Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Bike paths are good for business, says the president of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce

Some people were skeptical that Shortcake Bakery would succeed. After all, it's next to grungy strip of auto repair shops along Route 1 in Hyattsville. But David Harrington, the president of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce, whose wife opened the bakery, says the shop's location had an "unexpected asset": a nearby bike path.

David Harrington was the featured speaker at a economic development conference hosted by the Greenbelt Community Development Corporation last month. His personal experience with how bike trails can be advantageous for businesses was just one of the things he talked about.

"I can tell you one of the unexpected assets that we have at the bakery is that… it is near a bike path," said Harrington, referring to the Northwest Branch Trail, which is part of the Anacostia Tributary Trail system. "Cheryl and I always pray for good weather on Saturdays," he added, saying that when that happens "we may have 30 [cyclists] stop at Shortcake Bakery as they're going to Baltimore, going to College Park. It is a wonderful business asset."

Base image from Google Maps.

"If you create these bike paths and … create nice connectors for bicyclists to do commerce, that is an amazing business opportunity," he continued. "Walkability and bikeability are … strong economic tools that can help create entrepreneurship, and I think we need to look at that a lot closer than we are."

The Old Greenbelt Theater hosted the conference. Here's a link to the full video:

Not all the housing in a region costs the same, despite what headlines imply

We often see headlines about the most expensive cities in America, where writers look at the average or median price for renting. But by zeroing in on a single number, those reports doesn't always paint a complete picture of affordability.

Graphic by the author. Click for an interactive version.

I developed an interactive graph where users can explore how many people are living in neighborhoods (in the graph above, I looked at ZIP codes) of differing prices.

Measuring a city's rent with the median—the middle number in a series of numbers—is useful for quick comparisons. But in only using one number, we lose valuable information about affordability because we ignore the variation in prices.

While the median rent for the entire DC census-designated urban area is about $1500, some areas are cheaper (the 20010 ZIP code, containing northern Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant sits around $1250) and others are more expensive (20016, the Palisades, is at $1800).

In the interactive graph, the X axis measures rent and the Y axis measures the percent of the city's population living in a ZIP code where the median rent is less than X. For example, in the chart above, we see that 60.5% of Houstonians live in a ZIP code where the median monthly rent is no more than $999. The further a city's series is to the right, the more expensive it is.​ You can read more about the technical details here.

According to this data, DC is one of the most expensive urban areas in the US. (This is consistent with the area-wide median rent figure, which is higher than that of most cities.) There's a clear shortage of affordable areas: only about 6% of DC-area residents live in a ZIP code where median rent is less than $1000. That's slightly worse than other expensive places, like the Bay Area (7%) and NYC (9%), and considerably worse than more affordable cities, like Chicago (57%).

What do you notice in these graphs?

DC's move to legalize a little more housing (and other zoning changes): The finish line is in sight!

If you want to rent out a basement or garage and can't today, you might be able to by the end of 2016. DC's long-running zoning update finally got, um, "preliminary final action" approval at a meeting Monday.

This might be mostly legal in less than a year. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

The zoning update, in a nutshell, does two types of things. First, it will completely overhaul the District's zoning code to be more modern and, at least in theory, more understandable. Second, it makes a few targeted policy reforms, like allowing buildings near transit to have less parking if the owner doesn't think it's necessary, or letting homeowners in low-density areas rent out a basement or a garage or other space in a home to make some extra money and provide more housing.

Other changes let grocery stores possibly locate in residential areas as long as they're on corners and comply with a raft of other limitations; make it easier for theaters to operate in church basements and elsewhere in residential zones, subject to a public hearing; expand the area where certain downtown zoning applies; and a plethora of other small tweaks.

Advocates of keeping the cost of housing reasonable have been eager for the provisions to allow renting basements and garages (accessory apartments). Doing so creates the potential for more housing, and lower minimum parking requirements, which reduce the cost of building housing. Unfortunately, these efforts, which gained general Zoning Commission assent in 2009, have been waiting since, while the DC Office of Planning in the meantime pushed through other zoning changes that reduced potential new housing.

