Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Bike lane debates move from city hall to late night TV

Bicycling is becoming so popular that even late night talk show hosts are talking about it. The Late Late Show's James Corden recently weighed in on a controversial bike lane plan in California.

Coronado, a town near San Diego, recently tabled plans to paint bike lanes on many city streets after public backlash. Many of the opponents literally did not want to see any extra paint than they felt was necessary on the town's roadways.

Corden apparently found those objections pretty wild.

Despite his jokes, its clear that Corden is in favor of the bike lanes. The news clip he plays points out that lots of people bike in Coronado already and talks about many of cycling's benefits.

He wonders why anyone would hate the idea of bike lanes and he lists a number of benefits to both bike lanes and cycling in general. He also jokes about how the actual objections (like calling bike lanes "graffiti") are hyperbolic and don't really make sense.

Finally, he offers to paint the lanes themselves, rallying his audience to ride in the "Bike Lanes of Justice."

DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson is blocking Mayor Bowser's zoning board nominee

Mayor Muriel Bowser has nominated David Franco, a local developer, to sit on the DC Zoning Commission, but DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is blocking the nomination. I spoke with Franco about work, his vision for DC, and his views on the need to build more housing.

David Franco. Image from video by Level 2 Development.

Franco would replace Marcie Cohen, a former affordable housing and community development professional. Cohen has been a strong advocate for zoning that allows more overall housing in DC, speaking about the need for more housing many times. (Disclosure: she also lives on my block.)

It'll be important for Cohen's successor to also understand the importance of growing the District's housing supply so that new and long-time residents can all find places to live that they can afford. Does Franco? I sat down with him to find out.

Mendelson isn't happy about developer nominees

Mayor Bowser chose Franco after Cohen's term expired earlier this year. However, he first has to be confirmed by the DC Council, and the Zoning Commission falls under the purview of Chairman Phil Mendelson. After a few months passed without a hearing, Mendelson recently said he's not planning to move forward.

Mendelson told the Washington Blade that he's concerned about having developers on the commission. "David Franco is an active developer with a development company that has cases before the Zoning Commission," he told reporter Lou Chibbaro, Jr. "He or his company has appeared before the Zoning Commission several times over the last 24 months. That's the primary concern I have."

Mendelson also told Chibbaro he was unhappy Bowser didn't talk with stakeholders like citizens' groups before making her pick.

Whether developers should sit on the commission has been controversial in the past. When Adrian Fenty was mayor, he nominated two developers and the council, then chaired by Vincent Gray rejected one. When Gray went on to be mayor, he nominated Cohen and his longtime staffer Rob Miller; the commission now includes no developers.

Cohen's not a typical community member; Franco, not a typical developer

Both Cohen and Miller have been strong supporters of the overall need to build more housing. On recent cases about whether homeowners can rent out basements or garages or add units to row houses, Miller and Cohen have been the strongest votes for increasing housing supply. Chairman Anthony Hood (who Fenty wanted to replace and Gray renominated) along with Architect of the Capitol representative Michael Turnbull have been more skeptical of the need for housing, and the National Park Service's Peter May has been the swing vote on key decisions.

Unlike many developers, Franco has also been a supporter of the District's Inclusionary Zoning program which granted extra density in exchange for requiring projects to include some below-market affordable housing. He speaks very proudly of a deal he worked out to save affordable housing on 14th Street across from his View 14 development.

I recently spoke with Franco about his development work and his vision for his service on the Zoning Commission. Here are some of his answers; an upcoming post will delve into some specific issues we discussed in more detail.

Discount Mart in Anacostia. Photo by AboutMyTrip dotCom on Flickr.

Tell me a bit about your history in DC, including your business ventures, and your work in development.

My father owned a children's apparel, furniture and toy store on 12th and G Street, which was originally opened by my uncle in 1939. As a child, I grew up in my father's store and he helped launch my family's other retail venture, Discount Mart, which was a chain of discount department stores serving areas of northeast and southeast DC.

In my early 20s, I left the family business to join a partnership that acquired Tracks Nightclub and Trumpets restaurant. After a few years, I realized the nightlife business was not for me an decided to go back to my retail roots, opening up a chain of men's clothing stores catering to the gay market.

