland are similarly almost bereft of parking craters within their cores, not because of Congress but because other planning actions have maximized predictability and minimized speculation. In both cities, small blocks and zoning-imposed height limits of ~40 stories (!) encourage construction of smaller office buildings

Another factor common to these cities are policies also encourage non-car commutes — Boston even banned new non-accessory parking downtown — and rail transit that distributes commuters through downtown, rather than focusing access along a freeway or a vast commuter rail terminal. Metro’s three downtown tunnels, and DC’s largely freeway-free downtown, help to equalize access (and property values) across a wide swath of land. In retrospect, it’s impossible to identify which one factor had the greatest effect.

This customer is always right

There is one big anchor tenant in DC’s office market: the federal government. The government has some peculiar parameters around its office locations, which also help to explain where DC does have parking craters.

Private companies often don’t mind paying more rent for offices closer to the center of downtown, which puts them closer to clients, vendors, and amenities like restaurants, shops, or particular transit hubs. The government, on the other hand, has different priorities: it would rather save money on rent than be close-in. The General Services Administration, which handles the government’s office space, defines a “Central Employment Area” for each city, and considers every location within the CEA to be equal when it’s leasing offices. It also usually stipulates that it wants offices near Metro, but never specifies a particular line or station.

As rents in prime parts of downtown rose, the government began shifting leased offices from the most expensive parts of downtown to then-emerging areas. Large federal offices filled new office buildings in the “East End,” helping to rejuvenate the area around Gallery Place and eliminate many parking craters.

This one rule scattered “parking craters” all around DC, but they’re steadily disappearing

Over the years, DC noticed the success it found in broadening the federal government’s definition of the Central Employment Area, thereby spreading federal offices to new areas. It successfully lobbied GSA to widen the CEA further, encompassing not just downtown but also NoMa, much of the Anacostia riverfront, and the former St. Elizabeth’s campus. Because the latter areas have much cheaper land than downtown DC, and lots of land to build huge new office buildings, federal offices are now drifting away from the downtown core.

A developer with a small site downtown usually won’t bother to wait for a big federal lease: the government wants bigger spaces at cheaper rents. It’s easier to just rent to private-sector tenants. However, a developer with a large site within the CEA and next to Metro, but outside downtown, has a good chance of landing a big federal lease that could jump-start development on their land — exactly the formula that can result in a parking crater.

One recent deal on the market illustrates the point: the GSA recently sought proposals for a new Department of Labor headquarters. GSA wants the new headquarters to be within the District’s CEA, within 1/2 mile walking distance to a Metro station, and hold 850,000 to 1,400,000 square feet of office space.

The kicker is the timeline: GSA wants to own the site by April 2018, and prefers if DC has already granted zoning approval for offices on the site. It would be difficult for a developer to buy, clear, and rezone several acres of land meeting those requirements within the next two years, so chances are that the DOL headquarters will be built on a “parking crater” somewhere in DC. Somewhere outside downtown, but within the CEA, like:

Parking crater at Spooky Park, Yards

Parcel A at the Yards.

  • “Spooky Park,” or Parcel A at The Yards, formerly the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency offices across from the Navy Yard Metro. It’s zoned for 1.8 million square feet of offices, and is probably the largest single parking crater in DC.
  • Behind the Big Chair in Anacostia are several parking lots that could house a million square feet of offices.
  • The Portals, next to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at 14th and D streets SW, has two empty lots left. A residential tower will soon sprout on one, but the other is being reserved for another office building, across from to another building that was built for the FCC, but which will soon be vacant.
  • The two blocks just west of the Wendy’s at “Dave Thomas Circle,” in the northwest corner of NoMa, are owned by Douglas Development and Brookfield Asset Management. Brookfield’s site could house 965,000 square feet of development, and Douglas’ site could have a million square feet.

High-rise residential seems like it would be an obvious use for land like the Yards, which is outside downtown but atop a heavy-rail station. Yet even there, where one-bedroom apartments rent for $2,500 a month, it’s still more valuable to land-bank the site (as parking, a small green area, and a trapeze school) in the hopes of eventually landing federal offices.

Many federal leases are also signed for Metro-accessible buildings outside the District, which helps to explain why prominent parking craters exist outside of Metro stations like Eisenhower Avenue, New Carrollton, and White Flint. (For its part, Metro generally applauds locating offices at its stations outside downtown, since that better balances the rush-hour commuter flows.)