Good changes got caught up inside bigger, harder ones

One reason the zoning update has been delayed so many years is because a new zoning code is certainly intricate. The Office of Planning's former staffers who ran the zoning update back in 2008 may have made a tactical mistake in coupling key policy changes together with the new code in its complexity; anyone uncomfortable with the scale of such an undertaking balked at parts of the process even if their intent was not to hasten the rise in housing prices.

For example, several neighborhoods now have "overlays" which add special zoning rules on top of the base ones for similar areas. The new code instead sets up new base zones for each area with an overlay, so property owners don't have to look in two places and reconcile conflicting rules. But to people familiar with the old code, this is initially confusing, and the new approach has some cons along with the pros.

Coupling the important policy changes with technical ones like this hooked the effort to add housing to a very slow caravan. This afforded more chances for opponents of the actual changes to lobby to water them down. Politicians nervous about adding housing could couch concerns in the language of confusion or community engagement more readily.

The changes to accessory apartments and parking minimums are valuable, if too little on their own to make much dent in DC's housing needs which have grown since 2008. Had these more modest changes passed in 2010, say, it could have moved the ball forward and given people a chance to demonstrate these changes don't cause calamity. Accessory apartments would not have brought criminals into a building or engendered elder abuse, as some of the more strident opponents claimed; buildings with less parking would not have brought carmageddon.

The zoning board says, let's go

Much of the public opposition, at this point, is not really about substance, but process; the Committee of 100 argued that the code needs a third party review (and, of course, substantially more delay). Ward 4 councilmember Brandon Todd asked for another month's delay. But DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which makes the final decisions on zoning, has had enough of this process after eight years.

Chairman Anthony Hood did repeatedly express that he was "nervous" about signing off on a new zoning code. He worried about having to stand in front of Costco (which is relatively near his home) and defend the new zoning code to neighbors. He bit at the Committee of 100's independent-review idea, but the other commissioners felt the time for that was long past and the code was ready for approval.

Well, almost: The Office of Planning still has to make a few more small, mostly technical tweaks and present a final version. The commission will consider taking "final final" action (versus this week's "preliminary final" action) on January 14, but there will be no more testimony in the meantime.

Also since the last revision, OP has backed off somewhat on its plans for alley lots; there will have to be a hearing before alley lots can get housing, while previously OP was proposing allowing one dwelling unit on such a lot without a hearing.

If approved in its final form, the Office of Zoning, which administers the zoning code, will publish it in the DC Register, and then six months later, the new zoning code will apply. Anyone applying for a building permit before that date will use the old code; after (with a few exceptions), the new one.

Residential zones as of 2008. Accessory apartment rules apply to R-1 (yellow), R-2 (orange), R-3 (red), and R-4 (purple). Image by David Alpert from Office of Zoning base map.

Change may be less than a year away!

This means that if you live in one of the low-density areas of the city (generally, detached houses, or houses in pairs which share one wall—yellow and orange in the above map, or a very small set of areas with row houses that are categorized R-3 today, red in the above map) you will be able to rent out a part of your house as a separate unit, with a variety of restrictions, but without having to go through a public hearing.

If you live in one of those areas, or a moderate-density row house area like Columbia Heights or Capitol Hill (purple in the above map) and you have a garage, you will be able create a unit in that garage. However, you will still have to show up at a public hearing where neighbors will be able to oppose (or support) the idea, and will probably need a zoning lawyer to navigate that process.

A few buildings will be able to get built with less cost. A few corner groceries may appear in some residential areas. It'll be a significant, but small and long-awaited, step forward.

Rapid buses or light rail are coming to Leesburg Pike

Imagine faster, more reliable transit zipping along its own lane without cars down Leesburg Pike between Tysons and Alexandria, connecting thousands of people to jobs, schools, shopping and entertainment. Planners in Northern Virginia are taking a serious look at how to make that happen.

Image from Envision Route 7.

Also called Route 7, Leesburg Pike is a major state road that stretches from Winchester to Alexandria in Virginia. Retail stores and job centers are growing more common along the route, particularly where it hits Tysons Corner. That's brought more congestion, which makes the stretch of Leesburg Pike between Tysons and Alexandria an ideal place for new transit.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which plans and funds transit in the area, has launched Envision Route 7, a study that will look at potential new transit options.

