The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by David Alpert

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Demographics


No plan today could ignore rising housing costs. Ten years ago, that wasn't the top issue.

Greater Greater Washington readers are reading DC's Comprehensive Plan, a document that lays out how we build our city, and discussing it as we go. Each week, we'll post a summary of the chapter we most recently read, along with some highlights of what our book club participants think about how the plan could change in the upcoming amendment process.

DC's Comprehensive Plan set out to help the city "grow inclusively." In its second chapter, it outlines how to do that. But, looking at it from 2016, people immediately noticed that it didn't really talk much about the central planning challenge of our era: how to keep housing prices from spiraling out of reach.


Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Last week, members of the book club read the first half of chapter 2, Framework (up to page 2-21). That section lays out the then-current trends DC: A 50-year population decline turning around, but DC still growing slower than suburban and exurban neighbors; a gradual loss of federal jobs; and shrinking family sizes as people marry and have kids later in life.

It says:

In 1950, Washington had 802,000 residents and was the 9th largest
city in America. By 2000, Washington's population had dropped to 572,000 and it ranked 21st in size among U.S. cities. Between 1970 and 2000 alone, the number of people living in the District of Columbia dropped by almost 25 percent. ...

Unlike the experience of other major cities, the loss of population in Washington was not the result of "white flight." In fact, between 1980 and 2000, African-Americans registered the largest decrease among the city's racial groups, dropping in population by almost 100,000. This drop was partially offset by increases in the city's Hispanic and Asian populations.

While population loss after 1950 was significant, the decline in the number of households has been much less dramatic. The number of households in the District declined by just 2 percent between 1980 and 2000, standing at 248,000 in 2000. Thus, population loss in the late 1900s was less a function of housing being abandoned and more a result of larger households being replaced by smaller households. In fact, the average household in Washington contained 2.16 persons in 2000, down from 2.72 in 1970. Middle-class families left the city in large numbers during this period and the number of school-aged children dropped dramatically.

Looking forward, the city expects household size to continue falling through 2010, and then stabilize. According to the US Census, the percentage of seniors is expected to increase as "baby-boomers" retire, and the percentage of foreign-born residents, particularly those of Hispanic origin, is expected to rise. The District is expected to continue to be a magnet for the region's young professionals and empty nesters. Its ability to attract families with children rests largely on its ability to improve the quality of public education and address basic issues like crime, service provision, and housing affordability.

Corey Holman calculated the numbers and found that household size may or may not have dropped depending on which Census survey you look at, while the percentages of baby boomers and Latinos have NOT risen.


We might be adding more families, and they'll need a place they can afford to live. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

What about costs?

The 2006 plan forecasts a lot about DC, but not housing costs. It mentions the danger of displacement as housing costs rise, but actually explores that quite scantily. Many of the members of the book club noticed this gap.

Stephanie Thomas said, "An honest assessment of housing costs is key, and I hope that the updated plan will focus more on what DC can do to control costs and contribute towards its stated goal of an inclusive city."

Cheryl Cort added, "Using an approach that looks at low, medium, and high growth projections rather than a 'right number' approach to forecasting population growth would better serve the region's and city's goals to be more sustainable, and better address housing demand." Education, too, didn't come up as strongly as some expected.

Yuki Kato observed that the plan "does mention that income divide as 'the biggest challenge facing the District as it planned for its future' (p. 2-5), but it is not clear in what ways ... this is going to be addressed."

Growth where?

Perhaps one reason rising costs became a big challenge is DC actually built 13% less housing than the plan predicted.

A part of the framework chapter forecasts growth by "planning area," large sections of the city. Here's a graphic of the housing projections:


Graphic by Peter Dovak.

Payton Chung pointed out last year that the growth hasn't actually followed this plan. Much more of it was in "Central Washington," basically downtown and NoMA; Southwest Waterfront; and the ballpark area. And the total fell short of the plan's estimates.

Chung wrote, "The District's other policies to 'conserve single-family residential neighborhoods' are doing too good of a job at keeping new housing out of the neighborhoods that were supposed to accommodate 70% of future housing growth—and keeping the District as a whole well below its housing growth projections."

Yuki Kato worried about how this would affect areas with lower incomes and lower levels of education. She said, "More urgency could have been placed on these projections to seek ways in which the Comp Plan can ease the concentrated burden on some of the areas."

The framework chapter also talks little about transportation, and book club members noticed that too. This is because, Cort said, "In 2006, there was no city transportation plan, and DDOT has only been around for a few years at that point (established by DC Council in 2002)." DC now has created the MoveDC plan, and the current Comprehensive Plan amendment process will incorporate MoveDC (all or in parts—specifics aren't out yet).

This half of the Framework chapter looked at trends and projections. The second half is where the plan starts taking a stand, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. We'll be discussing that next, followed by the Land Use chapter, which is similarly pivotal. If you want to be a part of the book club, fill out the form below!



Development


Ten years ago, predictions for DC today were pretty spot on, except for a few key things

A lot has changed in DC in the last ten years ago. Planners knew it would, back then. But they had to make some predictions about the future as part of DC's then-new Comprehensive Plan. How did they do?


Crystal ball and city photo from Shutterstock.

Overall, the plan got a lot right. It predicted the 2010 population and the number of jobs in 2015 quite well. But DC started growing faster, and was in even higher demand as a place to live, than looked likely in 2005.

These and other predictions are part of the Framework chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, which we're reading in an online book club.

