Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Friday funny: This town ain't big enough


Image from BeyondDC.

I mean, can anyone definitively say the gunfight at the OK Corral wasn't to settle a zoning dispute over pop-up condos?

Transit to Wolf Trap will still run through West Falls Church

Despite speculation that the Silver Line might change how the Fairfax Connector runs to Wolf Trap, the service's Route 480 Wolf Trap Express will continue to run from West Falls Church this season. While some Silver Line stations are closer, it turns out West Falls Church still makes sense.


Photo from FCDOT.

According to Nicholas Perfili, the Fairfax Connector section chief, Wolf Trap and Fairfax County DOT officials did discuss the possibility of changing the service to run from a station on the Silver Line. Ultimately, they decided against it.

West Falls Church still has a lot to offer

The main reason for keeping the current routing is to make sure concert goers can stay at Wolf Trap for as long as possible. While the last train to DC leaves Spring Hill at 11:18 pm during the week, the last train from West Falls leaves at 11:32. Concerts can run late into the evening, and those extra few minutes can be the difference between having to leave before a show ends and catching the encore.

Perfili also pointed out that the route from West Falls Church to Wolf Trap offers a more reliable trip time because it has HOV-2 restrictions on the Dulles Connector Road and a bus-on-shoulder lane that lets buses bypass other traffic. Also, a bus from Spring Hill would be subject to Tysons congestion, which can be quite bad.


Photo from FCDOT.

While there's ample parking at West Falls Church, there isn't at any of the Tysons stations. A final thing West Falls Church has that the others don't: room for buses to park and wait if need be.

The Wolf Trap Express will undergo one change this year: it will now use West Falls Church's Bus Bay E, which is closer than Bay B, which it used to use. The move comes thanks to the Silver Line, which made it possible to cut the number of buses needing to run through West Falls Church.

That means that, albeit indirectly, the Silver Line is making trips to Wolf Trap shorter... if only by a few feet.

The Takoma Langley transit center is rising from the ground

Construction is progressing rapidly at Maryland's Takoma Langley transit center. Take a look:


Construction progress as of Saturday, April 18, 2015. Photos by the author unless noted.

The transit center will feature bus bays and rider amenities, covered under a great curving roof that's sure to become a local landmark.

Fow now, the bright white frame looks more like something out of a sci-fi movie than a bus station.

Here's what it will all look like once construction is done:


Rendering of the final station from the State of Maryland.

Langley Park needs this

Langley Park, at the corner of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue, is the busiest bus transfer location in the Washington region that isn't connected to a Metro station.

Eleven bus routes stop on the side of the street at the busy crossroads, serving 12,000 daily bus riders. That's nearly as many bus riders per day as there are Metrorail riders at Silver Spring Metro, and it's about double the number of Metrorail riders at Takoma station.

Corralling all those bus stops into a single transit center will make transfers vastly easier, faster, and safer for bus riders.

Heavy construction began at the transit center last year, and is scheduled to be complete around December 2015.

If the Purple Line light rail is built, Takoma Langley will become one of its stations, boosting ridership even more. The light rail transitway and station would have to be added later, and would fit snuggly in the median of University Boulevard.


How a Purple Line station would fit. Rendering from the State of Maryland.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Smarter growth will expand Prince George's tax base

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wants to raise real property tax rates by 16% to increase funding to public schools. The real way to boost Prince George's economy is to develop around its gateway Metro stations near the DC line.


The area around the Capitol Heights Metro station is underdeveloped. Image from WMATA.

Prince George's is home to the lowest median home values and highest property tax rates in the region, largely because of the low home values in its older, deteriorating communities that border the District of Columbia. Seven of the county's 15 Metrorail stations are in these gateway neighborhoods, but they all are devoid of any substantial transit-oriented development (TOD).

Improving existing home values will strengthen the tax base

Like many other suburbs, Prince George's County has historically been a bedroom community. The county's largest source of tax revenue comes from real property taxes, and 61% of taxable real estate is residential property.

It stands to reason, then, that even small increases in existing home values in the county would go a long way to raise revenues even without any major large-scale development.

Currently, median home values in the five Prince George's county subdivision areas bordering the District of Columbia fall 10-31% below the countywide median value of $269,800. If existing home values in these areas simply rose to that level, the county's taxable real estate base would increase by approximately $2.47 billion. That would add approximately $23.7 million annually in revenue to the county.

Of course, if the county got serious about developing the seven Metro stations located in these struggling communities (Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Cheverly, Southern Avenue, Naylor Road, Suitland, and West Hyattsville), real property revenues would soar much higher than the median.

Undeveloped transit station areas undermine economic growth

Shockingly, Prince George's current General Plan doesn't recommend any substantial growth around six of the seven Metro stations near the DC border over the next 20 years. (The Suitland station, next to the U.S. Census Bureau, is the exception.) Indeed, the county's planners believe there are currently "too many" Metro stations in the county and that developing all of them would "undermine economic growth."