Northern Virginia is expected to see a lot of population and job growth between now and 2040. Route 7, with its old commercial centers, is a place that can handle the growth. Places all along the route like Tysons, Falls Church, Seven Corners, Bailey's Crossroads and the West End of Alexandria are trying to attract more companies and jobs and also make commuting easier. At the same time, they are taking significant steps to improve walking, biking and become more transit-friendly. This new proposed transit service plays a vital role to accomplish these goals.

There are a few options for transit along Route 7

NVTC has proposed three new transit service options. They are:

  • Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which is a faster bus with rail-like features like big stations. It operates on the street, either in the center median or along the curb, and sometimes in its own lane with no cars.

  • Light Rail Transit (LRT), which, like BRT, can operate on the street, either in the center median or along the curb. Most often, LRT has its own lane with no cars. One issue with LRT is that it needs a power source, usually from an overhead electric wire. Also, LRT can carry more people than BRT, but it's correspondingly more expensive.

  • Better bus service, which planners frequently refer to as "Enhanced Bus." That would simply mean additional buses that would replace Metro's 28A and 28x currently serving Route 7

Whatever option ultimately goes in will be a more modern, frequent, and faster way of traveling along Route 7 than what's currently there. Overall, the goal is for it to take a lot less time to get from Tysons Corner to Alexandria along Route 7 than it does now.

For example, the study is looking at the new transit service having daily and weekend service every 10-minutes at peak hours and every 15-minutes during the off-peak, and operating 18 to 22 hours per day. To increase transit's efficiency, there would be kiosks to pay for trips in advance and allow boarding from all-doors, not just the front one.

The actual route new transit takes is TBD

The route the new service will travel is not completely decided yet. In fact, new bus or rail may not travel exclusively along Route 7. There are three different options for the new transit's specific route, each depending on which service (specifically BRT or LRT).

This interactive map shows different potential paths. One of the following routes will be selected:

  • Tysons to the Van Dorn Street Metro station via East Falls Church Metro station. This would work for either BRT or LRT. This route would go from Tysons Corner down Route 7, turn in the City of Falls Church on Lee Highway toward the East Falls Church Metro station, and then continue on to Van Dorn Street station.

  • Tysons to King Street Metro station via East Falls Church Metro station (BRT only); The route would essentially be the same as above, except continue on Route 7 directly to the King Street Metro station.

  • Tysons to Van Dorn Street Metro station (BRT only), staying on Route 7 until Beauregard Street before heading to the Van Dorn Metro station. This route would bypass the East Falls Church Metro Station.

One of the routes could take the transit directly through the City of Falls Church along Route 7 (it's called Broad Street there) in the direction of Seven Corners. This is a residential street. Because Broad Street has only two lanes in each direction, it would be difficult to have transit in a car-free lane. Another uncertainty would be whether this community would ask for additional stops along this segment. Currently, no stops are proposed for this segment.

On the other side of Route 7, between Janneys Lane and King Street Metro Station, the road narrows again with only one lane in each direction, again making it difficult for transit to be in a car-free lane. Similarly, the community could ask for additional stops, which would slow down the travel time of transit.

For these reasons, it would not be surprising if the new transit service route traveled down Route 7, headed toward the East Falls Church Metro Station, returned to Route 7 in Seven Corners and then turn down Beauregard Street toward the Van Dorn Metro Station

What about transit stops and stations?

The number and location of stops also depend on which new service (again BRT or LRT) and route are chosen. The possibilities are:

  • 15 transit stops if BRT or LRT is the chosen service and the route is between Tysons Corner and Van Dorn Street Metro station via East Falls Church Metrorail station. Possible stops include Spring Hill Metro, Gallows Rd, Route 50, Beauregard Street, Mark Center, Duke Street, etc.

