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?

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:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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 gadfly, 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.

Update 2018: Hanna exacts a bit of revenge, by funding CAFHA’s damning report on how non-planning directly reinforces segregation.

Full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

The NIMBYs can whine all they want about “contextual disharmony,” but towers + townhouses is exactly the urban pattern that defined Urban Renewal Southwest from the moment ground was broken on Capitol Park. The neighborhood’s own original architects**, whose original vision is worshiped at several local temples by the preservation crowd, called it “an interlocking pattern of high apartment buildings and town houses.” In a neighborhood where high-rise residents make up the vast majority of the 10,000 local residents, 300 signatures means little. Indeed, 300 signatures are outweighed by the 300+ residents and employees who will live and work in the proposed apartment building — a number far fewer than the 2,000+ students, faculty, and staff who were at SEU in its heyday.

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

(The pre-urban renewal zoning for the site was “zone B,” permitting a 55′ tall building on 70% of the lot. The 2017 proposal for the site is 50′ tall, with 75% lot occupancy.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Construction around Navy Yard Metro

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

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

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

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

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

edge town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The city as a whole isn’t meeting its goals

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

dc permits

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

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

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

Housing growth has lagged population growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DC can take a fresh look at housing

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

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

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

Friday photo: The pre-NIMBY era

Once upon a time, before there were NIMBYs

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

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

CNU conversations: Retrofitting suburbia, organically?

Asheville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CNU conversations: Striking before the neighborhood’s hot

DeKalb Market, Long Island University

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Hill District in Pittsburgh is a historically poor, African-American neighborhood overlooking downtown. The Lower Hill was demolished for urban renewal, displacing 8,000, but it was never fully developed, except for one arena. A recently adopted TIF to develop the site will direct property tax revenue “into two separate accounts: one for infrastructure needs in the Lower Hill and one for reinvestment in the Middle and Upper hill.”
  • In Houston, the Midtown TIRZ spent $15 million to purchase 34 acres of the adjacent Third Ward, including hundreds of vacant lots, which was then handed to nonprofits and thus taken off the market.
    • Kinder Institute: “Adjacent to the Third Ward, the quasi-public tax increment reinvestment zone that was transforming Midtown — an area formerly divided between the Third and Fourth Wards — was required to dedicate a portion of its revenues for affordable housing. But [State Rep. Garnet] Coleman saw that property values there were rising so quickly, affordable housing would be a difficult pitch to developers, so he convinced a related agency, the Midtown Redevelopment Authority, to use the money to buy properties in Third Ward instead. The redevelopment authority would then sell the property to developers who were required to build affordable single-family homes and rental units. Today, the authority owns 3.5 million square feet of land in Greater Third Ward. Coleman started banking land through the authority in the neighborhood he grew up in, hoping to buy up enough to make a sizable percentage of its future housing affordable. That scheme has already yielded a crop of single-family homes and plans for apartment complexes.”

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

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

Friday photo: Vanquished twin cities

Pittsburgh various

Vanishing twin syndrome” is an eerie phenomenon wherein one fetal twin seems to absorb another. Its counterpart, in the annals of American cities, might be called “vanquished twin syndrome”: where one city annexes another, then proceeds to obliterate any trace of its core through concerted redevelopment.

Some of the more notable examples are cities settled at confluences, which naturally offer a choice of multiple townsites on various riverbanks.

Denver faced Auraria across Cherry Creek, the Allegheny River separated its eponymous town (pictured above) from Pittsburgh, and the fork of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers fostered three towns — Juneau (east), Kilbourn (west), and Walker’s Point (south). Portland consolidated with East Portland and Albina across the Willamette. Baltimore subsumed Jonestown to its east, oddly giving its newer rival the nickname “Oldtown.”

Yet as these towns were absorbed into larger cities across the way, the old downtowns of Auraria, Allegheny, and Kilbourn all declined into Skid Rows, offering a uniquely cheap combination of deteriorated, frontier-era buildings within a short walk of the principal downtown. Shunned and looked down upon by the ascendant city’s downtown elite and starved for resources (namely the intra-city transportation links that funneled commuters to the principal downtown), they became prime targets for urban renewal.

Kilbourn was wiped out early on, by a City Beautiful government complex. Allegheny’s center was leveled by Alcoa in the 1960s. Auraria was demolished for a university campus in the 1970s. Oldtown was only partially leveled for housing projects; its main street was then important enough to warrant a federally funded pedestrian mall.

Oldtown Mall

In a weird twist on the theme, Minneapolis absorbed its rival St. Anthony — but proceeded to tear down its own birthplace, while neglecting its rival for so long that it remained standing until the adaptive-reuse age could rescue it.