The group identified some predictions and then pulled current numbers to compare 2005 forecasts to reality.

Population: Even forecasting significant growth for DC was a big change in 2005, when the Comprehensive Plan was written. DC had lost population every Census from 1950 to 2000, but the trend had already started to turn around—and fast.

The plan's forecasts estimate 600,000 people by 2010. That was an amazing guess: the Census counted 601,721.

After that, the plan anticipated more growth, but reality far outstripped it. The Comp Plan predicted DC would reach 630,000 by 2015. Instead, the Census's estimate was 672,228. The plan forecast the population to hit 698,000 by 2025. We're surely going to get there much sooner; the mayor now talks about 800,000, not 700,000.

What happened? DC had started growing much faster than the forecasts, but the recession took a bite out and brought the growth numbers back down for 2010. Since then, people have continued coming to DC faster than the planners of 2005 imagined.


Population change from 1980-2000 (left) and 2000-2010 (right, by Corey Holman).The darkest shade of red represents the steepest decline, while the darkest green is the steepest increase.

Jobs: The 2005 Comprehensive Plan estimated 819,600 jobs in DC by 2015. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists May 2016 employment as 784,700. James Denney said:

It's a pretty close miss for the 2005 plan. Considering just how hard the economic downturn hit the nation in the late '00s, and accounting for the 2013 sequestration, the fact that DC is only 35,000 jobs away from the 2005 projection is actually rather admirable. Even ignoring the recession, the sequestration of 2013 accounts for nearly all of the projection gap.

Persons 25 and over without a college degree, 2000 (left) and 2010-2014 5-year ACS (right, map by Corey Holman).

Corey Holman looked at some other predictions in the Comp Plan and how they turned out.

Families are back. Prediction: "In fact, the average household in Washington contained 2.16 persons in 2000, down from 2.72 in 1970. Middle-class families left the city in large numbers during this period and the number of school-aged children dropped dramatically. Looking forward, the city expects household size to continue falling through 2010, and then stabilize."

Reality: Average household size in the 2010 census did continue to fall to 2.11, but the 2005-2009 (2.21 persons) and 2010-2014 5-Year ACS (2.22 persons) showed much larger household size.

Baby boomer boom? Prediction: "According to the US Census, the percentage of seniors is expected to increase as 'baby-boomers' retire."

Reality: The number of seniors is lower now that it was at the time the Comp Plan was written. In 2000 the 65+ percentage was 14.3%. In the 2010 Census it was 13.0% and in the 2010-14 ACS is was 11.3%. The 18-64 age group percentage increase dramatically while 0-18 showed decreases as well.

Immigrants come, but not as many Latinos. Prediction: "The percentage of foreign-born residents, particularly those of Hispanic origin, is expected to rise."

Reality: Foreign-born population did increase slightly from 12.9% in 2000 to 14.0% in the 2010-14 ACS. However, the percentage of people of Hispanic origin is actually lower now that it was in 2000.


Poverty rate in 2000 (left) and 2010-2014 5-year ACS (right, map by Corey Holman)

So what?

The Comprehensive Plan governs DC government decisions, particularly land use and zoning. Many provisions suggest adding more housing while other provisions talk about "protecting" neighborhoods.

The way the plan underestimated population growth means other provisions may also be inapt for DC's current needs if they are predicated on lower housing demand than there really turned out to be.

We'll delve into more specific policy statements in the Comp Plan as the book club gets to those chapters. Want to be a part of the book club? Sign up with the form below!



Bicycling


DC Council postpones fixing an injustice to pedestrians and cyclists because Kenyan McDuffie's dog ate his homework

I'm on vacation in Copenhagen, but am writing a post anyway )using a Danish keyboard where the punctuation is all in a different place= because I'm sufficiently annoyed at Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. He seems to have just read a very important bill to protect people walking and bicycling at the very last minute, then asked for an extension because it didn't say what he thought it did.


DC's contributory negligence debate wouldn't happen here in Copenhagen. Photo by the author.

A quick history here. Bicycle riders have been talking about the unjust "contributory negligence" rule for years. This rule says that if someone is even 1% at fault for a crash, he or she can recover nothing from the insurer of, say, a driver who hits and seriously injures him or her.

Two years ago, Tommy Wells (ward 6) was chairing the committee with jurisdiction to change the rule, and he tried a bill to change to "comparative negligence," where you can recover in proportion to your fault (if you're 25% at fault, you could recover up to 75% of your injuries). But Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) opposed the bill, as did trial lawyers, because it would interfere with another legal doctrine called "joint and several liability." You can learn more about this here.

But suffice to say, there were two possible ways to fix the problem, and the one Wells was promoting didn't have political support. Cheh promised to write a bill that fixed her concern, and she then introduced it the following year, in January 2015, along with Jack Evans (ward 2), David Grosso (at large), Anita Bonds (at large), and Charles Allen (ward 6 and Wells' successor).

Here's a chart by David Cranor explaining the difference between the two bills, in terms of how much a victim can recover based on his or her fault under current law, the 2014 bill, and the current bill.


Here, the X axis is for how much the cyclist was at fault, and the Y is for how much the driver has to pay. The red line shows how the law works today, the green one explains a 2014 bill that didn't pass, and the purple and blue ones show Kenyan McDuffie and Mary Cheh's proposals, respectively. Graph by David Cranor.