  • 13 transit stops if BRT is the chosen service and the route is between Tysons Corner and King Street Metro via East Falls Church Metrorail station. Possible stops include Spring Hill Metro, Gallows Rd, Route 50, Park Center and Quaker Lane

  • 14 transit stops if BRT is the chosen service and the route is between Tysons Corner and Van Dorn Street Metro station (but bypasses the East Falls Church Metro). The stops would be the same as the first one but without East Falls Church.

What's happening now?

The NVTC is making all this information and more available to the public. At this point, no decisions over the type of transit or the route or the stops are final. Everything is still under discussion. In fact, NVTC is holding forums this month to discuss everything about the project, including the transit service and the route. The last forum is on November 18.

But they will also have key ridership information and a better idea of the cost of the new transit service. That is a good thing. Not only should the transit service be good, reliable and robust, who will ride it and how much it costs are important factors in its success.

Look how real estate professionals in 1948 perpetuated segregation in DC

It wasn't that long ago that DC's Real Estate Board told agents not to sell homes in white areas to black people. A 1948 report called Segregation in Washington put the discrimination into plain language.

The problem in a picture. All images from the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation's Capital.

Segregation in DC looked a lot different in the early part of the century. There was plenty of racism, but legally DC retained a lot of strong Reconstruction-era civil rights laws. The result was that one block could be white and the next black. Or, in wealthier neighborhoods, the front of a block was white, while alley dwellings were black.

But, the 1948 report claims, someone surreptitiously cut these laws from from the District Code at the turn of the century. This opened the door for realtors to use racial covenants, legal agreements that forbid selling a house to blacks forever. By the 1920s, these contracts were widespread. Southern-style segregation policies cropped up in other areas as well, especially after the Wilson administration segregated federal agencies.

The report covered racism in all aspects of life.

The realtor's code of ethics even included a rule saying "no property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised, or offered to colored people."

What often happened was that the supply of housing available to blacks got smaller. Both the white and black populations were growing, but most of the new housing was for whites.

Zoning, implemented in the 20s, favored detached single family homes. The city banned unsafe alley dwellings, but didn't create new housing for blacks. When apartment buildings went up in black neighborhoods, they often were whites-only.

Covenants, the report argues, appealed to the racism of white residents, who would pay extra to live in an "exclusive" neighborhood where the type of residents would be stable, familiar, and "high-class."

Realtors and developers were happy to meet the market for these contracts. They discouraged smaller apartment buildings that were harder to regulate, and advertised the better value of a house with a covenant on it.

The result was simple: new houses for blacks cost 30% more, so fewer could afford them. Rents were higher. Blacks had a hard time getting loans for repairs. And so, African Americans took smaller apartments in older neighborhoods.

The booklet sees hypocrisy.

More about the report

The report focused on housing segregation, but also covered similar practices in education, health, employment, and social life. Over twelve sections, the report charted how blacks and whites received unequal treatment in nearly every aspect of life, and how that took a toll on human lives. But, they argued, shrinking the supply of quality housing available to blacks was the root of the most corrosive social ills.

Its punchy text, written by Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who is often confused with his uncle, a Major League Baseball commissioner who had the same name), contained tables of facts, lurid stories, and humiliating anecdotes of foreigners disgusted by what they found blocks from the monuments. Infographics made dismal statistics like higher arrest rates and more expensive rents impossible to ignore.

The report was hugely successful, introducing a topic to a wide audience. It made space for activists who had been fighting segregation for years. Old arguments got traction in the political scene. It challenged the clout of civic associations and developers. In neighborhoods, it was much harder to openly defend racial covenants, so tactics to preserve neighborhood character changed.

It certainly didn't end housing discrimination. The effects of covenants, which were legal until 1968, meant that black families had less wealth, even as they became the majority group in DC. Much of the issues behind gentrification and concentrated poverty are not hangovers from slavery, but were proactively made worse in the 20th century to preserve some residents' sense of neighborhood character.

A typical chapter.

The book predicted relocation of blacks east of the Anacostia.

The report argues that segregation made unsanitary conditions worse.

The report lays blame on the real estate industry and citizens' associations.

Correction: The original version of this article said former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote Segregation in Washington. His nephew, who had the same name, actually wrote it.

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