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Posts in category Smart Growth

Development


Nobody wants these school buses in their backyard. But moving them is worth it.

Montgomery County wants to move a school bus lot away from the Shady Grove Metro station to make room for new houses there, but residents of other neighborhoods don't want the buses in their backyards. But the move is worth it if it means more people can live walking distance to the train.


The Shady Grove bus depot across from new townhouses being built. All photos by the author.

This week, the Montgomery County Council could vote not to sell off a school bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville, next to the Shady Grove station. Montgomery County Public Schools has outgrown the lot, and the county wants to move it to make room for a new neighborhood around the Metro station that would have 700 new homes, parks, a school, and a library.

The move is part of a decade-long effort that County Executive Ike Leggett calls the Smart Growth Initiative. Until recently, the Shady Grove Metro station was surrounded by government warehouses and depots storing everything from Ride On buses to school cafeteria food. The county's been able to move nearly all of the facilities, many of them to a new site in Montgomery Village. In their place, construction has already begun on an adjacent, 1500-home neighborhood, called Westside at Shady Grove.

The school bus depot needs to stay near Rockville, since its 400 buses serve schools in that area. But neighbors fought attempts to move the buses to a nearby school, an empty parking lot at the school system headquarters, and a gravel lot in a historically-black, working-class neighborhood. At each location, neighbors have raised concerns about traffic, pollution, or reduced property values.

Naturally, councilmembers are nervous about proposing to move the buses anywhere else. Councilmember Marc Elrich has suggested that the best option may be to keep the buses where they are.

But even if the depot stays, the county still has to find more space to store buses. And in an urbanizing county, those buses are likely to go in somebody's backyard.

Councilmember Craig Rice notes that there are already school bus depots next to houses in Glenmont and Clarksburg, and those residents haven't had any problems with them.

Jamison Adcock, one of the bus lot opponents, told me on Twitter that existing communities' needs should come first. But what about people who want to live here but can't afford to because there aren't enough homes to meet the demand, driving up house prices? Or what about people who either can't or don't drive and would like to live near a Metro station? The county is responsible for their needs too.

Moving the bus depot has serious benefits for the county and the people who could live on that land. There are only thirteen Metro stations in or next to Montgomery County, and they represent some of the most valuable land around. We know that lots of people want to live near a Metro station, and that people who already do are way more likely to use transit and have lower transportation costs.

It's increasingly expensive to live near Metro because the demand outstrips the supply of homes near Metro stations. So if the county's going to build new homes, we should prioritize putting them there.


This is a better use of land next to a Metro station than a bus lot.

Meanwhile, there are roads all over the county, and the trucks that carry things to and from the county's warehouses can go pretty much anywhere there's a road. That's why ten years ago, county leaders decided that it made more sense to put homes near the Metro, and warehouses and bus depots somewhere else.

That won't make everybody happy, but it's the right thing to do.

Development


A big development in Woodley Park may spark DC's next housing battle

The Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park is set to get a major influx of new housing. Washington Post reporter Jonathan O'Connell pegs the project as the next big development battle in the District, and he's not sure the opposition will be justified.


Map of the proposed new building. Courtesy David M. Schwarz Architects/Gensler/Lemon Brooke.

Currently, the site at Woodley Park encompasses the Wardman Park hotel, the Woodley apartments and the hotel-condo Wardman Tower. But the DC Comprehensive Plan designates the entire site as high- or medium-density residential. That makes sense, given how close the site is to a Metro station.

Developer JBG has both short- and long-term plans for the site. In the next few years, it hopes to add an "eight-story, 120-unit multifamily building," according to the Washington Business Journal. The addition will include a large green space, and will sit between 2700 Woodley, an existing 212-unit apartment building, and the Wardman Tower.

The longer-term build out calls for replacing the hotel with almost 1300 new residential units, in four new buildings, with more than of 1200 parking spaces and 400 bicycle spaces.


The possible long-term buildout, including almost 1300 new residences. Map of the proposed new building. Courtesy David M. Schwarz Architects/Gensler/Lemon Brooke.

At build-out, the new buildings will have fewer units in them than the Wardman Park Hotel does today, and the big conventions and meetings will go away.

And yet, tensions over development are so high in DC that, Jonathan O'Connell, the Post's main development reporter, tweeted his expectation that this project will spur Woodley Park to become the next in a line of DC neighborhoods to oppose new housing.