One reform could fix the problem

One esoteric reform that could help minimize the creation of future parking craters around DC is to fully fund the GSA. Doing so would permit it to more effectively shepherd the federal government’s ample existing inventory of buildings and land, and to coordinate its short-term space needs with the National Capital Planning Commission’s long-term plans.

Indeed, GSA shouldn’t need very many brand-new office buildings in the foreseeable future. Federal agencies are heeding its call to “reduce the footprint” and cut their space needs, even when headcount is increasing. Meanwhile, GSA controls plenty of land at St. Elizabeth’s West, Federal Triangle South (an area NCPC has extensively investigated as the future Southwest EcoDistrict), Suitland Federal Center, and other sites.

However, ongoing underfunding of GSA has left it trying to fund its needs by selling its assets, notably the real estate it now owns in now-valuable downtown DC. GSA does this through complicated land-swap transactions, like proposing to pay for DOL’s new headquarters by trading away DOL’s existing three-block headquarters building at Constitution and 3rd St. NW.

In theory, it should be cheaper and easier for GSA to just build new office buildings itself. In practice, though, they’ve been trying to do so for the Department of Homeland Security at St. Elizabeth’s West — a process that Congressional underfunding has turned into a fiasco.

Parking craters will slowly go away on their own

In the long run, new parking craters will probably rarely emerge in the DC area. Real estate markets have shifted in recent years: offices and parking are less valuable, and residential has become much more valuable. This has helped to fill many smaller parking craters, since developers have dropped plans for future offices and built apartments instead.

Goodnight, parking crater

A parking crater in NoMa that’s soon to be no more, thanks to apartment development.

Even when developers do have vacant sites awaiting development, the city’s growing residential population means that there are other revenue-generating options besides parking. “Previtalizing” a site can involve bringing festivals, markets, or temporary retail to a vacant lot, like The Fairgrounds, NoMa Junction @ Storey Park, and the nearby Wunder Garten. This is especially useful if the developer wants to eventually make the site into a retail destination.

Broader trends in the office market will also diminish the demand for parking craters, by reducing the premium that big offices command over other property types. Demand for offices in general is sliding. Some large organizations are moving away from having consolidated headquarters, and are shifting towards more but smaller workplaces with denser and more flexible work arrangements.

Unlike the boom years of office construction, there’s now plenty of existing office space to go around. Since 1980, 295 million square feet of office buildings were built within metro DC, enough to move every single office in metro Boston and Philadelphia here. While some excess office space can be redeveloped into other uses, other old office buildings — and their accessory parking lots — could be renovated into the offices of the future.

A version of this appeared in Greater Greater Washington.

Friday photo: Incrementalist lessons from Seaside

Seaside lessons: plan for evolution, not revolution

The ULI office is moving in a few months, so a lot of old files are being tossed out. One that I saw poking out of a garbage can was a 1986 Project Reference File written about Seaside, Florida. The “lessons learned” section worth excerpting, if only because it doesn’t talk about the PoMo architecture, or even the planning — instead, it’s all about the incremental nature of the development.

Most resort development today is characterized by a highly refined design concept coupled with central ownership and tight control over design and building decisions. In contrast, Seaside’s approach is to encourage authentic diversity by delegating to others as many design decisions as possible, within the dictates of a sophisticated urban design plan….

A significant factor in Seaside’s development is that, by owning the land outright, Davis was able to 1) invest in a considerable amount of upfront planning, and 2) proceed cautiously with the development. By going slowly, he says, a developer can reduce risk and can correct small mistakes. At Seaside, the master plan was not recorded until after the developer had had several years of experience with building and marketing this unique product. This allowed for minor refinements in the development strategy, plan, and timing, while prices rose accordingly….

Instead of assuming that large upfront investments in amenities would produce marketing payoffs, the developer moved slowly and carefully, guided by the master plan.

In short, plan far ahead, regulate what matters, and phase to allow adaptation and evolution. (Evolution, not revolution.) Alas, the world still has a lot to learn from Seaside.

