Posts in category Smart Growth
The Gray Administration has had a poor track record of building affordable housing when selling public land. Kenyan McDuffie is trying to set a higher bar, but Gray is trying to gut the bill by proposing a giant loophole that would render the bill virtually toothless. Will Muriel Bowser hold firm or let the loophole in?
What's this bill about?
When DC does a deal to develop public land, it's typically required that the project include affordable housing for low-income residents. Mayor Gray, however, has pushed for much less affordable housing than his predecessors Adrian Fenty or Anthony Williams did.
Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) wants to enshrine a threshold into law. Under his bill, 20-30% of rental housing (more near transit, less elsewhere) would have to go to people making 30-50% of Area Median Income, or about $30,000-50,000 for a family of three. If the building is condos, they could go to people making 50-80% AMI or approximately $50-78,000 for a family of three.
Sometimes that level of affordability isn't feasible. If a piece of public land isn't worth so much, maybe nobody can afford to build there if they have to provide that much affordable housing. Accordingly, McDuffie's bill allows for DC's independent CFO to evaluate the deal and determine if there needs to be a waiver.
What is the loophole?
Gray, however, is proposing cutting out the CFO. The Gray administration wants the mayor's office to decide when there needs to be a waiver instead of involving the CFO.
But this means that the mayor could essentially ignore the law at will. And if he or she does that, the whole process will be a black box to the public, just like it is today, which is one of the main things the McDuffie bill fixes.
In current land deals, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development gets a number of proposals for developing a piece of public land, then picks one without explaining why. Often that decision goes against the wishes of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission or other local leaders, and while officials shouldn't have to always go with the ANC's recommendation, it's often a big mystery why they chose something else.
We don't know if one of the proposals yielded more public money than another, or if the mayor's office thinks one's amenities are better than another's. And we don't know if and when the mayor is giving up affordable housing without good cause.
Deputy Mayor Jeffrey Miller says the requirement could lead to less affordable housing, rather than more, if the land value doesn't support the required housing. But this is why the CFO (or the Council, for that matter) can grant a waiver.
Miller also says the requirement could get in the way of providing other amenities like libraries or parks. But this is in some sense the whole point: DC needs to commit to actually building affordable housing. Other amenities are important, too, but if there isn't a way for lower-income residents to live in the neighborhood, then building other amenities only boosts the value of more expensive areas without addressing inequality.
Where's Muriel Bowser?
Bowser, who looks likely to become the next mayor, supported the bill in committee, but suddenly seems open to what she calls "administrative tweaks" to the bill. Advocates fear she is going to opt for this loophole big enough to swallow the whole bill.
Certainly, if she is mayor, she might prefer to have free rein. Gray sounded like he's pushing that idea when he said, "As a mayor, obviously, I would not be ecstatic about having legislation that ties the ability of the executive to function, as a general proposition ... I realize the huge importance of being able to have flexibility to get things done."
But the whole reason councilmembers are voting for this bill is because the mayor hasn't done what they think is necessary or appropriate. Bowser would only appreciate the value of a loophole if she's interested in exploiting it at times the CFO wouldn't let her. If she did that, she'd be breaking promises to create affordable housing.
There's no good reason for her to water down the bill. It would only send a message that maybe the public can't trust her commitments on affordable housing. Since she surely means to follow through on her promises, she should keep the loophole out.
DC will have more sidewalks, bike lanes, bus signal priority, real-time screens, many more finished studies, and other changes two years from now, if the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) follows through on a strong new "Action Plan" released today.
The moveDC plan is a forward-thinking, ambitious, and comprehensive vision for transportation across the District over the next 30 years. But will this become reality? Will DDOT start making significant progress on the many recommendations in the plan, or will this sit on a shelf and just be something we look at 28 years from now and lament how little got done?
To put some weight behind the plan, DDOT officials have now created a document that lists projects, studies, and programs they expect the agency to complete in two years.
Some points give very specific, measurable targets. For example:
- Add sidewalks on at least 25 blocks where they are missing today
- Improve pedestrian safety at 20 or more intersections
- Build 15 miles of bicycle lanes or cycletracks
- Complete Klingle and Kenilworth Anacostia Riverwalk Trail projects
- Get Rock Creek and Metropolitan Branch Trail projects at least to "advanced stages of design"
- Install bus lanes on a small piece of Georgia Avenue from Florida Avenue to Barry Place and signal priority on 16th Street
- Put real-time screens in some bus shelters citywide
- Work with WMATA to find at least 10 key spots that delay high-ridership buses and modify the traffic signals
- Finish a project to better time traffic signals for pedestrian, transit, and traffic flow
- Begin the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) bridge construction.