More specifically, planners say that the six gateway Metro stations bordering DC, plus the four stand-alone MARC stations, plus all the planned stand-alone Purple Line stations should only account for 15% of the county's future growth in the next 20 years. That equates to fewer than 600 new housing units per transit station.

By contrast, the General Plan recommends putting 30-40% of the county's projected growth and development over the next 20 years—or up to 25,000 new housing units—far away from transit and mostly outside of the Beltway. This recommendation appears despite county-funded research that concludes that failing to focus on TOD puts the county "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors."

Prince George's has continually squandered opportunities to focus its attention on revitalizing its neighborhoods inside the Beltway. Continuing to encourage scattered development away from transit has crippled the county financially, environmentally, and aesthetically.

Gateway communities can't wait 20 more years to redevelop

The close-in Prince George's neighborhoods and Metro station areas near the DC line are likely the first thing the region's current and prospective residents think about when determining whether they would like to live and work in the county.

Until Prince George's County improves its gateway neighborhoods, it will be difficult for it to attract the region's best and brightest. The county can't wait another 20 years for that transformation to happen.

County executive Baker is rightly concerned with diversifying the county's revenue base, creating more jobs, and expanding the county's commercial tax base. To that end, he has advocated strongly for developing the end-of-line Metro stations at the Beltway's edge.

For example, he's called for the FBI to relocate its headquarters to Greenbelt Metro, for the state housing agency to relocate to New Carrollton Metro, and for a new regional medical center to come to Largo Town Center.

Likewise, the General Plan's strategy to direct 50% of future growth to the seven largest Metro stations (including the three mentioned above) plus National Harbor, and to create three "downtowns" at Largo, New Carrollton, and Prince George's Plaza, is sensible.

Still, the county's economic development strategy should also reach beyond downtown, and deeper inside the Beltway, to the neighborhood Metro stations near the District's edge. Most of the new development that the General Plan currently contemplates for outer-Beltway suburbia should instead go toward these gateway areas.

Prince George's County cannot simply tax itself out of last place in the region. Instead, its leaders need to become better stewards of the public's trust and the public's resources. The county's transit-rich gateway neighborhoods are economic engines ready and waiting to be fired up, but county leaders have to ignite the switch.

Prince George's must get serious about revitalizing its old streetcar suburbs. These vital neighborhoods can't be left to languish for another generation.

Crossposted on Prince George's Urbanist.

A trade pact might change local land use decisions in a big way

A key principle of land use in the United States is that homeowners can often veto new buildings on nearby land that other people own. A trade agreement that's currently in the works could have a huge impact on that long-established system of local control.


Hand shake image from Shutterstock.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a trade pact that would change the rules for investments and trade among its signers. It's currently in behind-closed-doors negotiation among 12 countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Singapore. Other countries could join later.

A recently leaked draft of the TPP gives investors from member nations the right to sue when a decision by a local government "interferes with distinct, reasonable investment-backed expectations."

Panels of private lawyers chosen by the investors and the federal government will meet to decide the suits. If the investors win, the federal government must reimburse them for the loss of future profits.

Critics of the TPP argue that it could gut environmental and health regulation. They point to the past history of trade agreements to back up that concern. The TPP's backers, on the other hand, assert that the treaty only bans arbitrary or discriminatory actions.

No matter who turns out to be right about that, the pact is likely to undermine local oversight of land use.

The TPP goes against the spirit of American land use law

Homeowners' power to influence development—what I call "suburban land tenure" in my book Dead Endis an entitlement that most people in the United States take for granted. But it is just the sort of local decision-making the TPP seeks to curb.

Trade treaties aim for decision-making that is stable, predictable, and rational. US land use regulation, on the other hand, bends to meet the often capricious desires of the neighbors. Local officials turn to hard-to-pin-down concepts like "compatibility" and "historic significance" to justify their responsiveness to constituents.

Whatever one thinks of this arrangement, its linguistic evasions are unlikely to satisfy panels of trade lawyers meeting thousands of miles away, under rules that don't even guarantee the local government the right to speak.

Consider this hypothetical case, which is also utterly routine: A foreign landowner proposes a new city building. Neighbors petition for a "historic" designation for the house now standing on the property, and the preservation board approves, blocking new construction. Meanwhile, there are no petitions or designations for nearby houses similar in age and architecture. Is the landowner entitled to compensation?

Or let's say the master plan for an area near a Maryland Metro station calls for 15-story buildings. The zoning allows such tall buildings only if the planning board approves the design; otherwise property owners are limited to three stories. A foreign landowner applies to build a 15-floor building, but neighbors protest against the height of the structures and the planning board cuts the size to nine floors. Will the landowner get the value of the square feet he wasn't allowed to build?

