Greater Greater Washington

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Finally, the stop signs residents pushed for... along with some startling news

Residents near the intersections of Kansas Avenue and Quincy Street NW spent the last few years asking for four-way stop signs at the intersection. Recently, the intersection saw two traffic collisions on the same day. The stop signs followed soon after.


The new stop signs on Kansas Avenue NW. Image by the author.

Whether you were on foot, bike, or car, poor lines of sight made it very hard to cross Kansas via Quincy when there were no stop signs. In asking DDOT to install stop signs in every direction at the intersection, Petworth ANC commissioners noted that they were a feature at almost every other four-way stop in the area.

Still, DDOT representatives refused the neighborhood's requests for a long time, suggesting instead that the solution was to remove parking spaces to make it easier to see. Residents objected, saying doing so would both cut needed parking supply and entice people to drive faster on Kansas.

About a month ago, the community members turned up the pressure after yet another avoidable crash. On Saturday, July 11th, back-to-back collisions in the morning and afternoon prompted a deluge of neighborhood concern, expressed at the scenes of the crashes, over local listservs, and even in the Post.


The aftermath of the first July 11th crash. Image from a neighbor, who lives adjacent to the intersection.

Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, along with representatives from the mayor's office, the police department, and DDOT, were quick to pay attention. DDOT's representatives tracked traffic patterns and deployed a Traffic Control Officer.

On Thursday, July 16th, all-way stop signs went in at the intersection.

Neighbors are thrilled. People on foot no long have to detour around the intersection when walking with their children or pets, and drivers on Quincy have a much easier time crossing Kansas.

When it comes to traffic safety, there's still work to do

Because the second July 11th crash was less serious than the first, officers at the scene didn't file an official police report. When witnesses asked why, they learned that the Metropolitan Police Department doesn't require reports on some minor collisions.

Given that DDOT decision makers consider the number of reported crashes at an intersection in a 12-month period when weighing whether or not (PDF) to install an all-way stop, MPD's policy creates a dangerous information gap.

If crashes go unreported, are decisions that affect safety all that reliable? How many other intersections in DC meet the criteria for an all-way stop?

Muriel Bowser predicts DC holds 800,000 people in 20 years. That requires a lot of new housing.

DC mayor Muriel Bowser appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Tuesday. In response to a question about whether DC is "full," she said DC "is going to keep growing" to 800,000 people in about 20 years. A recent report from George Mason University says it'll take a lot of new housing, of all types and for all income ranges, to get there.


Bowser's appearance on Morning Joe. Click to view the segment.

Here's the exchange, which starts around four minutes into this video:

CNBC's Brian Sullivan: Over the last ten years a number of major corporations—pretty much all the defense organizations, by the way—are either based in DC or around it. DC's population has surged. I have a lot of friends there and I'll speak for you and them: What are you going to do about the traffic? Is DC full? Because it seems full when I'm on the Beltway.

Mayor Bowser: It's not full. We're going to keep growing. Keep in mind that in the fifties we had 800,000 people that lived in DC. We're at about 660,000 now, and probably in the next 20 years we'll get up to 800,000 again. Now we have to be smart, we have to invest in our infrastructure..."

Sullivan: The Silver Line Metro has been expanded. That's nice ...

Bowser: ... And it's going to continue to expand. We're going to invest in our Metro. And part of the things that all of us mayors are talking about is what the Congress can do to help us. It's important that we get a permanent transportation bill and fund it.

Disregarding the whole panel's apparent confusion between the District and the larger region (where the Beltway, Silver Line, and most of the defense companies are located), Bowser's statistic fits with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) recent projections.

How much housing does our area need?

The George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis recently published a report projecting the amount of housing needed in all the jurisdictions in the Washington region over the next ten years. This updates a 2013 report, which Aaron Wiener summarized as saying, "We Need More Housing. Lots More Housing."

Starting with projections including the COG population forecasts, author Jeannette Chapman estimated the numbers of new housing units that each jurisdiction will need, and broke it down among single-family houses (attached, like row houses, and detached), multi-family (like apartment buildings), rental units, and owned units. The report also looks at the need for people in different income ranges, from less than 30% of Area Median Income up to 120% and more.

The bottom line, in Wiener-ese, is: "We Still Need More Housing. Lots More Housing. All Kinds. And All Prices."