Others call for a number of studies to take place on topics such as:
- Transit improvements, possibly including a bus lane, on 16th Street
- North-south bike routes between 4th and 7th Streets NW
- The 22-mile streetcar system (detailed environmental studies still need to be finished on many of the lines)
- Commuter and freight rail between DC, Maryland, and Virginia
- Dynamic parking pricing downtown
- Roadway congestion pricing
- Transit "brands" (i.e. what is the Circulator, and what is something else?)
Other prongs involve setting up programs and systems of communication, like:
- Working with a BID to set up parklets
- Working with MPD on more and better traffic cameras
- Working with neighborhoods (starting with three) to plan better parking rules
- Working with regional governments to find long-term funding for Metro and other needs
- Setting up more dashboards and releasing more data sets publicly, like public space permits and street trees.
The plan includes a few elements to advance this:
- Revise the Design and Engineering Manual to include new "tools and techniques for multimodal street design"
- Train all DDOT staff on multimodal design using the new manual and "national best practices."
What will the next mayor do?
Of course, a lot will depend on whether the next mayor and his or her appointee to head DDOT stick with the plan. They could ensure these projects get finished, slow some down, or abandon this altogether.
Gabe Klein's DDOT put out an action agenda in 2010 (which, admittedly, was very ambitious); Mayor Gray generally kept up the same initiatives and projects that the previous administration had begun, though many moved forward more slowly than advocates would like.
For example, WABA sounded the alarm in 2011 about the slow pace of new bicycle lanes. The 2005 Bicycle Master Plan called for new bike lanes that would have averaged about 10 miles per year. The 2010 Action Agenda called for adding 30 in just two years. But in 2011, DDOT planned 6.5 miles, designed 4.25 miles, and installed zero, WABA's Greg Billing wrote at the time.
Since then, the pace has picked up. Since Mayor Gray took office, DDOT has added or "upgraded" 19 miles, said DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. This counts new striped bike lanes or cycletracks and any places where painted lanes turned into cycletracks. This year, Zimbabwe said, they've done 9 miles.
The Action Agenda sets a goal of 15 miles over two years, for an average of 7.5 per year. That's more than the recent average, but less than this year, and less than in the 2005 or 2010 plans. Which means it's probably an okay target as long as DDOT sees it as something to actually achieve rather than a stretch goal where it's okay to come in close but well under target.
When businesses set goals, they vary on whether the goals should be "stretch goals" where you don't expect to achieve them all, conservative goals where you need to achieve almost all of them to get a good performance review, or goals so conservative that they don't mean much because people are afraid to set any target they don't hit.
Ideally, the next DDOT director will treat these goals as the middle category: tell each department that he or she expects them to actually achieve what's in this plan. Certainly some things here and there will run into unexpected obstacles, but this plan should be something everyone takes seriously and feels some pressure to achieve in the two-year timeframe.
An entirely new neighborhood is rising just a minute's walk from the Anacostia Metro station. Nearly two dozen townhomes and apartments have sprouted at Sheridan Station, where public housing will become a mixed-income community. But will it be an economic catalyst for the community, or a new face for the area's existing struggles?
A view of Sheridan Station rising from the hillside across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Photos by the author.
When it first broke ground more than 4 years ago, Sheridan Station was supposed to have 344 units, equally split between market-rate homes for sale and rentals for low-income households. But in the fall of 2012, developer William C. Smith asked to reduce the ratio of for-sale homes to 25%, arguing that potential buyers would have trouble securing mortgages.
Today, 327 homes are planned for Sheridan Station, just 80 of which will be for sale with the rest for rent. Of the remaining 247 units, 200 will be affordable, and 100 are set aside for households on the public housing waiting list. Priority will go to residents of Sheridan Terrace, which used to occupy the site, and Barry Farm next door, which will be redeveloped in 2016.
New residents are hopeful, but anxious
James grew up in the neighborhood and lived in Sheridan Terrace, the public housing complex that predates Sheridan Station, in the 1980s. The units were falling apart. "I came home one day from work and the ceiling was on the floor," he said. Hazardous building conditions and street crime precipitated the departure of hundreds of families.
James, a resident of Sheridan Station, has been watching the quick rise of an entirely new neighborhood yards from the Anacostia Metro station. Photos by the author.
I ran into James, who is wheelchair-bound, while recently surveying Sheridan Road. When housing became available in the first phase of Sheridan Station, he was able to secure a unit due to his sister's network.
"I've been coming out here everyday just to watch," James said. "It's about time they started. They never said why it took so long to begin. They blamed the weather. People began putting pressure on them and asking questions. There's more demand for housing than there is supply. This looks like it is decent housing." He pointed out a building and said once completed he would be moving to the first floor.
Market-rate homeowners are excited about the development too.