Kenyan McDuffie was now chairing the committee with jurisdiction, and nothing happened for over a year. The committee then marked up the bill on April 21, 2016. The committee report endorses the bill, saying:

The Committee finds, based on the testimony, significant risk of injury, and national trend, that the District of Columbia law should institute a modified comparative negligence standard for bicyclists and pedestrians in the District. Therefore, the Committee recommends that the Council enacts Bill 21-0004, the "Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2016."
Suddenly, the bill is in crisis

Monday night (Copenhagen time, anyway), Martin Di Caro broke the news that McDuffie was suddenly concerned about the language of the bill. David Cranor breaks down McDuffie's apparent concern, which is that someone 10% at fault might be able to recover more than 90%. McDuffie wants the purple line in the graph above, where the recovery slopes down to 50% and is zero after that.

But the sloped-line approach failed two years ago. Suddenly it seems we're back where we were then, with some councilmembers willing to support one solution, some wanting another, and not enough for a single solution.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association says it supports either approach, but is insistent that one of them be enacted. I might not be seeing everything, being in Denmark let alone not privy to conversations between McDuffie and Cheh, but it sure seems like McDuffie, after sitting on the bill for 15 months, suddenly read it for the first time very recently, realized it said something different than what his own committee report endorsed, and got cold feet.

The council has now postponed debate on the bill for two weeks, until July 12.


Photo by the author.

McDuffie needs to get this solved in two weeks

One of my elementary school teachers had a sign with the old phrase, "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." This is like the student who procrastinates on an assignment until the last minute, then needs an extension. Only McDuffie is a very smart professional legislator with extensive legal experience and staff who also have law degrees.

But fine, McDuffie got his extension. It will mean cyclists and pedestrians are in jeopardy for two months more, because the council can't take a second vote until September thanks to its August recess, but they've been waiting years for a fix.

If McDuffie decides to go along with Cheh's approach, great. If he can convince her and a majority of the council to go with another solution palatable to WABA, that's also fine. But what won't be fine is if two weeks pass (during which time there's a holiday, by the way) and then the council is still not ready to move forward. Two years ago, the bill got delayed two weeks also, and instead of then passing, it was delayed more and more and ultimately almost two years.

If that happens because McDuffie wasn't paying attention, this will all be on him, under the "you break it, you buy it" doctrine. It would reflect very poorly on him. Fortunately, he has several ways out of looking bad—just get some dmn bill passed )where the heck is the asterisk on this keyboard=, either Cheh's version or something else that has seven votes.

To stay up to date on how this unfolds, fill out the form below. Meanwhile, I'll go back to walking the streets of Copenhagen, where Danish law places the presumption of fault on the driver in any crash. Hey, how about amending the bill to say THAT instead?



Transit


What are your ideas to make Metro greater?

Metro is your transit system. How could it be greater? Now's your chance to make suggestions for small changes that can improve your experience on rail, bus, or paratransit.

WMATA is hard at work on the big safety fixes we need to have a rail system that works safely and reliable. But while that's underway, there are many smaller things Metro can do to improve the rider experience during SafeTrack and beyond.

To achieve that, we are launching MetroGreater, a crowdsourcing idea site for you to submit your ideas and comment on others. A jury will review the ideas and the public will get to vote among the finalists to pick a winner.

WMATA has committed to implementing the winning idea (as long as it meets the criteria below). And who knows—they might decide to implement more than one! The winner will also get recognition and some Metro memorabilia.


A recent small-scale improvement WMATA implemented. Photo from WMATA.

If you could make one small, quick improvement to Metro, what would it be?

Maybe your idea would help a lot of riders like the stickers that show where the train will stop or green "8"s denoting eight-car trains. Maybe you really want Metro to increase bicycle storage at your station like they did at NoMa a few years ago.

Maybe you know of some bus stops that could use some "appropriate technology" to alleviate the burden of remaining upright (a.k.a. plastic chairs to sit on). Or have ideas to improve the complaint-ridden MetroAccess paratransit service for a better rider experience.

Ideas must:

  • Improve the transit experience for all or some group of riders;
  • Be achievable by Metro on its own in 6 months or less (ideally 3);
  • Cost no more than $100,000;
  • Not cost much to continue into the future;
  • Not impair safety;
  • Not negatively impact service or interfere with other agency responsibilities; and
  • Comply with all laws and regulations.

While slides instead of escalators in your station might be fun, it's not really practical or safe in the long term. Sorry. Image from Volkswagen.

So you have a great idea, what's next?

Submit your idea at metrogreater.org by Friday, July 15. You know how awesome your idea is, but make sure others do too. Upload photos or sketches to help others get it.

How does the rest of the contest work?

Submissions will be accepted through July 15, 2016. Then, a jury of regional experts and advocates will select 5-10 submissions that meet all necessary criteria as finalists. The public will then vote for a winner in August, and WMATA will get to work after that.

  • Submission period: Tuesday, June 21 - Friday, July 15, 2016 (at 11:59 pm)
  • Finalist selection by jury: by Friday, August 5, 2016
  • Public voting on finalists: Monday, August 8 - Friday, August 19, 2016
  • Winning idea announced: by Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Read more and submit your idea at metrogreater.org. What can you come up with?

Politics


Silverman, White, Gray, and White can form a paint caucus on the next DC Council

Tuesday night, three incumbents lost their primaries for re-election to the DC Council: Robert White beat Vincent Orange at large, Vincent Gray unseated Yvette Alexander in Ward 7, and Trayon White took out LaRuby May in Ward 8. Many observers noticed that there's something similar about all of their last names: They're (achromatic) hues.