The business eventually grew to six outlets before I realized I could no longer ignore my passion for architecture and my fascination with urban planning, which led me to real estate development. I partnered with a close friend, Jeff Blum, and in 2003, we finished our first project together—a 12-unit condo development on Chapin Street called The Mercury.

We [later] acquired the Nehemiah Shopping Center, which had become run-down and crime-ridden at the time, and we redeveloped it into Capital View Apartments on 14th St. We also developed The Harper on 14th Street and the Keener-Squire and Takoma Central apartment buildings in Takoma, DC.

View 14, at the corner of 14th and Florida. Images from Level 2 Development.

What development project in DC are you most proud of and why?

Without a doubt, View 14 [at Florida Avenue and 14th Street NW] is our proudest accomplishment. Through the project's Planned Unit Development, we were able to come up with a really creative approach to save the 48-unit Crest Hill Apartments (now Milestone Apartments) from losing its low-income affordability, which would have resulted in the building being redeveloped as market-rate apartments.

During the time that we were beginning to develop View 14, Crest Hill Apartments across the street was being sold at market rate and the tenants could not afford to buy it without an additional $1 million in gap funding. The stories of families we met, some who had been there at least 25 years, resonated with us and inspired us to help our neighbors.

Our solution was to propose a $1 million contribution to the Sankofa Tenants Association as a portion of our affordability proffer along with some on-site units. The support we received for this approach was far-reaching and we received bench approval from the Zoning Commission in the second-fastest PUD of that time.

Soon after Zoning Commission approval, we funded the donation and saved the building, though our own project would soon be in peril with the financial meltdown. We funded the donation from equity, and took a huge risk. I remember a discussion with my business partner Jeff Blum during the dark days of the recession, lamenting that we may not be able finish construction and that all of the project equity was lost, and our company finished. We realized and both agreed, "If, in fact, all is lost, at least at the end of the day we did some good and saved 48 families from losing their homes."

There's often a tension between citywide priorities, like the need to create more housing, and local neighborhood interests which often manifest as opposition. How do you think the Zoning Commission should balance these pressures?
I think there are smart ways to create more housing where it is appropriate to do so. There is no catch-all solution, but rather it's a process that must include grassroots neighborhood input that is thoughtfully considered.

It's often a delicate balance of what's good for the people in the neighborhood and what's good for the larger community, but I don't think that those types of priorities and decisions need to have a winner and a loser. I think digging deep to understanding the issues and working hard to help develop and guide creative solutions will create more win-win solutions.

The Harper, at 14th and T.

How do you think the District could best approach the need for subsidized affordable housing?

There is no silver bullet. ... The District currently utilizes bonus density to subsidize affordable housing, which has been effective in generating new affordable housing and has not disrupted affordable housing production (contrary to the naysayers).

This is an effective tool and we should look at this more carefully as more affordable housing is sought, however, there will not be the same opportunities that came with the original bonus density plan. We cannot simply add bonus density ubiquitously without changing the character of our neighborhoods. We need to look at bonus density selectively and responsibly determine which areas can accommodate it and which areas cannot.

There are other [solutions], such as tax abatements, and we may also want to consider that to some degree we can't meet a zero-sum cost structure and that ultimately some land values will be reduced to enable new multi-family development opportunities. All of these solutions have their pros and cons and should be thoroughly analyzed and vetted.

Anything else you'd like people to know?
I would really like to clarify why I am interested in being a Zoning Commissioner. I will have the opportunity to utilize my passion for urban planning, my skills as a developer along with my passion for the District to positively impact this city that I've always called home.

South Park weighs in on gentrification with "SoDoSoPa"

As more people seek urban living, communities around the country are trying to meet the demand. That even goes for fictional places like South Park, which skewers gentrification this season with a new neighborhood called "SoDoSoPa":

In last week's episode, the town decides to redevelop the poor part of town into a trendy arts and restaurant district called "SoDoSoPa" in order to attract a Whole Foods. This fake ad for the community, complete with shots of sleek lofts, fancy restaurants, and bearded hipsters, could pass for lots of places in our region.

