Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Many Silver Line riders make a long trek from Metro's eastern branches

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.

Wiehle Avenue station. Photo by Matt Johnson.

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 stationAM peak riders
from EOTR/PG
Total AM
peak riders
Tysons Corner12682715%
Spring Hill8440620%
Wiehle Ave15098315%
Click on a column header to sort.

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.

Finally, DC's zoning update steps forward

After a debate that has stretched for seven years, reforms for lower parking requirements near transit, basement apartments, and corner grocery stores are actually close to becoming reality in DC.

Photo by Lachlan Hardy on Flickr.

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.

How fast housing in DC is growing unaffordable, in 3 charts

Everyone not living under a rock knows that DC is booming with huge demand for people to live here. It's also a well-accepted fact that this trend is squeezing out the poorer residents. A new report from the Urban Institute graphs just how strong this effect is.

For renters, the amount of available housing that costs $1,000 a month or more has increased, while housing at lower price points has shrunk.

Here's another graph showing how for all housing sizes, the available inventory of rental units except for the already-scarce 3-bedrooms has shrunk for all lower-income categories.

Single-family homes shot up in price before the recession, somewhat sooner in the wealthiest wards, 2 and 3, and slightly after that in other wards. Housing east of the Anacostia has fallen since 2009. In 4 and 5, it fell but then recovered, while in the rest of the city it stayed stable even through the recession, when housing prices collapsed most everywhere else in the nation.

As the report says, a lot of this change comes from new residents who are primarily younger (67% are 18-34 years old), highly education (65% have bachelor's or graduate degrees), and made more money. New residents were more likely not to have children than existing residents.

Given that new people are coming into the city, it's understandable that some see the new residents as a threat and don't want changes, like allowing car-free buildings or accessory apartments, that can accommodate them. But it's a mistake to see new residents as an enemy, since they are going to come in regardless, and will be able to outbid many existing residents for housing.

The question is how to build a city that can welcome new residents of all income levels while also continuing to serve existing ones. But how?

It's not that DC isn't building a lot of housing. Is it enough? Supporters of a housing supply-focused approach say the city just needs to make sure it's building even more housing to keep up with demand. If you build so much higher-end housing to saturate that market, then lower-end housing won't rise in price.

Alternatively, skeptics of this approach worry it's not possible to build enough housing, and perhaps there's an induced demand effect where more new housing just makes the city even more attractive. Therefore, it may also be necessary to establish and strengthen programs that guarantee a segment of new and existing housing remain affordable.

But even those programs have a limit on how much money the city can put in and how many units they can create amid this rapid run-up in price. So far, we don't seem to have a good answer. Nobody wants a city that's so undesirable people stop wanting to live here, but neither do we want one that's off-limits to anyone with a lower income.

White Flint is at a crossroads, and traffic engineers should follow the path the community chose

Montgomery County leaders and residents have worked for years to re-plan White Flint as a pedestrian-friendly urban place. Now that redevelopment is finally beginning, county traffic engineers insist on suburban-style road designs rather than complete streets. In this letter to the editor, County Councilmember Roger Berliner demands the Department of Transportation honor the community's urban plans.

Our county is at a crossroads. Literally and metaphorically. There has been a long-running battle over how many lanes of traffic should be built on the portion of Old Georgetown Road that runs in front of the new Pike & Rose development just west of 355 and one block from Metro.

On a certain level, you kind of shrug and say, really, is this so terribly important? And the answer is a most definitive YES.

Old Georgetown Road and Pike + Rose. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Indeed, for many of us, this fight over the number of lanes is about the future direction of our county. It is about honoring the hard work our Planning Board and County Council put into transforming a classic suburban strip mall into the new White Flint, a huge boon to our residents. It is about old school transportation thinking versus new school.

It is about making multimodal transportation optionswalking, biking, transit and drivingattractive, rather than just maximizing the throughput of cars. It is about placemaking, about being "context sensitive," about supporting the experience of consumers enjoying the amenities of one of the hottest new developments in the region.

It is a fight that has been going on for years, most of the time under the surface, and occasionally, as now, boiling over into the public domainwhere it belongs.

And here is what it isn't about. It isn't about the developer, Federal Realty, who had the confidence from the beginning to be the first real mover in White Flint, investing hundreds of millions of dollars, and producing what everyone acknowledges to be a top-of-the-line mixed-use project, and who most definitely has skin in the game. And it isn't about the Friends of White Flint, who have been vigilant and valiant guardians of the vision our planners and Council have held for White Flint.

Our vision of this portion of White Flint is unambiguous. It is to reflect the best of transit-oriented development and the new urbanism. Bike lanes and shared use paths were part of the plan. And the plans being developed by the Executive Branch would eliminate them in order to facilitate eight lanes of traffic. That is not the plan or the vision we worked so hard to adopt.

So why is the vision at risk? The threat of worse traffic. Using old-school and debunked methodologies, assumptions at odds with reality, and not reflecting the use of the new street grid, these engineers maintain that intersections will fail. And if you use the new methodologies, more realistic assumptions, and disperse cars throughout the new grid that is to be created, the intersections don't fail.

Our planners and council understood the traffic implications of this plan. And that is why our council insisted on advancing the construction of Hoya Street, the four lane street that will connect southbound 355 with Old Georgetown at Executive Blvd. It is a much better route for those traveling north or south via Old Georgetown. With that option available and the new grid of streets we are creating, we don't need to sacrifice bike lanes, pedestrian facilities or the new urbanism experience we are trying to create.