Hostility to new housing has becoming increasingly common in the District. Vocal Lanier Heights residents recently won downzoning of that nearby neighborhood. In Northeast DC, Brookland is another front in the so-called "development wars."

"If everything were to go absolutely perfectly," said JBG's Robert Vaughan to the Washington Business Journal, the PUD would be approved by the second quarter of 2017, with groundbreaking to follow in the first quarter of 2018 and delivery by early 2020.

But with a project of this magnitude, even during an affordability crisis, that hardly seems likely.

Development


Is DC "growing inclusively"? In 2005, it set out to.

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.

In 2005, DC's Comprehensive Plan was 20 years old and woefully out of date. The District undertook a major effort to rewrite the plan for DC's needs. This new plan opens with an encouraging vision: a growing, inclusive city. Has the plan actually helped DC grow inclusively?

Our book club discussed these questions as it read the first chapter, the Introduction.


DC Comprehensive Plan - Chapter 1

A big vision: planning to grow for all people

The opening statement of the Comprehensive Plan reads:

Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices—choices about where they live, how and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school.
Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices—regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age.
The emphasis on growing inclusively is important. This Comprehensive Plan was developed in the early 2000s, when DC's population had declined for 50 years and that trend was just ending. Since that time, DC's population has grown quickly, with more growth predicted for the coming decades. The language in this Introduction highlights the need to allow for this growth.

But will the city translate this vision into practice and actually grow in a way that welcomes people of all incomes?

The Comp Plan is a piece of a larger puzzle

The Comprehensive Plan is not the same as a prescriptive law. Its purpose is to guide the city's agencies and policies when making planning decisions. But it is not the only plan to do so.

The federal government (through the National Capital Planning Commission) creates its own "Federal Elements" about government land and property. DC also has many topical plans, like Sustainable DC, Move DC (for transportation), and Play DC (for parks). Finally, the Office of Planning is charged with periodically developing Small Area Plans, which address individual neighborhoods in more detail.

All of these other plans become part of the Comp Plan, and its more general policy statements are supposed to guide those plans. Theoretically then, growing inclusively should become a guiding principle for every planning decision that gets made in the city.


A plan within a plan... within a plan...

This 2006 plan was a big change from past plans

This version of the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in December of 2006. It was created because the previous version created in the 1980s was out of touch with the realities of the city.

Among some of the important changes was an entirely new way to organize the city. Previously, the Comprehensive Plan described the city based on ward boundaries, but because these boundaries shift over time due to population changes and politics, this plan delineates its own sections of the city, called Area Elements, to keep things consistent.


Area Elements Map of DC Comprehensive Plan

Another change was the high level of community input and engagement that took place to create the plan. Book club member Jane Dembner was a part of the consulting team for the Comp Pan, and shared that "this process was unprecedented in DC at that time" and was more strategic about engaging diverse stakeholders than ever before.

Will this plan fulfill its promise?

Many book club members were enthusiastic about the plan's bold vision. Peter Casey said, "too often, organizations and governments move forward without a vision of what they want to move towards. It heartens me to see the city so intentional in its development and choosing inclusion as its guiding principle."

But, he continued, "talking about inclusion is one thing, actually achieving it is anotherů In my mind, inclusion, more than anything else is the major challenge facing the District today."

David Alpert, too, reflected particularly about how this vision statement uses the language of "choices" and asked whether today we have the choices the plan calls for:

"In some ways, choices have really expanded in 10 years - people have more transportation mode choices, and there are more better schools including charter school choices, etc. ... But other choices have not expanded or have [even] contracted, like where to live. While many neighborhoods have gotten safer, more of the city is also out of reach of many people than was 10 years ago, and I don't think we are doing enough to ensure people still have those choices."
Yuki Kato wondered about "how this concept [of inclusivity] gets executed in the remainder of the [Comp] Planů It is possible that in some of the elements inclusivity is more easily conceptualized and executed."

Cheryl Cort, who was part of the task force that created the plan, noted it includes good concepts about "building an inclusive city, but now seems to lack urgency to address rising demand to live in the city, since the city grew much faster, and sustained its growth."

In summary, readers who shared their thoughts support the vision of growing an inclusive city, but wonder how it will be implemented. The problems we are facing today are generally magnified and more acutely felt than they were in 2006, especially in terms of housing. This amendment process is the opportunity to update the Comp Plan and make sure it reflects our city's current and future needs.

Can you be a part of the book club?