The episode also looks at how revitalization projects impact the people who already live there. South Park's mayor reassures Kenny's blue-collar family that she'll listen to their worries about the development. Instead, SoDoSoPa uses Kenny's blue-collar family as a marketing tool, advertising its proximity to "historic Kenny's house." Kenny's little sister asks her dad why they can't go outside to enjoy the cleaned-up neighborhood, and he replies that they can't afford to.

The video inspired a lengthy thread on Reddit's South Park board asking commenters to name their city's "SoDoSoPa" neighborhood. Naturally, one commenter suggested NoMa for the DC area, in addition to other redeveloping areas, including downtown Silver Spring, Bethesda Row, and Tysons Corner.

What depictions of urban issues on TV have you enjoyed recently?

This building is way too short

Along Florida Avenue between U Street and California, at the southern edge of Adams Morgan, there's a block-long strip of retail containing Pleasant Pops, Mint, and until recently, Hans Pedr' Kaffe. It's also missing something big: housing on top.

1781 Florida Avenue, NW. Photos by the author.

In a city full of mixed-use buildings, this one sticks out like a sore thumb. It's just too short. It looks like a suburban strip mall in its low, horizontal nature. And it's right in Adams Morgan, where there's plenty of demand (these days, anyway) for housing. It looks very out of place in DC.

Image from Google Maps.

This site used to house the Kilimanjaro nightclub and a parking garage. According to Cheryl Cort, who lives a few blocks away, violence in the late 1980s hastened its decline. the apartment building across the street was vacant for many years.

The zoning on this site is C-2-A, low-density commercial development, and is also part of the Reed-Cooke Overlay. That limits non-residential Floor-Area Ratio to 1.5, residential to 2.5, and height to 40 feet, if I'm reading the zoning correctly. But it's likely not even hitting those limits, since the sloping site means it's only one story high on some sides.

1781 Florida Avenue, NW. Photos by the author.

This is not in a historic district (it's just outside two districts). If it were, and someone proposed redeveloping this today with five stories of housing, it would probably evoke a usual chorus of objections that such a building would be "too tall." But it's not; a taller building would be more compatible with this area because existing buildings are more vertical in nature and new buildings are generally taller than this one. Arguably, this building is too short to be compatible.

But since this was already redeveloped recently, it's likely to stay as is for some time. That's a big missed opportunity.

What other buildings do you think are too short and/or represent missed opportunities for more housing?

Chicago has examples of a cheap way to bring rail transit to more people: infill stations

North of Union Station, the Metro station at NoMa is Washington's only "infill" station. Another is planned at Potomac Yard. In Chicago, where the CTA has been working on infill stations for several years, there's proof that the stations can be added cheaply.

Cermak/McCormick Place. Photo by the author.

Infill stations are new stations constructed between stations on an existing transit line. NoMa, for example, opened in 2004. It was built between the existing stations at Union Station and Rhode Island Avenue along tracks that had opened in 1976.

The Chicago L dates back over a century. In many places its iconic, rickety structures pass through the dense, vibrant neighborhoods they helped to create. But after World War II, when the CTA took over service, many stations were closed to make trips from the outlying branches faster and to bring down expenses.

In recent years, CTA has reopened several of these stations, which is a more intensive process than it sounds like because the old stations weren't just abandoned; they were demolished.

A few months ago, the agency opened a new station on the Green Line at Cermak/McCormick Place. The station has a gorgeous vaulted canopy. In this location, there's a former stretch of third track, which became platform space.

McCormick Place. Photo by the author.

But because the platform is so narrow, CTA didn't want to have any columns obstructing it. The solution was the vault, supported from outside the trackway. The station cost relatively cheap $50 million. (Yes, fifty million).

Across town, the Morgan station recently opened on the Green and Pink Lines. It was even cheaper to construct, coming in at just $38 million.

This station was also located where a former station had been removed in 1948. It has proven very popular, and was also fairly cheap and quick to construct.

Morgan. Photo by the author.

The Yellow Line is also home to an infill station at Oakton. That station was a recent additon to the line, which formerly had no intermediate stops between Skokie/Dempster and Howard.