We supported Robert White and Gray, and from a policy standpoint, this election means a big step up for the quality of the DC Council. White and Gray will likely cast many better votes than Orange or Alexander would, and write better quality, better thought through legislation as well.

But putting all of the serious stuff aside for a moment, after each election recently I've made a graph of the number of elected officials whose names are also on the Photoshop palette.

While Orange, the most colorful sitting member (literally) lost, the three new ones bring the total up to four, the all-time high last achieved in 2011. That's the three victorious challengers plus Elissa Silverman, who came onto the council two years ago.

(Note that these folks haven't technically won election; they all are on the ballot in November. But in overwhelmingly Democratic DC, a Democrat is virtually assured of winning the general election.)

This chart excludes Carol Schwartz, whose name derives from the German word "schwarz," meaning black. She was on the council from 1985-1989 and again from 1997 to 2009, when Michael Brown defeated her for a non-Democratic at-large seat.

Are there any more Quentin Tarantino characters waiting in the wings for 2018? There's often speculation about a comeback for Kwame Brown or Michael Brown (which, let me say, would be a terrible idea). Orange also could seek another seat in the future; it wouldn't be the first time he left the council and then returned.

Development


Washington ranks #2 in walkable urbanism; Maryland and Virginia outshine other cities' suburbs

The Washington region is second in the nation in having housing and jobs in walkable places, a new report says. A real stand-out for our region, compared to other similar cities, are the walkable places even outside the center city like Silver Spring and Reston.

The report, by Christopher Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez from the George Washington University School of Business, ranks the US's 30 largest metropolitan areas based on their "WalkUPs," or "walkable urban places."

A WalkUP is, in the report's methodology, a place with at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail, and a walk score of 70 or better.

We're #2

The Washington region ranks second on this measure, after New York. The other top metros are about what you'd guess: Boston, Chicago, the SF Bay Area, and Seattle. The worst in the nation: Las Vegas, Tampa, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando.

In Washington, 33% of office, retail, and multi-family residential space is in one of our 44 WalkUPs. In San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando, it's 3%; San Antonio has only 2 WalkUPs.

Fortunately, even in the lowest-ranked metros, that share is increasing, as new development is at least somewhat more likely to be in WalkUPs than old (in Las Vegas, 11% more likely; in Washington, 2.79 times; in Detroit, over 5 times as likely).

We have lots of walkable urbanism outside the center city

This region also shines on the share of walkable development in jurisdictions outside the (or a) traditional center city. In the Washington region, half of the walkable urbanism is not inside DC, but in places like Silver Spring, Reston, and Old Town Alexandria.


WalkUPs in Greater Washington, from a 2012 Leinberger report.

Not only are there some quite urban places outside DC (and suburban ones inside), but many of those weren't historically urban. Historic cities outside the region's center city like Newark (or Old Town Alexandria) have long been walkable, but Arlington and Silver Spring weren't. Very suburban land uses dominated not so long ago, and governments in these areas deliberately transformed them in a walkable direction.

In some other metro areas, that's not the case. The report notes that "the 388 local jurisdictions in the Chicago metro that control land use have many times stifled urbanization of the suburbs." Portland, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Philadelphia all get mention in the report for high levels of "NIMBYism" in towns outside the center city.

That's not to say Washington's non-downtown job centers are perfect. Places like Tysons Corner have a long way to go before they really feel oriented around the pedestrian, and will likely never equal a historic center city in that way. But the governments of all counties around DC are really trying.

Even if they may move slowly, Fairfax County has a policy of making Tysons more walkable (and it did just get Metro). The same goes for Montgomery and Prince George's, and even a lot of folks in Loudoun, Howard, and so forth. Walkable urbanism isn't a fringe idea around here. Meanwhile, many of the SF Bay Area's towns downzoned the areas around BART stations to block new development when rail arrived, and a lot of those towns' attitudes haven't changed.

So, let's give a round of applause to Maryland and Virginia leaders, both in the 1970s (when Metro was being planned) and today, for at least being way better than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.


(Las Vegas is an outlier because it has very little walkable urbanism in the city, but the Strip is outside and counts as "suburbs" in this analysis.)

Walkable urbanism is also good for equity

The report also looks at how WalkUPs affect equity. In all of the metro areas, being in a walkable place commands higher rent (191% higher in New York, 66% higher in Washington, and only 4% higher in Baltimore, last on this list).

However, in the cities with more walkable urbanism, moderate-income residents living in walkable areas spend less on transportation and live nearer to more jobs, even if they may spend more on housing.

The report says:

This research has reached the counter-intuitive conclusion that metro areas with the highest walkable urban rankings have the highest social equity performance, as measured by moderate-income household spending on housing and transportation and access to employment. Of the top 10 metro regions ranked by social equity, eight also ranked in the the top 10 for current walkable urbanism The most walkable urban metros also have the most social equity.
Washington rated second in equity, again after New York. Washingtonians making 80% of the area median income spend just 17% of their income on transportation have access to an average of 56,897 jobs. In Tampa, meanwhile, such people spend 30% of their incomes on transportation and are near just 19,205 jobs.

Even housing in WalkUPs isn't as expensive here as in many metros, controlling for income, according to the report: Moderate-income households living in WalkUPs spend 36% of their income on housing, on par with Houston and St. Louis. In Tampa, that's 44%, and hits 52% in Miami. (It's 47% in New York and LA and 42% in the San Francisco Bay Area).

