Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

There may be hurdles to redeveloping the White Flint Mall, but not to tearing it down

While a lawsuit threatens to derail the redevelopment of White Flint Mall, the deconstruction of the 1970's-era shopping center on Rockville Pike continues apace.


The mostly demolished mall. All photos from the author.

My normal commute to work has me bicycling around the west and north sides of the White Flint Mall property regularly. When I came back from vacation last week, I was amazed to see how far the deconstruction of the parking structure has come.

Developer Lerner Enterprises wants to turn the mall into a new urban neighborhood with shops, housing, and a new street grid. It's one part of Montgomery County's plans to make the larger White Flint area into a new downtown.

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But department store Lord & Taylor, which still has a store at the mall, says that violates a promise Lerner made in 1975 to keep the mall a mall, and filed a lawsuit against the developer last year. Last month, a Maryland judge ruled in favor of Lord & Taylor and said Lerner has to pay them $31 million in "lost profits," which the Lerners say could imperil their plans to redevelop the site.

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The mall closed in January and demolition started in July. The parking garages around the mall have been torn down and much of the mall's interior has been ripped out, but the structure's exterior remains.

Of course Lord & Taylor's building remains intact. So they will soon have a bunch of money (pending appeals, of course) and a stand-alone store in a temporary wasteland.

Here's how DCís inclusionary zoning program works

DC's inclusionary zoning program helps city residents rent and buy places to live when they can't afford market-rate prices. Here's how it works.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Inclusionary zoning stipulates that new residential developments have to have a certain number of apartments or condos, which are then deemed "affordable," where the rent or the selling price is lower than the market rate and that are only available to people whose incomes fall below a certain level.

DC's Zoning Commission designates inclusionary zones, and the city's Department of Housing and Community Development manages the lottery process for households to move into affordable units.

Inclusionary zoning rules apply when a developer builds 10 or more units, or when the developer's addition of 10 new units to an existing building represents an increase in the building's residential floor space by 50% or more.

These units cost developers money because they are below market-rate, so to incentivize inclusionary zoning development, the city allows developers in inclusionary zones to build a 20% larger building than would normally be allowed for that particular zone. This additional development is called "bonus density."

In the end, depending on the particular zoning and the bonus density, between 8 to 12.5% of the square footage of a building in an inclusionary zone will go toward affordable units.

Who can live in affordable units?

Under inclusionary zoning, there are two types of affordable units: those priced for households making at or less than 50% of the area median income (AMI), and those for people making at or less than 80% of AMI.

Once the units are built and ready for residents, the city runs a lottery among households that have registered with DC's inclusionary zoning program.

To register for DC's Inclusionary Zoning lottery, a household must submit documents to prove both its size and that its combined income is at or below the required AMI threshold. Charts like these clarifiy who, exactly, makes 50 or 80% of AMI:


Table from DCHD.

Whether a household qualifies for housing that's set aside for a certain AMI threshold varies based on the household's size. A household of four making $80,000 per year, for example, could live in units designated for people making 80% of AMI, but an individual making the same amount could not.

The chart below outlines the maximum rents and purchase prices the can be charged for affordable units depending on the size of the unit.


Table from DCHD.

There's a lottery to get into inclusionary zoning housing

Once the lottery starts, households whose members live and work in DC get priority over those who don't.

187 affordable units have come up for lottery since 2011, and 3,312 households have registered. 93 units have been added since the beginning of 2015, with over 1,500 new registrants. DC's Department of Housing and Community Development says more units should hit the inclusionary zoning program as the city's realty market continues to grow.

A similar lottery system applies to households buying a condo and the city has arranged lenders willing to provide financing.

Once renting an Inclusionary Zoning unit, households pay their building owner directly.

Renters must certify on an annual basis that their income has remained within the AMI threshold of their unit. AMI thresholds are updated every year based on research by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Households that have purchased condos don't need to re-certify.

Inclusionary zoning is different from Section 8

Inclusionary zoning housing is not Section 8 Housing. The main difference is that the government doesn't pay portions of tenant rents for people in affordable units while under the Housing Choice Voucher Program, DC's Section 8 equivalent, it does.

To qualify for the voucher program, households typically need to make less than 30% of AMI. Households under the voucher program can live in inclusionary zoning housing.

DC's inclusionary zoning program is relatively new, starting in 2009. Interestingly, Montgomery County was the first administration in the nation to start an inclusionary zoning program, back in 1972. Other counties and cities in the DC region that run inclusionary zoning programs are Arlington and Fairfax Counties.