A lot depends on the treaty's details, but we aren't privy to those

It's hard to say exactly how the TPP would affect land use regulation in these and other cases. Wording for the agreement isn't final yet, and that will certainly influence how arbitrators rule in the future. But if Congress gives trade negotiators "fast track" authority, the public will have no say in what follows. Negotiations will stay behind closed doors, and Congress won't be able to change provisions it doesn't like.

Once the pact goes into effect, amendments will require a unanimous agreement from all the countries that signed.

Even after the TPP passes, it will take years for the legal issues to play out. What will happen then if foreign landowners are winning large financial payments from the federal government? Will foreign developers refuse all compromise with local zoning boards, knowing that rejection wins them the same profits as approval? Will the federal government interfere with local zoning decisions that could provoke a large payout? Will domestic builders demand the same rights as foreigners?

You don't have to be a fan of current land use practice to object to this transfer of power. All too often, zoning laws empower affluent minorities at the expense of the larger community. They outlaw the lively urban neighborhoods that more and more Americans want to live in.

The cure for these ills is more democracy, not less. Land use regulators should answer to the entire electorate, not to small groups of influential landowners and not to unaccountable tribunals that put the interests of big money ahead of the common good.

Jobs are clustering in parts of the region, but the east is falling behind

There's a growing economic gap in the region, with jobs concentrating in the west while poverty is growing in the east. This from a new Brookings Institute report on how close people were to jobs in 2000 and 2012.


A map showing areas that saw an increase (or decrease) in nearby jobs. Image from Brookings.

Most poor residents can only afford to live in the east, which leaves them stranded far away from job opportunities.

DC has a "favored quarter," and if you don't live in it, it's hard to find work

Jobs in the DC region are heavily concentrated in a "favored quarter" that starts downtown and stretches west-northwest. Residents in the ten-mile-wide circle that covers the northwest quadrant of DC, Arlington, and neighboring parts of Montgomery and Fairfax counties, can easily commute to about a million jobs.

For people in that area, chances are pretty good that one of those jobs will suit them. City Observatory recently noted based on Brookings' data, core-area residents in the DC region have, on average, three times as many jobs within commuting distance as residents of more distant areas.

DC's favored quarter is also adding more jobs. Between 2000 and 2012, about 100,000 new jobs became available within a reasonable commuting distance of north Arlington, Bethesda, Wards 2 and 3 in DC, Herndon, and Sterling.

In the years the study looks at, the average resident of the "core jurisdictions" inside the original DC diamond (the District, Arlington, and Alexandria) saw their proximity to jobs improve by 8.6%. That's far better than the region-wide 2% average.

For a practical look at these findings' implications, consider Tysons Corner and Largo Town Center, two areas opposite one another on the Capital Beltway. Tysons residents have four times as many jobs within commuting distance. Largo residents, on the other hand, have to commute across the entire region in search of work.

The difference between being inside and outside of the core is even starker for areas with non-white majorities. Census tracts within the diamond where most residents are not white saw 7.5% more jobs within commuting distance in 2012 than in 2000.

While most of the region's jobs didn't shift far from the favored quarter,
the Dulles Airport/Route 28 area did emerge as a big new job center. Unfortunately, that area is far from transit, and very far from where most of the region's residents live.

And most areas in the favored quarter are doing a pitiful job of adding new housing units, meaning they're missing out on opportunities for people to live near where they work. Policy makers in these areas seem content to let housing prices rise, while rejecting new transit lines that would improve connections to their job centers.

Job locations have a huge impact on home values

When it comes to housing costs, proximity to jobs has a whole lot to do with why housing prices within the diamond have increased relative to farther-out areas.

That difference in home values is growing as job opportunities keep expanding in the west and shrinking in the east, causing poverty to shift farther into eastern areas that are sometimes ill-equipped to deal with service needs.

Outside of the Beltway, the lack of job opportunity in Prince George's and eastern Montgomery counties has depressed property values and ruined many families' finances.

All of this leads to what social scientists call a "spatial mismatch" between jobs and affordable housing. Over time, a spatial mismatch can widen into what sociologist Robert Putnam calls an opportunity equality gap, disadvantaging families for multiple generations.

Despite all this, smart transit and planning are reasons to be optimistic

Encouragingly, some job location trends in recent years are chipping away at the problem, particularly for residents who live within Metro's reach and especially within the diamond. Jobs are shifting away from distant locations, towards transit accessible areas like downtown DC. This shift should make it easier for residents who live outside the favored quarter to reach job opportunities.

New transit links to existing job centers, like Maryland's Purple Line, will also literally bridge the east-west divide. More infill residential development within the favored quarter, both at job centers like Tysons and within neighborhoods, will also improve access to opportunity and cut long commute times.

One caveat about the report: due to data limitations, the study assumes that people travel a "typical commute distance" in an as-the-crow-flies radius around their homes. It doesn't take into account whether transportation routes, like bridges or transit lines, are available between those points.

What else do you notice from the report? How can we cut down the spatial mismatch between jobs and housing in the DC region?

Support Us