Politics


If you live in Arlington or DC, your vote matters on Tuesday!

Virginia had its presidential primary long ago and DC's Democratic primary Tuesday won't affect who wins the nomination. But if you're a Democrat in DC or any voter in Arlington, your vote will absolutely matter in local races. Please vote!


Erik Gutshall (Arlington) and Robert White (DC).

Greater Greater Washington has endorsed Erik Gutshall for Arlington County Board and Robert White for DC Council at large, and Vincent Gray in Ward 7.

Why it's important vote in Arlington

Arlington's race may see low turnout because there's no federal or statewide contest at the same time, but the county board race will have a big impact on the future of Arlington. It's an important election.

Decades ago, Arlington was a declining inner-ring suburb where even getting a Home Depot was a faint hope. But a strategy of creating urban villages around the new Metro system has transformed the county into a national model.

The strong tax base from these urban areas (it gets 60% of its tax revenue from 11% of its land) let the county keep taxes low and services high. But when the recession, sequestration, and BRAC took a big bite out of office occupancy in Arlington, it created an opening for ambitious politicians to attack the county's leaders and appeal to voters who'd rather the county do less rather than more.

Libby Garvey was one of them. She has never articulated a strong vision for moving Arlington forward. For Arlington to retreat into mediocrity by slashing its ambitions to build a better place to live risks sending Arlington back to the past.

Erik Gutshall has demonstrated his commitment to a strong future for Arlington as a member of its planning commission. Also, as the owner of a home services business, he knows what it will take to woo businesses (and keep the county from driving them away); how to spend responsibly but also invest as necessary.

Residents of Arlington can speak loudly on Tuesday for a forward-looking—and responsible-spending—county by showing up to the polls and electing Erik Gutshall.

The primary is open to people of any party registration and all county board seats are elected at large, so all eligible voters can participate. Find your polling place here. Polls are open from 6 am to 7 pm.

Why it's important to vote in DC

While everyone on the DC Council is either a Democrat or a lifelong Democrat registered as an independent, that doesn't mean there aren't big differences between members—liberal versus conservative, urbanist versus not, motivated by a desire to improve DC versus personal ambition.

Too much (often all) of the political coverage is about things like who is on the "Green Team" or not, who's angling for another political office or not, and so on. That's mostly garbage. Greater Greater Washington focused on important issues facing the city, and if you agree with what we talk about, it's important to try to figure out which candidates actually would cast good votes on critical legislation.

Vincent Orange rarely does. Often it seems he doesn't even care about the issue, but is interested in angling for some political advantage, like when he agreed to flip a position on a key tax policy vote in exchange for an earmark for a parade at a theater whose board he's on.

I've talked to Robert White many times and he absolutely believes in the basic values our community holds dear. If you don't believe me, believe all of the other urbanist, environmental, and progressive groups and individuals that are supporting him.

David Garber also shares these values, but White has more experience, more political support, and the best chance of winning. From the beginning, I said I hoped people would figure out which of the two has the strongest support and all run to that side, hard as it might be for some.

Vince Gray was a dedicated, solid supporter of good urbanism, of a sustainable DC, of walking, biking, and transit, of adding housing to keep prices affordable, and much more. He's running against Yvette Alexander, one of the councilmembers who's been most consistently and openly contemptuous of the vision for DC we share here at Greater Greater Washington.

While allegations in a long-running investigation are potentially quite serious, that investigation was concluded with no charges, and he was objectively excellent on policy. Quite simply, having Gray on the council will shift a lot of votes in the right direction, and that matters.

Find your polling place here. You must be a registered Democrat in DC to vote in the Democratic primary (and no other party has a contested race).

Transit


The DC Circulator isn't a waste of taxpayer money. In fact, some argue it's too cheap.

Is the DC Circulator, the District's red bus that plies central DC corridors (and a few other spots), a bad deal for taxpayers? Washington Post columnist Colbert King argues as much in a recent piece, but here's the thing: for a bus, the Circulator is actually cheap, and some of the other things people criticize are consequences of using the lowest bidder.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

King criticizes how DC's latest budget adds funding for Circulator capital needs and operating costs, which have grown as the Circulator system has grown. He writes:

From 2011 to 2016, the District has funded the D.C. Circulator Operating/Capital Budget to the tune of $152.9 million (2011, $16.7 million; 2012, $12.6 million; 2013, $14.5 million; 2014, $27.2 million; 2015, $33.1 million; and 2016, $48.7 million).

A recent audit of the Circulator fleet found examples of neglected maintenance, engine defects, windows that wouldn't open and other safety problems. So, the 2017 budget passed by the D.C. Council this week provides $34.5 million for Circulator buses and fleet rehabilitation.

The financial impact of the Circulator on D.C. wallets is a head-turner.

Is $48.7 million a lot or a little?

Can you name the operating cost of any other bus line? No? If not, do you have any idea if this number is high or low?

Too often, news stories and headlines present dollar figures for public works in a vacuum, devoid of context. To many people, 8-figure numbers just sound really high, whether or not they really are.

King also suggests that DC taxpayers are getting a bad deal because the District, rather than WMATA, owns the buses. But what he doesn't say in the column is that DC saves money by not using WMATA.