In Washington, our infill stations tend to be a little more expensive because they're designed with wider platforms and sturdier materials. Also, in both the case of NoMa and Potomac Yard, the new stations required relocating the tracks. That was not the case in Chicago.

Where would you like to see an infill station on Metro?

Prince George's zombie subdivisions need to die

Prince George's County has a backlog of suburban-style subdivisions that were approved for construction years ago, but never built. Now, the county faces a choice: Let those projects live on and sap up demand, or cancel them so more urban developments can rise.

Photo by Seamoor on Flickr.

Ever since 2009, the Prince George's County Council has continually extended the approval periods for unbuilt development projects, mostly consisting of single-family residential subdivisions located outside of the Beltway and away from transit.

Originally, the council granted these extensions to provide temporary relief to distressed developers in the wake of the Great Recession. But the recession is over. And while housing prices continue to rebound in Prince George's, there is no current market demand for massive new single-family subdivisions outside of the Beltway.

Instead of extending them for two more years, through the end of 2017, it's time for the council to give up the ghost on these long-dead projects.

Zombie projects are clogging the county's pipeline

About 80% of the development projects approved but not yet constructed in Prince George's County are low-density single-family homes. Over 13,000 of them are planned for outside of the Beltway, away from transit. This chart from 2011 shows just how widely spread out these projects are:

Image from M-NCPPC.

But the county already has more single-family units than it knows what to do with, and developers seemingly haven't found it to be in their financial interest to pursue more of these projects for years.

Everyone but the council seems to realize these projects are effectively dead. It simply makes no sense to keep trying to bring these zombie projects back to life.

County planners have already concluded that such scattered sprawl development is unhelpful for the county because it makes it "difficult to establish a critical mass of high-density development around any existing Metro station, as envisioned by the General Plan."

Moreover, the county's continued lack of focus on high-quality mixed-use transit-oriented development puts it "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide."

When approving the current General Plan last year, the existing pipeline of approved-but-unbuilt projects outside of the Beltway led planners and the council to conclude that the county actually had "too many" Metro stations, even before taking into account the future Purple Line light rail stations, and that developing all of them would "undermine economic growth."

But if the council would instead allow these old projects to die a natural death, developers and planners could reorient their efforts to smarter projects. Even if the market later shows there's still demand for single family homes, starting over would give officials a chance to design them with more walkable streets.

Ideally, the county could direct some much-needed attention towards its gateway neighborhoods and Metro stations near DC.

The council's Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider the latest extension bills, CB-80-2015 and CB-81-2015, on Wednesday, September 30, at 1:30 pm in Room 2027 of the County Administration Building. If the committee votes to favorably recommend the bill, the full council will then consider it at a later date.

Residents can attend the PZED meeting in person, or submit written comments. Use this link to address comments to PZED Chair Andrea Harrison, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone.

A version of this post appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.

The controversy over affordable housing on Florida Avenue, explained

A new development in Shaw will bring a Whole Foods and 352 apartments, 107 price below market rate. But there's controversy over whether the DC government should have sold the site for its full value of $27 million, for $5 million, or $400,000.

There are two fundamental questions. First, is it worth paying to locate subsidized affordable housing in wealthier neighborhoods, where the opportunity cost is higher? Second, did the Bowser administration negotiate a bad deal for what it got?

Housing deal image from Shutterstock.

What's this deal?

This building will sit on publicly-owned land at 965 Florida Avenue, where 9th, T W Street, Sherman Avenue, and Florida Avenue come together. In 2013, after a bidding process, DC's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) chose MRP Realty to develop the site.

There's been a long-running debate in DC about whether, when selling a piece of public land, the city should strive to get as much cash as possible, or include more below-market housing. The DC Council passed a bill later that year, by Ward 5 councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, to require 20-30% of units in public land deals be affordable to people making 30-50% of the Area Median Income.

The city then renegotiated the 965 Florida arrangement to comply with this rule. Last week, the council approved the deal. The next step is for the developers to file a Planned Unit Development with the Zoning Commission with more details about the proposed building.

Concept rendering of 965 Florida. Image from MRP Realty.