Currently, inclusionary zoning rules only apply to new apartments and condos. DC is finalizing an inclusionary zoning program for single-family homes.

The author would like to thank the DC Department of Housing and Community Development for its help in understanding inclusionary zoning.

Businesses no longer want office parks, and that can mean more revenue for cities

Businesses are making moves toward neighborhoods that are accessible by transit and easy to walk around in. For cities, it's a smart financial move to view the change in preference as one that's here to stay.


Pike + Rose. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

A recent story in the Washington Post covered a move by Merrill Lynch from a Montgomery County office park you can only get to by driving to the Metro-accessible Pike & Rose development on Rockville Pike. Though commercial lease terms are typically confidential, experts say Merrill Lynch chose to pay 40% higher rent for the new location, which is a five- to ten-minute walk to the White Flint Metro station.

This isn't an aberration. Just a few miles south of Merrill Lynch's office, Marriott is considering move its headquarters from a conventional office park in Bethesda to somewhere else in the region. The CEO told the Washington Post, "I think it's essential we be accessible to Metro and that limits the options."

This preference isn't just limited to two companies. A report in late 2013 found that 83% of the new office space under construction in the region is within a quarter-mile (a five-minute walk) of a Metro station. That is no coincidence.


Headquarters of Marriott International in a Bethesda office park. Image from Google Maps.

Local tax bases will shift

These trends are telling, and local leaders concerned about future budgets should take notice. Buildings like the one Merrill Lynch is moving into command higher rents and are more valuable to investors. And because cities and counties raise much of their revenue from real estate taxes levied ad valorem, meaning the tax is a percentage of the assessed value of the property, they mean more tax money.

Also, local governments often prefer office development to housing development since offices tend to pay more in local taxes than they use in services.

In Loudoun, for instance, the county claims that each new home costs the county $1.62 in added county services—schools, roads, sewers, etc.—for every extra dollar collected in taxes. Homebuilders say the cost is more like $1.20, but either way, each new house is a net cost to the county under its current tax structure. Communities with a healthy mix of commercial and residential development can provide excellent public services at manageable tax rates.

The moves of Merrill Lynch and Marriott as well as the Metro-proximity of new office space show the direction the office market is moving. If state and local governments want to attract and retain the offices of large Fortune 500 companies like Marriott and Merrill Lynch (a subsidiary of Bank of America), they need to plan for and support the types of mixed-use, walkable, transit-rich development companies seek and are willing to pay a premium for.

The future is already here

Fortunately, much of the infrastructure is already in place. The Washington region still has plenty of Metro stations that have not met their full development potential. Furthermore, the new development Metro spurs doesn't necessarily burden the existing infrastructure. In fact we found that car traffic in Arlington's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor declined while development boomed.

It's too early to tell whether leaders are fully aware of what it's going to take to attract commercial development. In good news, the Silver Line's expansion into Virginia has already sparked office construction in Tyson's Corner and the Wiehle-Reston East station, allowing the commonwealth and Fairfax County to expand and capture more economic activity.

Likewise, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan chose to continue the Purple Line, an investment that will improve mobility and will create more places in Maryland that attract taxpaying office tenants. Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett successfully pressured the state to reconfigure Old Georgetown Road near White Flint as a narrower complete street, not the wide auto-sewer the state had suggested.

But the region has made its share of mistakes, too. The cancellation of the Columbia Pike streetcar with no credible plan for any transit improvements ensures that new economic development will largely bypass that section of Arlington.

Creating neighborhoods that give residents and workers practical options to walk, bike, ride transit, or drive will improve the quality of life and also helps the jurisdiction's bottom line. Leaders who want to continue providing high-quality public services to residents without raising tax rates need to attract commercial tenants who are willing to pay higher rents and thus generate more tax revenue.

Leaders have a choice with limited funds: they can use public money to build new arterial roads and fail to spur economic growth or they can invest in the harder, but rewarding, transformation of places like Tysons and White Flint into the nodes that spur the economic development patterns of the future.

Learn important concepts in designing buildings from an HBO series

HBO's miniseries Show Me a Hero depicts a fight over affordable housing in Yonkers, New York in the 1980s. It raises many important issues about race relations and the reality of politics. It also teaches us something about architecture and how the design of buildings affects crime.


Public housing in New Orleans. Photo by Culture:Subculture Photography on Flickr.