This week and next we are reading Chapter 2: Framework, and will report our thoughts soon. After that we move on to Chapter 3: Land Use.

Want to join us? We are 85+ and counting! Fill out the form below.



Links


National links: Oklahoma City, here we come

If you want to enjoy a good job and an affordable place to live, you might want to head to Oklahoma, Nebraska, or Iowa. San Jose is apparently the weirdest city in the US, and the people who usually build the freeways in Texas are supporting the idea of tearing one down in Dallas. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Matthew Rutledge on Flickr.

Not many housing options: Even when people are willing to make tradeoffs to live in places where housing prices are sky high, it's hard to find quality of life, a good jobs, housing that's affordable all in one place. So hard, in fact, that only three cities in the United States have all 3: Oklahoma City, Omaha, and Des Moines. That's according to a study from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. (Gizmodo)

Weird city science: Cities are full of people and activities that many would label "weird." But which one is actually most different from the county's norm? Based on factors ranging from how many foreign-born workers there are to how many people don't own a car, cotton economist Lyman Stone says it's San Jose, and that Oklahoma City is the least weird. (Washington Post)

Tear down this freeway: Texas' department of transportation, unsurprisingly, loves to build freeways. But in a recent report on what to do with an obsolete downtown Dallas freeway spur, the agency opened up the possibility of thinking less like a typical highway department and more like urban designers, with an option to tear down the freeway and let the city reclaim the land. (Dallas Morning News)

The end of big infrastructure: While there are a few possibilities for national-scale projects we'd benefit from, this author argues that the era of building big infrastructure is over. There just isn't much we could invest in that could bring the return of our railroad or interstate system, meaning smaller, local projects and maintenance should be our priorities. (Transportist)

Ride hailing real talk: Right now, ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft are giving cities a binary set of options: do what we want, or we'll leave. That isn't productive, and the conversation needs to change if there is to be a solution that serves both city residents and companies that want to innovate. Luckily, there are examples of good partnerships. (Sidewalk Labs)

Seattle's big slice: In the Puget Sound region, where Seattle is, there are five "taxing areas" within three counties. The Sound Transit projects that each receives are reflective of how much each pays in taxes, and the organization's leader (a former FTA administrator) says it'd be best to have everyone pay for a new tunnel in downtown Seattle because the entire network will benefit from it. (Seattle Times)

Quote of the Week

"It's possible San Francisco may have unwittingly demonstrated what I'm calling the Indiana Jones Theory of Housing Regulation. The idea is that when cities increase the burden on new development, whether through inclusionary zoning, expiring tax breaks, or new building codes, they create a deadline boom, as builders rush to get approval before the new laws can take effect. Like Indiana Jones, builders try to get through before the door closes." - Slate's Henry Grabar, explaining his Indiana Jones theory of housing regulation.

Development


A new owner bought my apartment and wanted to tear it down. Here's how I ended up owning the place.

In 2001 my landlord sold my apartment complex to the National Cathedral. It wanted to replace our apartments with a visitors' center. I managed to stay put and buy my unit because of a DC law called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA).


The author's building. Image from Google Maps.

TOPA gives tenants' associations the right to refuse contracted sales of their buildings and to purchase them instead for the contracted sale prices. There are lots of TOPA stories. This one is mine.

I learned about the sale of my building from the Northwest Current. When I read the headline my stomach dropped. I'd only been in my apartment for a year. It was affordable, close to work, and pet friendly. I had also just adopted a dog. I didn't know if I could find another pet-friendly building nearby.

My fears weren't unfounded. Tenants are usually vulnerable during building sales. In many cities new owners can institute steep rent hikes, refuse to renew leases, or convert to condo. They can even tear buildings down. Fortunately, as I would find out, DC has protections against these tactics.

A few days later several of my fellow tenants organized a meeting in the alley behind our property. They explained the TOPA process and the rights it gives tenants. It sounded fantastical to me. The most I'd ever gotten as a tenant was an $80 check from a landlord who waited 4 days to fix my broken stove. And, he only issued it after I researched the housing code and told him he was legally required to reimburse me.

Here's how TOPA works

When residential property is sold in D.C. landlords are required to give tenants a TOPA Notice, or Offer of Sale, which informs them that they may refuse the sale and purchase the property instead for the contracted sale price.

Tenants must then incorporate as a tenants' association, if one does not already exist, and submit a letter of interest within 45 days of receiving the offer of sale. The tenants association can then request information from the landlord including floor plans, itemized operating expenses, utility rates, capital expenditures for the previous 2 years, a recent rent roll, and a list of vacant apartments.