This point is echoed by Peter Cookson Smith in a book that I’m reading about Hong Kong, a seemingly very different place:

Overly engineered environments leave little flexibility to make incremental adjustments in response to the evolving economic circumstances that normally represent the lifeblood of towns and cities.

Cartographic pet peeve: Who skipped 94101?


For most US cities, I can quickly get a map zoomed right to the central city by going to most any mapping application and typing in a five-digit ZIP code that ends in “01.” That’s because the first three digits of any ZIP code are actually a meta-ZIP, best known by the Census Bureau’s term “ZCTA3.”

Back when ZIPs were assigned, the large post offices that served entire cities or broad rural areas were assigned these three-digit codes, and subareas within them were numbered off in roughly concentric order from the sorting center. ZIP code XYZ01, then, was usually at the then-principal post office, either right downtown or by the railyards where mail was usually offloaded then.

The Post Office assigned these codes in an ascending order following a meandering east-west path across the Lower 48, beginning in New England and ending in the Northwest. Thus, it’s not terribly difficult to remember a city’s ZCTA3 — since they’re systematic, it’s easier than memorizing cities’ telephone area codes (a taxonomy that, while having its own charming history, is increasingly irrelevant).

  • Boston 021
  • New York City 100
  • Pittsburgh 152
  • Philadelphia 191
  • Washington 200
  • Raleigh 276
  • Durham 277
  • Atlanta 303
  • Miami 331
  • Minneapolis 554
  • Chicago 606
  • Denver 802
  • Los Angeles 900
  • Portland 972
  • Seattle 981

BUT there’s one (one!) exception that thwarts my little mnemonic: San Francisco. Its ZCTA3 is 941, but there is no 94101; the lowest-numbered ZIP in town, centered on the main post office by the Civic Center, is 94102. Who stole 94101?!

Postscript via Eric Fischer, proud owner of a pre-ZIP postal map:


Al Hanna and the case of the missing Chicago comp plan

Chicago zoning envelope illustration, 1923

My once-colleague Steven Vance recently noted Chicago’s surprising lack of planning. Indeed, for a couple of years there (as Hunt and DeVries point out in Planning Chicago [great PDF overview]) the city bureaucracy didn’t even have a planning department — just Housing and [economic] Development. That was just as well, of course, since there wasn’t any planning being done then, or since.

Chicago technically did adopt a Comprehensive Plan… in 1966. (Next year, it’ll be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.) I had long been under the impression that Chicago simply strong-armed pliant courts into not prosecuting this absurd state of affairs, but Steven’s post prompted me to look up Illinois’ municipal code regarding planning and zoning. To my surprise, Illinois has always had a surprisingly lenient Municipal Code — which relieves cities of any obligation to update their comp plans, or to have their zoning be consistent with a comp plan. Under Illinois law, if the Plan Commission says the zoning is so, then so be it; “arbitrary and capricious” claims be damned.

Nonetheless, one brave gadly, Lincoln Park mortgage broker Al Hanna, once somehow managed to escalate the little matter of zoning’s potential unconstitutionality into state courts some years ago. (This was while I was in college, and working on a project related to the city’s zoning code update — which, of course, drew no legal authority from any stinkin’ comp plan.) Judge Sidney Jones remanded the case with the comment that “[t]he City of Chicago has, and had, no comprehensive plan for development… which renders its zoning decisions to become more subject to scrutiny… [the downzoning] was not passed for public welfare or the public good, but was passed only in deference to the wishes of a few individuals.”

Alas, the city’s lawyers have wiggled their way out from most of Hanna’s suits. For example, Chicago long ago (apparently in 1970, via Public Act 76-583) dropped a special “lawsuit poison pill” into the state’s zoning enabling law [emphasis added]:

(65 ILCS 5/11-13-8) In municipalities of 500,000 or more population,* when any zoning ordinance, rule or regulation is sought to be declared invalid by means of a declaratory judgment proceeding, not more than 30 days before filing suit for a declaratory judgment the person filing such suit shall serve written notice in the form and manner and to all property owners

I don’t agree with Al about the legal merits of Chicago’s historic landmark law, but on zoning, he does have a point. Outside of downtown, no plan grounds Chicago’s zoning ordinance in the facts.

* This, and similar constructs, is legal code for “City of Chicago” and is found throughout Illinois state law. Illinois’ second-largest city has a population of fewer than 200,000.