Darin Tuggle, an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development Chris Miller, a 29-year-old business consultant, saw the signage for Sheridan Station on Suitland Parkway while commuting from Upper Marlboro. "When I decided to purchase a home, I looked at various neighborhoods but the rapid rise in prices in more 'trendy' neighborhoods priced me out," he says. Sheridan Station won him over with the proximity to Metro and the views of downtown DC.
"After moving in, I switched from driving to work to taking the Metro," he says. "The commute has been a big quality of life upgrade for me."
Chris Miller, a 29-year-old business consultant Darin Tuggle, an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says he loves the "great urban neighborhood vibe and look" of the street where his new home is. "We are a microcosm of the city, young, less young, professional, artistic, black, white, Hispanic, foreign-born, single, couples, inter-racial," he says. Miller looks forward to the area becoming more walkable and getting a grocery store.
But there's been some tension between new residents and those who already lived in the area. Miller says kids have smashed his house windows three times, while neighbors have had their cars vandalized. "These incidents of vandalism can be attributed to some of the tension that existing members of the community feel towards the new development," says Tuggle.
Is this a sign of change, or more of the same?
Sheridan Station serves as a preview of future development east of the river, from the reconstruction of Barry Farm to Skyland Town Center, the 11th Street Bridge Park, and Saint Elizabeths East Campus. But in contrast to the splashy opening of Sheridan's first phase, the groundbreaking and construction of Sheridan's second and third phases have gone on quietly. At a press conference earlier this month, Mayor Gray highlighted his outgoing administration's commitment to developing affordable housing, but did not mention Sheridan Station.
William C. Smith's uneven promotion of for-sale units led homeowners to speculate that the development's initial goals would never happen. "I had to look for Sheridan Station; it didn't look for me," says Tuggle, noting that he'd received ads for other new developments in the area, like Arts District Hyattsville and Dakota Crossing.
He and other homeowners only found out recently there were only 20 homes for sale in the development's last phase, with the rest being rentals. "[My neighbors] had advised friends and associates that there would be a lot more opportunities to buy in the last phase," he says.
Furthermore, many public housing tenants I've spoken with express a fear that when the new buildings are filled with disparate families from various public housing developments, long-standing feuds, similar to the Hatfields and McCoys, may erupt.
Although private investment has hesitated to cross the Anacostia River, long-term residents point to developments like this, as well as the new schools and recreation centers that have been built recently, as infallible evidence of "the Plan," which seeks to make the area attractive to a new demographic who will displace them. But Sheridan Station and its inability to deliver a mixed-income neighborhood as first promised illustrates the tenuousness of the "new Ward 8," as Councilmember Marion Barry calls it.
The need for tenant and workforce housing in Ward 8 is overwhelming. Despite Sheridan Station's success in attracting affluent professionals, the continued concentration and retrenchment of disadvantaged people in this area has the potential to suppress the economy of communities east of the river for yet another generation.
Fifteen percent of commuters who take Metro's Silver Line to Tysons Corner or Wiehle Avenue come from east of the Anacostia River in DC or Prince George's County. These long commutes result from a growth pattern that puts jobs in far-flung western suburbs and affordable housing in the east. They're part of the price our region pays for sprawl.
Data released last week from Metro shows that 150 of the 983 morning rush hour riders arriving daily at Wiehle Avenue come from the system's easternmost stations. With 126 out of 827 passengers coming from the same area, the new Tysons station has similar numbers. The percentage is even higher at Spring Hill station.
These numbers are particularly noteworthy because only 20% of Metro's morning riders come from east of the Anacostia or Prince George's in the first place.
|Silver Line station||AM peak riders|
Some of those arriving at Wiehle Avenue are no doubt well-off homeowners who chose long commutes in order to live near Chesapeake Bay. After years of long car treks around the crowded Beltway, they might well prefer to park at New Carrollton or Largo and take a train trip of 70 minutes or more.
But the most common motivation for Silver Line riders from the east side is surely economic necessity, as most board at stations that draw riders from less affluent neighborhoods nearby.
Going from New Carrollton or Addison Road to Reston is a tough commute no matter how one travels, and if you have to wait for the bus at one or both ends, it's brutal. These ridership figures are a reminder of how painful it is when low wages meet land use policies that separate jobs from affordable housing.
The DC Zoning Commission has been deliberating on the zoning update this week. The commissioners embraced most of the DC Office of Planning's proposals while even rejecting at least one of OP's recent steps backward.
Buildings near transit (including priority bus corridors) will be able to have half the parking that's otherwise required if they are willing to forego residential parking permits. Homeowners will be able to put accessory apartments inside their houses without a special hearing, but will have to go through one to use a carriage house. And corner grocery stores will be able to open in residential row house areas if they sell fresh food.
This is a major milestone in the grueling zoning regulations revision process that began in 2007 just after the DC Council adopted the 2006 Comprehensive Plan. Opponents of the update repeatedly asked the commission and the Office of Planning and for more outreach, more meetings, and more delay. In response, officials stretched out the process and added dozens of meetings, fact sheets, and hearings throughout the city. But the process now has an end in sight.