Episodes 3 and 4 aired Sunday night. In one scene, Oscar Newman, the architect of the new housing, argues vehemently that it's important to build townhouses, each with its own entrance to the street, instead of two-unit buildings with common stairs. This is because, he says, people will defend and keep up their own private space, while a common space will more easily fall into disrepair and provide a haven for drug dealing.

He calls this "defensible space," a term the real Oscar Newman coined and used as the title of his most famous book.

Newman also argues that to avoid the same problems that plague the city's existing housing projects, it's also important to spread the housing out to several smaller sites rather than a few big ones. This will mean public housing near more voters' homes, but it avoids concentrating poverty in one place, which often leads to crime.

In the scene, Judge Sand and NAACP lawyer Michael Sussman are initially dismissive of Newman's concerns. They think that just getting the housing established is enough of a victory. They don't want to do anything to increase the cost, which could add new obstacles. But Newman prevails.


Peter Riegert as Oscar Newman. Image from HBO.

How "defensible space" works

A front porch that leads directly from the sidewalk to a home is "defensible" in that people know that it is "their" porch. A shared hallway or courtyard doesn't breed that same feeling of ownership and people are less likely to confront a problem in that space.

Writer David Simon illustrates defensible space is throughout the series. One of the earliest scenes in the first episode shows Carmen, a public housing resident, taking her kids to their apartment up the stairs instead of the elevator despite having an arm full of groceries because drug dealers had taken over the communal elevator.

Mary Dorman, a strident opponent of the housing integration plan, says that she works very hard to take care of her home and her street and that is why she opposes the new housing. She is then left awkwardly scrambling after a news reporter asks here why she doesn't think that any new residents won't do the same.

Meanwhile, Nick Wasicsko stands on the porch of a house he wants to buy. He revels in a view of Manhattan that is about to be "his" view that he feels he has worked hard for. The show is saying that even if the problems can seem obvious, the causes and their solutions often are not.


Co-op housing in Shaw, DC. Photo by Marie In Shaw on Flickr.

It matters if buildings face the street

Those of us who learned a lot about planning from Jane Jacobs are familiar with the concept of "eyes on the street," where people actually coming and going from the street itself make a place safer. This wasn't always a well-known concept, and Newman was instrumental here as well.

In the show, Newman argues that buildings which directly access the street, rather than facing parking lots or courtyards, will give people ownership of all of the space from the building to the street and eliminate any space for drug dealing.

This very issue affected low-income housing across the nation, including in Sursum Corda, a public housing cooperative where most units faced inward instead of out to the street. The shared space became a haven for crime and prompted efforts to redevelop the complex.

Other public housing has been built to blend in with the fabric of the neighborhood, with front doors that face the street and personal spaces for residents to care for. Capitol Crossing in Navy Yard and the mix of public housing near the Southwest Waterfront are good examples of better ways to provide inclusive housing.

Defensible Space isn't the solution to every crime, but is an important tool for many planners and architects looking to create valuable and cherished places.

The final two episodes air this Sunday on HBO.

The lion's share of DC's new housing is only going in one part of the city

Over the last decade, DC has built 13% less housing than its Comprehensive Plan calls for. Of the new housing that is going up, most of it is confined to the central city even though the plan recommends only 30% go there. Meanwhile, most parts of the District are building little or no new housing.

Capitol Riverfront cranes
New high-rises under construction in the Capitol Riverfront. Photo by the author.

Besides forecasting how much growth the city would need to accommodate, the comp plan also identified where new residents would go. The plan included estimates of how many new households would settle across its 10 planning districts (policy 215.20), the conclusion being that every part of the city would gain new households and thus need to add new units.

The allocations ranged from a 6.8% increase in households in the "Rock Creek West" area, west of the park and above Georgetown, to a 116% increase along the Anacostia waterfront.


Graphic by Peter Dovak.

One part of town is building far more than its share

The comp plan identified a then-emerging trend towards living in the central city, and assumed that a substantial share of the District's future population growth would occur in and around downtown. Its policy 304 states that "approximately 30 percent of the District of Columbia's future housing growth and 70 percent of its job growth will occur within the urban core of the city and adjacent close-in areas along the Anacostia River."

But in the decade since, DC has been too successful at steering development toward downtown.

Instead of 30% of DC's housing growth, the "Central Washington" and adjacent "Lower Anacostia Waterfront/Near Southwest" planning districts are seeing the lion's share of both new housing and new jobs. According to counts provided by economic development officials and local business improvement districts, two-thirds of the building permits issued for new housing in the entire District have been for this central area.