The cost DC pays for Circulator service in 2013 was $83.20 per "revenue hour" (each hour a bus is running when it can carry passengers) in 2011. Metrobus's cost per revenue hour in 2011 was somewhere between $93 and $142 per hour.1

This is a big reason why DC isn't the only jurisdiction to run its own buses alongside Metro's; just about all of them do.


Photos by Dan Malouff.

It's cheaper because the contractor is stingier

So why is WMATA more expensive? Some of the cost may be inefficiencies from a large bureaucracy, but there's also cost savings from stingier paychecks and skimpier benefits at First Transit, the contractor DC uses.

There's been a lot of criticism of labor practices and poverty wages there. Labor-aligned groups have argued that Circulator drivers made far below a living wage for the Washington region. And a damning audit found major problems with the buses' maintenance, as King points out in the excerpt above.

Drivers said First Transit was forcing them to take buses out with safety defects, a practice which is now prohibited in a new contract. The drivers also got a pay raise.

The company also recently came under fire for a policy against hiring ex-offenders. King mentions this as one criticism of the Circulator. (WMATA has some rules against hiring ex-offenders too, though I haven't seen a detailed comparison of the hiring rules between the various companies.)

This situation isn't just a coincidence. DC bid out operations for the Circulator, and paying less and cutting corners are some of the ways operators like this cut costs to get lower bids.

King criticizes First Transit for employing more Marylanders than DC residents. But if cost is such a major concern, it's worth considering that hiring more DC residents would certainly drive up the cost of the contract. This is an instance of public policy where we can't have it both ways—both lower costs and more DC hiring.

Yes, it would be better for more bus drivers to live in the jurisdictions where they drive, but to do that, DC will first need to add housing, including affordable housing, so more bus drivers can live in DC.

Expanding to more neighborhoods made the price go up

King also suggests that it's wrong for the Circulator to stay in DC's core (mostly). He writes, "most D.C. taxpayers, from Tenleytown, to Shepherd Park, to Woodridge, to Fort Lincoln, don't know" the District owns the buses.

At the same time, his list of annual Circulator costs makes it looks like the the price tripled. But that's at the same time DC expanded service to more areas. Some of those cost a lot more than the core lines. Here's a graph of the farebox recovery rate by line for March 2015-February 2015 (the latest 12 months where the Circulator dashboard has data):

By far, the two lines that recouped less of their costs were Union Station to Navy Yard and Potomac Avenue-Skyland. The latter was a largely political move to ensure the "Circulator" went east of the Anacostia. While neighborhoods east of the river deserve better bus service, the Circulator probably wasn't the right kind of bus service (Metrobus is).

That doesn't mean other neighborhoods shouldn't get better bus service. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie recently fought for a new express bus along Rhode Island Avenue, which is great for residents of that corridor. Good for him. He was also right to not ask for it to be called the Circulator. Not everyone needs their bus to have the same name. What they all need and deserve is good bus service.

Why is the fare only $1?

A more reasonable argument from the column is about the fare. The Circulator costs $1. Metrobus costs $1.75. King criticizes this disparity, and I agree that's not really fair. Why should neighborhoods with "Circulator" have a cheaper bus than neighborhoods with "Metrobus"?

Some lower-income people take the Circulator instead of a Metrobus because it's cheaper, even if it's not as convenient. It's not sensible to push people to take one bus over another in this way. Though raising the Circulator fare wouldn't help those folks, of course.

King also argues that tourists or more affluent people could afford to pay more. That's true, and in the past there have been proposals to raise the fare (and I even agreed with some of them). But making it a clean buck also makes it easier for people to have the right change, which is good for a bus that does attract some folks who don't have SmarTrips.

This is a discussion worth continuing. Unfortunately, King's ultimate recommendation is to move Circulator buses to other neighborhoods (bad from both a budget and planning perspective) or sell them off; he doesn't make a concrete proposal about the fare.


Image from the DC Circulator.

"There's no free ride"

The column relays a lot of other misconceptions, which I'll try to respond to in the future. But it's important to remember the maxim, "you get what you pay for." While government sometimes is very wasteful (as are private companies), doing things well also costs money and is worth supporting.

The headline on the article begins by saying, "There's no free ride." That's true. The region can debate (and in transportation circles, has debated) whether government should be spending more for better service and to better compensate bus drivers, who have a tough job.

Some come down on one side of that debate, some on the other. What this column does is simultaneously criticize the Circulator for what it doesn't do, and simultaneously, claim it's not financially worthwhile because of those gaps. That's just misleading.

1 The National Transit Database lists Metrobus's cost per revenue hour as $142. This includes things like transit police, which don't get charged for the Circulator but DC has to pay for elsewhere in its budget.

According to Jim Hamre of WMATA, the better figure is about $106 per hour, and incremental service costs only $93 per hour by piggybacking on fixed costs like bus garages that Metro's already spent. If a local government wants to "buy" bus service, Metro will change $116 per hour.

Development


A court ruling on a Brookland development could imperil future housing near Metro stations

DC's Court of Appeals has overturned approvals for a six-story apartment building across the street from the Brookland Metro station. The decision could give opponents in many parts of DC new ammunition to try to block new housing in their neighborhoods.


Rendering of the proposed 901 Monroe project. Image from the Menkiti Group.

Welcome to Brookland, a major front in development wars

Walk out the Brookland Metro station on the neighborhood side, turn right, and after walking along the loop with bus stops you will reach Monroe Street. On the other side is a large parcel where the Colonel Brooks' Tavern and some houses used to sit.