County officials say our hands are tied by the state who will insist on eight lanes on their state road. State officials, as recently as last week, told me that they are following the county's lead. And so our county must lead. Strongly. And regrettably, none of the people who have been involved in this struggle from the beginning believe we have fulfilled that fundamental responsibility.

The County Executive, in response to the hundreds of community members who have written expressing their alarm over the threat to our vision of White Flint, framed the issue as "not if, but when" we are able to realize our vision. The traffic engineers of course argue for eight lanes for now and reduce it later if conditions permit. The rest of us want that scenario reversedget it right the first time.

We can always add more lanes at a later date, but if we don't build the bike lanes and shared use paths at the onset, we will undermine both our ability to meet our own non-auto mode-share goals in this area and our vision of White Flint.

I have been in the midst of this struggle from the beginning as the district council&why;member, chair of our transportation committee, and active member during our consideration and passage of the White Flint Sector Plan. I, for one, am not about to go quietly into the night on this fight. It is way too important. And make no mistake about ita lot is riding on whether we realize our collective vision of the future of White Flint and our county.

Author's note: In the interest of full disclosure, several weeks ago I put down a deposit on one of the apartments in the Pike & Rose development.

A scorched earth move by Safeway could turn the Palisades into a food desert

Possibly fed up with opposition to a mixed-use development atop its grocery store in the Palisades, Safeway has offered to sell its store. Residents worry the deal could prohibit a new grocery store in the area, leaving residents in a "food desert," but councilmembers are trying to stave off that possibility.

Photo from Google Street View..

As Richard Layman chronicles, Safeway in recent years has been eagerly pursuing deals to turn its stores on valuable urban land into mixed-use developments that contain stores at ground level. It has recently redeveloped the stores in Petworth, Georgetown, and elsewhere.

Safeway merged with the Albertsons chain this year. Albertsons has been a grocery chain for a long time, but its current owner, the Cerberus private equity firm, is looking at much more than food. Layman writes,

One of the reasons that Cerberus has moved into this sector is that many supermarket chains own real estatestore sites and shopping centersand the value of the underlying real estate can be worth more than the profit stream from store operations.

Safeway is now less patient when it comes to redeveloping stores and will even walk away. Already the change in regimes is evident. More recently, rather than continue with a project in Tenleytown that had dragged on for years, Safeway sold the property to a local private school and will close the store. [Some hyperlinks added]

Would the deal prohibit a new grocery?

Neighbors are worried that Cerberus' sale could include a covenant forbidding a new grocery store on that site. The Current reports (huge PDF) that "Spence Spencer, chair of a Palisades Citizens Association task force on the Safeway issue, said it's his understanding that a sale of the Safeway property would include a covenant prohibiting a future grocery store on the site. The Current could not independently confirm this information, but a similar restriction will be in place at the site of the Tenleytown Safeway."

Trying to stave off this possibility, councilmembers David Catania and Mary Cheh (who represents both the Palisades and Tenleytown) are proposing an emergency bill to ban the practice, and they asked to put it on the agenda for today's council meeting. Their notice to fellow councilmembers about the bill states,

Such covenants are particularly detrimental as residents of city neighborhoods rely on the close proximity of grocers to their homes as nearly 4 in 10 District households are car-free. Further, the District's seniors and those residents who intend to age in place rely on immediate access, as they often face mobility challenges.

The District has long sought to expand the number of grocery stores in neighborhoods throughout the city as the benefits of a full service, neighborhood grocer are well established. The circumstances described above underscore the need for the Council to act in order to prohibit such restrictive covenants and prevent the creation of food deserts in the District.

Layman notes that when a proposed project falls through, residents can sometimes find themselves worse off. That certainly happened at Georgia and Missouri, where a plan to build 400 units of housing above a new Walmart got delayed from opposition and then, once it got approved, collapsed due to the recession. Instead, they settled for a 75-year lease with Walmart to build a store with no housing.

The council may pass the bill and keep the covenant out, but it's likely that Cerberus will sell to someone who wants to build new housing on the site. A standalone one-story grocery store, which some residents desire, may not be an option regardless of who owns the property.

What parts of the Washington region do you think are Great Places?

The American Planning Association just named Adams Morgan and Pennsylvania Avenue to its list of "Great Places in America." If you were choosing their list, what places would you pick? They would like to know.

Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

A variety of factors makes a place great. The best places are visually stimulating, are vibrant gathering places, and accommodate many different people doing different things. They are economic stimuli for communities and encourage personal contact. They also reflect of the culture of their communities.

Pennsylvania Avenue made this year's list of Great Streets for its "mix of civic spaces, public buildings, monuments, parks, local government, residences, hotels, theaters, and museums," and its role hosting "historic events such as presidential inaugurations, state funerals, and protests, marches, and celebrations."

Photo by Khaz on Flickr.

Adams Morgan is on the list of Great Neighborhoods for its "colorful storefronts and iconic rowhouses, ... community murals, ... international shops, restaurants, annual festivals, weekly farmers markets, and nightlife." Also, its 2012 streetscape project "improved the streets for pedestrians and added bicycle lanes, Capital Bikeshare stations, and bike racks" along with the Circulator and Metro.

APA's annual lists of ten Great Streets, ten Great Neighborhoods, and ten Great Public Spaces always generate discussion and controversy. So this year, the association is doing something a little different by asking you to suggest your own great places.

What places would you nominate? Please tell us in the comments and we will share the list with APA. You can also tweet or Instagram your nomination using the tag #MyGreatPlace.

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