The waterfront planning area, which includes the Capitol Riverfront (Navy Yard) and Southwest Waterfront, along with Poplar Point on the east side of the Anacostia River, was assigned the highest housing-growth target in the comp plan. It would receive 9,400 additional households by 2025, or 1/6 of the entire city's housing growth—a goal it's on track to substantially exceed. As of 2016, the waterfront area will have already met 73% of its 2005-2025 housing goal, compared to 46% for the entire District.

The Capitol Riverfront area alone accounted for nearly half of the new housing permitted in DC last year. There, 4,874 units were built or under construction as of last year, and another 1,249 units broke ground in just the first few months of 2015. Another 1,407 units will be under construction in Southwest Waterfront at the end of this year, and nearly 2,000 additional units have already been planned.


DC's two central planning districts. Image by the author.

Many thousands more units will be built before 2025; a total of 11,978 units have been proposed so far just in Capitol Riverfront. Plans have yet to emerge for large sites like Greenleaf Gardens, Buzzard Point, and Poplar Point.

Meanwhile, the Central Washington planning area—which encompasses the swath from the Capitol to the Kennedy Center, between Massachusetts Avenue and I-395—has almost met its 8,400-unit goal. Just two of its neighborhoods, Mount Vernon Triangle and NoMa, have added 7,300 units in the past decade. Together with 674 units at CityCenterDC, that means the area has built 95% of its projected new units, in half the time.

As with the waterfront, there's more to come: redevelopments at Northwest One like Sursum Corda, residential conversions of existing office buildings, the Southwest EcoDistrict and nearby sites like the Portals, and a few more infill parcels

Central city housing growth has a lot of advantages, as the comp plan points out: "Absorbing the demand for higher density units within these areas is an effective way to meet housing demands, create mixed-use areas, and conserve single-family residential neighborhoods throughout the city."

Yet this one strategy was always meant to be one way to meet housing demands, not the only strategy. The District's other policies to "conserve single-family residential neighborhoods" are doing too good of a job at keeping new housing out of the neighborhoods that were supposed to accommodate 70% of future housing growth—and keeping the District as a whole well below its housing growth projections.

New road designs make Tysons more inviting for people on bike and foot

A street in Tysons just underwent some big changes, swapping driving lanes for bike lanes. The new design will make it easier to get around the area by bike and on foot.


Greensboro Drive's lane designs, before and after. Image from Fairfax County.

The stretch of Greensboro Drive from Spring Hill Road to Pinnacle Drive went on a road diet that cut its four lanes down to two. A center turn lane also went in, along with bike lanes in both directions.

The changes are the first of Fairfax's Proposed Street Design Update, which VDOT rolled out last March. Similar changes are coming to Tyco Road and Westbranch Drive.


The new Greensboro Drive. Photo by the author.

Greensboro road feeds an employment hub that's home to companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Cvent, and SAIC.

The new turn lane should lessen traffic backups since cars used to get stuck behind people waiting to turn left off of Greensboro. And the bike lanes should also make it easier to reach the new Silver Line Metro stations. Already, I've seen an increase of people walking to and from both the Greensboro and Spring Hill stations.


Greensboro Drive prior to the changes. Base image from Google Maps.

For the time being, Greensboro Drive between Pinnacle and International Drive, closer to the Tysons Galleria mall, is still four lanes wide. But it's good to see the beginnings of a thoughtful, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design emerging in Fairfax County's redevelopment of Tysons.


One of Greensboro Drive's new bike lanes. Photo by the author.

Opposition to housing in HBO's "Show Me a Hero" sounds eerily familiar

In the second episode of the miniseries Show Me a Hero, which premiered on HBO last Sunday, angry crowds—all white—protest at a Yonkers, NY city council meeting discussing a plan to put a measly 200 low-income households in the more affluent parts of the city. Many people watching surely believe that they wouldn't be throwing diapers at the council if they had been in Yonkers in 1987. I'm not so sure.


Yonkers residents protesting public and affordable housing at a city council meeting. Images from HBO unless otherwise noted.

DC may be close to half white and half black, but many neighborhoods are far from diverse, racially or in income level. West of Rock Creek Park and east of the Anacostia River are worlds apart, as much as Show Me a Hero's depictions of Yonkers east and west of the Saw Mill River Parkway.