Now, that property, 901 Monroe Street NE, is empty. Neighbors have three times appealed, successfully, a decision by the DC Zoning Commission to allow a building with six floors, five stores, and 212 apartments.

In a nutshell, a panel of judges for DC's Court of Appeals looked a map in DC's Comprehensive Plan, called the Future Land Use Map (FLUM). The map shows this area in shades of orange, signifying that it is "moderate density." The definitions for the categories say that moderate density areas are generally ones with 2-4 story buildings.

This is not 2-4 stories. Therefore, the court said, it's not reasonable to allow a taller building. For a number of reasons, the legal issue is much more complicated, but here's the rub: There are a lot of places in the city that are orange on this map, and a lot of them have, or could soon have, buildings like this one.

Unless this ruling means that now, they may not be able to.

Once upon a time, some people wanted to build housing near Metro...

In 2010, the owners of 901 Monroe, a partnership between the Menkiti Group, Horning Brothers, and Jim Steigman, applied for a kind of zoning permission called a "Planned Unit Development." A PUD lets a building exceed the zoning for an area in exchange for a high-quality project that provides public benefits. DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board with final authority over zoning, reviews and decides on PUDs.

In 2012, the Zoning Commission approved the project. Neighbors appealed. A three-judge panel found that most of the approval was reasonable, but found some holes in the commission's findings, which it asked the commission to fill in. The commission did so, but by copying verbatim some suggested text from the developer, and in a second appeal, a different panel of judges said that was not okay, as well as identifying some other problems with the order.

The Zoning Commission approved the project a third time, and neighbors appealed a third time. This time, the judges said the commission's approval was not a reasonable interpretation of DC's Comprehensive Plan at all, and overturned the zoning approvals entirely.


Image from the DC Comprehensive Plan.

How comprehensive is the Comprehensive Plan?

DC's Comprehensive Plan, or "Comp Plan," is a document written by DC's Office of Planning and approved by the DC Council. By law, zoning decisions must be consistent with the Comp Plan.

Unfortunately, the Comp Plan is not all that consistent with itself. It contains long lists of policy statements, many vague and many pointing in different directions. It talks about the need to add housing near Metro stations but also the value of preserving single-family home neighborhoods. But what about when low-density houses surround Metro stations? The plan doesn't say how to reconcile these conflicts.

The Zoning Commission does that. In its PUDs and other processes, it considers the various Comp Plan provisions and strikes a balance (for better or worse). Courts in DC, following a widespread legal doctrine called "deference," generally avoid second-guessing Zoning Commission and other agency decisions if they are "not arbitrary and capricious."

In the first of the three appeals (which is referred to as Durant I because it's the first case brought by lead plaintiff and project neighbor Guy Durant), the court generally found the commission's balance-striking to be acceptable.

In its report, OP [the DC Office of Planning] indicated that in its view, the developer's proposal struck an appropriate balance between competing Plan policies, some of which encouraged new development around Metro stations, while others favored the preservation of existing neighborhoods.

[In a second, later report,] OP noted that "[t]here are elements ... that support development of the site as an important link between the new commercial uses that will be developed at [a recently-approved PUD project on Catholic University's campus] and the existing commercial uses on 12th Street. It also pointed to the existence of other, competing policies, which stressed conserving the local neighborhood's residential character. Ultimately, OP reiterated its conclusion that the developer's proposal struck an appropriate balance between these competing policies.

The Zoning Commission ultimately agreed, and the court in Durant I supported that approach, pointing out that:
Even if a proposal conflicts with one or more individual policies associated with the Comprehensive Plan, this does not, in and of itself, preclude the Commission from concluding that the action would be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan as a whole. The Plan is not a code of prohibitions; it is an interpretive guide, which the Commission must consider holistically. [Internal quotations omitted]
However, neighbors claimed the DC Office of Planning had misrepresented what the Future Land Use Map really said. OP's report said that the orange striped area in the map below made up about 50% of the proposed project, while neighbors argued it was 37.5%.

The Durant I court did agree that it wasn't clear that OP's 50% figure was right. Maybe the Zoning Commission had been misled by OP's report, and if so, maybe it would have made a different decision. The court couldn't presume it would have still approved the project, so it asked the Zoning Commission to take another look. "We conclude that the Commission must explicitly resolve the FLUM designation dispute and explain whether, and how, its resolution of the issue affects its ultimate decision."

What's "moderate"? It's a question that applies to more than politics

The Zoning Commission didn't think the 37.5% versus 50% was an issue, nor were any of the other deficiencies the court had identified in Durant I. It issued a new order confirming the approval.

Neighbors appealed again. Some of the second case revolved around whether it was okay for the Zoning Commission to copy, verbatim, suggested text from the developer. But the real relevant question was whether this project qualifies as "moderate density."

In many places in the Comprehensive Plan (including the striped area above) and a 2009 neighborhood specific plan called the Brookland Small Area Plan, the text talks about encouraging "moderate-density mixed use" or otherwise refers to allowed density as "moderate."

Moderate density is everything that's orange on the FLUM. The Comp Plan says moderate density areas are "characterized by a mix of single family homes, 2-4 unit buildings, row houses, and low-rise apartment buildings," while medium density areas are "neighborhoods or areas where mid-rise (4-7 story) apartment buildings are the predominant use."

The Brookland Small Area Plan also says that PUDs are acceptable up to a height of 50 feet in this area.