If you're interested in the wonky details, below are many of the specifics about what is changing in DC's zoning.
What happened with accessory apartments
Tuesday night, the commission debated whether to allow accessory apartments in owner-occupied homes in low-density areas. Currently, higher-density residential zones allow two or more units in a single building (like a rowhouse), but low density zones (including some row house areas like Georgetown) allow only one unit except for an antiquated domestic worker provision.
While Chairman Anthony Hood tried to only permit accessory apartments if the owner goes through a special exception hearing, the rest of the commissioners voted to allow homeowners to have one accessory unit inside their home as a matter of right.
However, when it came to garages or carriage houses, the commission didn't question the recent OP revision to only allow accessory units there after a special exception hearing. They adopted that rule with no discussion.
The commissioners did ease restrictions on the lot size and home size required to qualify for an accessory unit. They removed a minimum lot size rule altogether and shrank the required house size from a large 2,000 square feet to a more modest 1,200 square feet in R-2 and R-3 zones. They also removed a combined six-person cap on the total number of people in the primary residence and accessory apartment; instead, they will simply limit the number of people in the accessory apartment to three.
What happened with corner stores
The Zoning Commission approved a proposal to make some corner stores legal in medium-density residential zones for the first time since the city adopted its 1958 zoning code. Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that corner stores were an important way to help seniors have easy access to daily needs.
However, through the years, the list of rules for what stores are allowable got longer and longer. What the Zoning Commission finally approved was only allowing small grocery stores as a matter of right if they devote a certain area devoted to perishable foods like dairy, fresh produce, fresh meats, and food that must be prepared at home. Beer and wine sales can't exceed 15% of the floor area and requires a special exception hearing.
While these stringent rules will mean that few new corner grocery stores will sprout up, it is likely to inspire a few small entrepreneurs to open up small groceries. Beyond the small grocery stores that would qualify as matter of right, the rule would also allow other types of stores if they go through a special exception process with the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
What's happening with parking
The commission agreed to reduce required parking by 50% for developments near transit (½ mile from Metro or ¼ mile from streetcar or bus priority corridor). In doing so, the Zoning Commission rebuffed the Office of Planning's recent proposal to exclude bus priority corridors from the list of transit services that would qualify.
The commission also inserted one significant change that hadn't been part of the earlier proposals: Developments that take advantage of the 50% reduction would also be ineligible for residential parking permits (RPP).
Current housing developments tend to contain one space for each two or three units voluntarily. The new rule will require just under three for developments away from transti (technically, one per three units after the first four). Cutting that in half means a minimum of one per six units near transit, clearly below market demand.
In effect, therefore, most developments will still park above the minimum, and allows the market to decide what is appropriate rather than forcing most buildings to build more. At easily $50,000 per parking space, this is an important way to make housing less expensive to build.
The commission did adopt OP's suggestion to exclude the West End neighborhood from the Downtown zone that requires no parking, but seemed to support for removing requirements from downtown. However, Chairman Anthony Hood expressed skepticism toward any proposal that removed parking mandates entirely. The commission will consider the downtown zones tonight.
Commissioners also agreed to require one space for each single family home but waive that if no alley access is available. This is a fair compromise that will protect continuous sidewalks and not force curb cuts and driveways on a rowhouse block.
If a property owner feels it's impractical to provide the required parking, it will also be easier to get an exception. The owner will now only need a "special exception" rather than the much more stringent "variance" standard that applies today. Either way, however, asking for a reduction requires a trip to the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which costs time and money.
The new special exception rule will allow the board to reduce parking requirements by considering the lack of demand, proximity to transit, or, in a provision added by Commissioner Marcie Cohen, the affordability of the housing. Any special exception would also require a Transportation Demand Management Plan, or traffic and parking demand reduction plan, which DDOT would need to approve.
Buildings can also share parking or put parking off-site to meet the parking requirements. If a project proposes building more than twice the minimum required for a building where the minimum is 20 spaces or more, the developer will have to add amenities like more bike parking, trees, car sharing spaces, electric car charging stations, or green roofs.
The commission will deliberate on the last few items tonight. After that, officials will create a new draft of the zoning code for one more round of public comment.
- Topic of the week: Banning cycling on sidewalks
- A new bill would ban cycling or Segway riding on DC sidewalks next to bike lanes
- No, DC is not abandoning plans for most streetcar lines
- The 11th Street Bridge Park gets a brilliant design. Will it succeed?
- What would you call Loudoun's Metro stations?
- David Catania on Metro, economic development, streetcars, affordable housing, bike lanes, building heights, and more
- After more crashes, DDOT pledges to remove Arkansas Avenue's rush hour lane