DC hasn't taken very serious steps to change this reality in the last decade, but even those to move 1% of the way have been met with more than 1% of the anger and opposition we can see in Show Me a Hero.

In the series (and in real-life history) a federal judge found that Yonkers had violated civil rights laws and the Constitution by concentrating all of the low-income housing into a small area of the city. The judge ordered Yonkers to build 200 units of public housing and 800 of affordable housing in sites elsewhere. The council (all white) fought against the ruling to the bitter end.


Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko is faced with a council where no member wants new public housing in his district.

The first two episodes of the miniseries, by The Wire creator David Simon, show council resistance as the judge progressively threatens officials with contempt charges and fines. They also depict the intensity of public opposition to the idea of anyone who makes less money than they do living in their neighborhoods. "It's not a black and white issue," one says, unpersuasively to much of the series' 2015 audience.

Meanwhile, in DC in the 2010s, what affordable housing gets built mostly goes east of the Anacostia into the District's two poorest wards. Residents there keep pointing out the unfairness of adding even more subsidized housing in areas with high unemployment and relatively few retail or transportation options, but it continues. The Gray Administration even approved a proposal to build on public land in the Mount Vernon Triangle but locate required affordable housing units in Anacostia.


The concentrations of white (left) and black (right) residents in Yonkers in 1980. The darker the green, the higher the percentage. Image from Social Explorer via Uncovering Yonkers.

In DC's richest ward, new housing inevitably means a fight

There hasn't been any push to build affordable housing west of Rock Creek, but there have been a few efforts to build some higher-income housing that wasn't the detached single houses on large lots that predominate. Apartments on the site of the old Wisconsin Avenue Giant, the development now called Cathedral Commons, drew battles and lawsuits for well over a decade.

The DC Zoning Update proposed allowing homeowners with basements or carriage houses to rent them out instead of prohibiting the practice outright, as is the law today. That plan is still slowly grinding its way through the approval process after getting watered down significantly amid endless delays over more than seven years now.

And a 2003-2004 plan to allow denser development along Wisconsin Avenue near the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights Metro stations provoked a massive backlash. At the tail end, opponents attacked Ellen McCarthy, the planning director at the time, and successfully pushed for her ouster.

None of these efforts would have created much if any exclusively low-income housing. Some people, like Councilmember Vincent Orange, therefore argue wrongly that opposing new housing has no impact on low-income residents at all. But if it's so controversial to allow more market-rate housing in an already expensive area, where units might just go to some young singles and couples or retirees, imagine the firestorm if the same housing would have actual poor people. You don't have to imagine it; you can watch Show Me a Hero.

The specter of different people raises alarm

In the show's second episode, Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) hears on the news about the increasing chance of some low-income housing coming to her neighborhood and says, about the people who would live in low-income units, "they don't live the way we do. They don't want what we want."

In the 21st century and outside the crispness of a scripted television show, people don't quite say that, but some messages on the Chevy Chase listserv about the carriage house proposals came close. One person wrote, "I'm especially concerned about [these units], and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young childrens' safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units."

And these would have been units where an existing Chevy Chase homeowner hand-selected the person to rent to, not ones awarded through a housing lottery. What would this writer and the others who expressed similar sentiments done if the plan had actually been to desegregate the Chevy Chase neighborhood?


Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a single mother and public housing resident struggling to afford life in Yonkers.

This year, the US Supreme Court upheld a strong interpretation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act in a Texas case that has a lot of similarities to the Yonkers one, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued stricter rules to push cities to do more against housing segregation.

With the memorable and viral phrase "Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets," Kriston Capps argued in Citylab that many liberals' professed views won't stand up to the reality of actually getting affordable housing near them. Capps notes how a Republican county executive was elected in Westchester County (which includes Yonkers) after his Democratic predecessor approved new affordable housing across the county.

Lisa Belkin, author of the book on which the miniseries is based, wrote in the New York Times that "[s]upporters of desegregation won the Yonkers battle—but the high cost of victory lost them the war. Few in this country had the will to risk another divisive, ugly municipal bruising any time soon."

Many officials in DC and elsewhere might look at the miniseries, the real-life experiences in Westchester and DC and everywhere else, and conclude that residential segregation is something best ignored. That's certainly what the councilmembers in Show Me a Hero wanted to do. But as David Simon illustrates with cuts between the council hearings and scenes of the real lives of the affected low-income people, the human cost of inaction is very high.

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