In Durant II, the court asked the Zoning Commission to better articulate why this 6-story building was "moderate density." It did, noting among other things that the building has setbacks above 50 feet and is set away from the street in a way that would make the overall look and feel of the building fit in with a moderate-density area.

But in the third and final appeal, Durant III, the judges said, "Although those considerations are potentially relevant to other issues, they do not support a conclusion that the proposed building constitutes a moderate-density use under the FLUM, because the FLUM's definitions of "moderate density" and "medium density" focus on buildings' actual physical characteristics, such as the number of stories or units in a building, rather than on how the building would look to an observer."

The opinion says that maybe the Zoning Commission could simply decide that medium density is also okay here, but since neither side asked for it to go back again for a fourth time, the court simply overturned the PUD approval. Bo Menkiti, owner of the Menkiti Group, says he and the other partners in the project are "still committed" to the project and are considering their options.

This case is making planners far more conservative

Meanwhile, however, this case has already reverberated in other proposals. Just south of Rhode Island Avenue from here, there's a proposal to redevelop the Brookland Manor garden apartment complex into a mixed-use village with larger buildings. But the whole neighborhood is colored orange on the FLUM. The DC Office of Planning has worried that some of the buildings didn't seem to fit with the "moderate" density label.

OP hasn't said so outright, but there's reason to believe this issue also was behind their refusal to allow a hearing on Georgetown Day School's proposal for an 80-foot building in an area that's—you guessed it—moderate density orange (and low density commercial pink) on the map.

Opponents of the proposed development at the former McMillan sand filtration plant are challenging that project in court, saying it doesn't fit with the FLUM's classification for the property.

It's not uncommon for opponents of a project to bring a lawsuit, but most of them, such as the ones recently for the Hine School by Eastern Market Metro or the West End library and fire station, don't succeeed. But Hine is seven stories at its highest point (more than 901 Monroe), yet its area on the map is orange.

It's not a log flume, but it's making a big splash

There is a lot of "moderate density" orange on the FLUM, including in many areas with some large apartment buildings. My block is orange, for instance, but behind my house is a large 9-story building; on the end of the block is one that's seven stories.

Heck, the Cairo apartment building, DC's tallest residential building, is 164 feet tall and in an orange zone on the FLUM. It sits among an area of mostly row houses, sure, but it's sure not moderate density.

Meanwhile, on many commercial corridors, the FLUM is a patchwork of color changes from one block to the next based on the prevailing land use right now. Again just in my neighborhood, one block of 17th Street which happens to have residential buildings (and tall ones) is colored residential and not commercial. Yet if they were ever redeveloped, ground-floor retail would be a sensible element to include, since there is retail across the street.

The same principles apply across DC. The FLUM is not really a vision for what neighborhoods could become; it's more a description of what they are now or how planners already anticipated they would change in 2006, when the map was made.

Paul Tummonds, an attorney for Goulston & Storrs which represents 901 Monroe, said, "The problem with the FLUM is that in large swaths, there was no forethought of future land use. It's more, 'This is what's there now.' I don't think there was a real planning perspective of what should be there in the future; it was a recitation of existing conditions."

If courts start taking the FLUM's "this broad area will probably be moderate density" as a stricter dictate that medium-density buildings are verboten, and if OP applies that to other proposals (as it may already be doing), that'd mean a big change for the ability to add housing on major corridors and near Metro stations, housing DC desperately needs.

Meta


Here's our new logo. Thank you for your help.

We need a new logo. Actually, we kind of need a logo, period—there's not really a logo on our website, just our name in some fonts, and a totally different icon on Twitter. We need something unifying. Here's what we've picked:

Many of you voted in our survey of eight options. The concept that turned into this got the best ratings, and we liked it too.

The double G reflects our name, of course, and the icon looks a little like a transit map (and uses a green close to the one for the Metro Green Line).

The tail is shaped somewhat like the District of Columbia, but it was important to us that the logo not be just something inside a DC outline, because we're explicitly about Greater Washington, not just DC. Here, the curve of the G sweeps beyond DC. The tail also suggests the Potomac and Anacostia rivers as well as "greater than" symbols.

We picked two tones of green and gray (a greenish gray). Green reflects growth and motion, like a traffic light. It's also the color for one line of the Metro system, one that spans a lot of different types of neighborhoods.

Finally, green is not the red of the DC flag, blue of Virginia, or gold and black of Maryland; we didn't want to favor one such entity over another, and using all three would be too busy and look too much like some nations' flags.

Gray is part of the site's current aesthetic, such as the sidebars. (You could also say it evokes the built environment, though honestly, we just picked it because it looks good with the green.)

The text is a font called Whitney Condensed, a sans serif with some playful features like the ends of some of the lines (see the top left of the W, the bottom right of the A, or the top right of the T). We want to provide you with solid information, but also don't want to be too square or stodgy about it, and this font fits that.

The tagline includes the double chevron "greater greater" which we also liked in the logo discussion. Many of you liked that symbol, but it didn't really work on its own. Here, as a secondary element, people can get the math joke, or not. That symbol also connotes motion, and the similarity to sharrows ties in bicycling.

We hope you like it. For sure, some of you will hate it; any logo change engenders some strong opinions. But we like it.

We may try to work in the logo here and there soon. More significantly, this is one step in redesigning our website, for which this logo will be a cornerstone. Stay tuned for more on that.

Thanks very much to Peter Dovak, who created the double G shape, and Derek Hogue, who is doing our website redesign and worked with us on colors, fonts, and text.

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