What did it cost?

Aaron Davis reported on the project in the Washington Post. According to documents he obtained, the property would be worth about $27.6 million if sold outright.

An appraiser concluded that with the below-market housing requirement, the property is still worth $5.9 million. In the deal, MRP is paying the District $400,000.

The eye-catching but confusing headline, "How D.C. turned $27 million into $400,000," caused some people to confuse the two issues. One is whether it is worth about $20 million to get an affordability limit on 107 units. The other is whether the Bowser Administration blew the other $5 million.

Should "deeply affordable" housing be part of such deals?

Some people don't agree with the McDuffie bill in the first place. There are those who think affordable housing shouldn't be part of a deal at all. Others argue that it would be better to take the cash in the hot U Street/Shaw area and use it for affordable housing somewhere cheaper.

The latter argument is actually the flip side of an issue Martin Austermuhle just reported on for WAMU: DC's housing authority is selling off townhouses in now-hot markets like Columbia Heights for top dollar and using the money in its budget elsewhere. There was also a public land deal in the Mount Vernon Triangle (before the McDuffie bill passed) to put all required affordable housing in Anacostia instead.

On the one hand, you can buy more housing for the same money in a cheap area. On the other hand, residents in those areas already feel that lower-income housing is already too concentrated in their areas. Research has demonstrated that lower-income children who grow up in higher-income areas succeed more in life, so there's some definite value in using resources to create mixed-income communities.

The recent HBO series Show Me a Hero depicted the political fight that ensued when a court required Yonkers, NY to put some public housing in fancier neighborhoods. The Housing Authority sales or the MVT land deal are perpetuating concentration, while 965 Florida deal is the direct result of efforts to spread housing around.

Money floating away image from Shutterstock.

Did the Bowser administration get a bad deal?

Even with the required below-market housing, the appraiser estimated DC should get $5.9 million instead of $400,000. In a committee report on the land deal, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said that DMPED's "record is disappointing" when it comes to being "a shrewd negotiator on behalf of the city."

Mendelson notes that DMPED blocked the council from getting another appraisal, hasn't ensured that the affordable housing would even last in perpetuity (which reportedly the developer was willing to accept), and didn't arrange for DC to get more money if the developer can build a larger building than in the initial bid (which, Mendelson's report says, the developer was also willing to accept).

This reflects many of the concerns people have raised about a Wizards/Mystics facility at St. Elizabeth's. It actually doesn't seem like such a bad idea to put a sports complex here if that's the best way to jump-start development in the area. DC was already going to spend money on St. Elizabeth's, and the rest of the money will come from the sports and convention authority, which only will use its money for things that promote sports and conventions.

The bigger question, and one the Post editorial board focused on, is whether the deal really adds up. A wealthy sports team owner is getting something of value, though so is the city, and the debate mainly centers on how much value each party gains.

Was St. Elizabeth's really stalled without this deal? Will it bring the promised benefits? Maybe so. And even if we're unsure, maybe Congress Heights deserves a gamble.

And it's easy to nitpick any deal. Sometimes in a business transaction, you have to give a little more than you want to make it work. Certainly when any homeowner does a renovation, for instance, some things cost a little more than planned. If every homeowner had a city full of people looking over his or her shoulder at every choice of tiles or lighting, it'd be easy to find flaws.

However, in those cases, and when a corporation negotiates a deal, it's not public money. It's easier for an economic development official, with the best of intentions, to give away a little more taxpayer funding when it's the way to ensure a deal goes through. Maybe that's worthwhile, since when it comes to a land development deal, there's also a big cost to adding years more delay while the site is fallow and generating no tax revenue.

One other factor is what would happen with the extra money. Sometimes there are really worthwhile ways to spend it. But sometimes the alternative is a pile of other pork-barrel projects or tax cuts that won't stimulate economic growth. For all the criticism, some deserved and some not, of the price tag of the DC Streetcar, cutting it hasn't led to an equivalent pile of money ready for a different transportation project that critics liked better.

There's a balance, and residents understandably would like to have confidence that the city is negotiating a good deal while also needing to have a little patience that every deal can't be perfect.

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