The tenants' association then has a 120 day period to exercise their right of first refusal and negotiate to purchase the property. If the tenants' association signs a contract with a deposit they have an additional 120 days to secure financing. After the purchase is complete the tenants' association can convert to condominium or co-operative or remain rental.

My conversion experience

My tenants' association decided to refuse our sale. Our biggest hurdle was finding the 26 million dollars necessary to match the initial sale price.

The city provides loans and technical assistance to help majority low income tenants' associations purchase their buildings, but we weren't eligible since most of us were professionals. Private loans weren't an option either. As a new tenants' association we didn't have a bank account or credit history. We would need a developer to help us buy the property.

The process of selecting a developer usually involves substantial 'horse-trading.' For their part tenants want low/stable housing costs. In buildings converting to condo, like ours, that meant below-market prices for our units. Tenants also want repairs their landlords often neglected to make for years. In our case we needed new boilers, repairs to decaying joists, increased electric voltage, and new plumbing risers.

For their part, developers want to make a profit, and the best way to do that in buildings where tenants want to convert to condo, is to secure some empty units that can be sold at market rates. As such, developers negotiate for the right to offer tenants a buyout, a sum of money a tenant takes in exchange for relinquishing rights to her unit.

My tenants' association found a developer and converted to condominium in late 2002. Just over 30% of my fellow tenants stayed put. Another 30% took buyouts ($7,000 for studios, $10,000 for 1-bedrooms, and $12,000 for 2-bedrooms). The remaining units were vacant at the time of conversion.

I purchased my 1-bedroom unit for $162,000. For me the TOPA process was both exhilarating and terrifying. I loved my condo and my neighborhood. The Cathedral was my front yard. I could walk to work and the grocery store. And, suddenly I felt like I lived in a small village instead of an anonymous city. My fellow tenant convertors and I walked each other's dogs, swapped spare keys, shared drinks (and hangovers), and helped each other through heartaches, job losses, and the like.

But, I was also worried. As an academic I wondered how I would pay my mortgage if I didn't get tenure, and whether I'd be able to sell the condo quickly if I needed to. I also worried that I'd be house poor—able to make the mortgage but scrimping to cover everything else. My unit was in poor shape: 20 year old carpet, peeling wall paper, grungy cabinets and a stove that wasn't up to code.

Looking back, I laugh at my worries. Although I paid a below market price, I worried the market was out of control and that my unit was over-valued. Little did I know that property values would appreciate rapidly after I purchased my unit and that its value would never fall below my purchase price, even during the recession. At the end of the day, I was lucky. My building was sold at a favorable time and my tenants' association leaders (Laura, Matthew, Patty and Stephen) were tenacious.

Classifying TOPA

TOPA doesn't always work so well. The process is also very different in buildings that opt to remain rental because of the city's rent control statute. I will explore these issues in future posts, but it's worth considering here what makes TOPA so powerful.

First, TOPA gives tenants a legal way to stay put when their apartments are sold. Although building sales can happen at any time, they are especially common during gentrification. In fact, the city council introduced the TOPA statute in 1979 in response to a then ongoing condo conversion boom associated with gentrification near downtown.

Tenants who can't afford homeownership can also use TOPA to keep their buildings rental. In fact, a city statute passed at the same time as TOPA only allows a building to convert to condo if 50% (+1) of units vote to convert.

Having a legal right to stay put is exceptionally rare for tenants in the U.S. Most cities offer no or minimal protections for tenants whose buildings have been sold.

Second, TOPA gives tenants market power during gentrification. Lots of people benefit from gentrification, but tenants aren't usually among them. Cities get increased tax revenue. Landlords sell aging building for big profits. Developers turn disinvested buildings into luxury housing with price tags to match. Tenants, by contrast, are usually forced out of their homes. TOPA changes that by giving tenants market power. They can buy their units and build equity, take buyouts and use them to pay down debt or build up savings, or stay rental and negotiate with their development partner for building improvements. For once, tenants don't get the short end of the stick.

I believe affordable housing should be a right and I know the commodification of housing has contributed to rising unaffordability nationwide. Until we can convince cities to provide affordable housing, however, TOPA can at the very least give tenants a fairer shake in the game we're now playing. TOPA doesn't change the game, but it has changed who can play it.

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).

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