Here's a table showing just DC data, which I assembled from various tables in the CRA report:

District of Columbia, 2023
<30% AMI30-49.9% AMI50-79.9% AMIAll Low Income80-99.9% AMI100-119.9% AMI120%+ AMITotal
Total DC75,25041,33022,980139,55049,88023,450103,130316,020
Single-family16,84013,0108,06037,91017,7708,70049,590113,960
Multi-family58,40028,32014,920101,64032,11014,76053,540202,050
Owner13,27012,6407,61033,52021,08010,50066,270131,380
Renter61,97028,69015,370106,03028,80012,95036,860184,640
New units from 2011
<30% AMI30-49.9% AMI50-79.9% AMIAll Low Income80-99.9% AMI100-119.9% AMI120%+ AMITotal
Total DC12,6004,9601,92019,4907,4503,03017,38047,340
Single-family1,791-105-243,6961,3472534,4677,753
Multi-family10,8045,0691,94637,9166,0892,77012,91839,630
Owner3,2781,2421,28413,0814,12196310,01420,884
Renter9,3193,72063428,5793,3132,0687,39626,422
Percent Change from 2011
<30% AMI30-49.9% AMI50-79.9% AMIAll Low Income80-99.9% AMI100-119.9% AMI120%+ AMITotal
Total DC20.1%13.6%9.1%16.2%17.6%14.8%20.3%17.6%
Single-family11.9%-0.8%-0.3%10.8%8.2%3.0%9.9%7.3%
Multi-family22.7%21.8%15.0%59.5%23.4%23.1%31.8%24.4%
Owner32.8%10.9%20.3%64.0%24.3%10.1%17.8%18.9%
Renter17.7%14.9%4.3%36.9%13.0%19.0%25.1%16.7%
Numbers may not add due to rounding.
Sources: 2011 American Community Survey microdata, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and GMU Center for Regional Analysis

Except for single-family housing for people making between 30% and 80% of AMI, DC needs more housing in every box.

The top-line number is 47,340 new units from 2011 to 2023. That's 3,945 units a year over 12 years. But according to this data, DC added only 3,226 units a year on average from 2011-2014, and that was during a massive boom. The average from 2005-2014, which includes the previous boom and the intervening recession, was 2,153 units a year.

Plus, most new units were not in the lower-income affordable ranges, where DC needs to be adding 1,050 units for people under 30% AMI a year and 573 a year for people making 30-80% AMI.

This challenge is not just in DC. Here's a table from the report for the whole region:

Housing needs, 2023
<30% AMI30-49.9% AMI50-79.9% AMIAll Low Income80-99.9% AMI100-119.9% AMI120%+ AMITotal
Dist. of Columbia75,25041,33022,980139,55049,88023,450103,130316,020
Montgomery43,23045,94033,350122,52077,77036,560170,760407,610
Prince George's57,02055,38037,830150,22079,36032,44081,350343,370
Rest of Sub. Md.140,73031,71019,98092,42056,79027,23081,490257,930
Suburban Md.140,980133,03091,150365,160213,93096,220333,6001,008,910
Arlington13,8607,5605,79027,21020,78010,31056,950115,260
Alexandria city9,7108,4506,31024,47016,0906,94032,07079,570
Fairfax241,07036,48024,640102,19086,39042,880213,590445,050
Prince William319,50022,26015,36057,12043,94020,08070,780191,920
Rest of No. Va.440,73038,01028,500107,24071,25035,130154,060367,680
Northern Va.124,860112,76080,600318,220238,460115,350527,4501,199,480
Entire Region341,090287,110194,740822,940502,270235,030964,1802,524,410
Increase from 2011
<30% AMI30-49.9% AMI50-79.9% AMIAll Low Income80-99.9% AMI100-119.9% AMI120%+ AMITotal
Dist. of Columbia12,6004,9601,92019,4907,4503,03017,38047,340
Montgomery5,2906,5503,12014,9607,4004,86020,90048,110
Prince George's13,45011,0906,99031,5405,1901104,78041,620
Rest of Sub. Md.114,7106,7401,81023,2508,8904,98014,45051,580
Suburban Md.33,45024,38011,92069,75021,4809,95040,130141,310
Arlington4,7401701,9106,8204,4401,51011,10023,870
Alexandria city2,7602,3205205,5902,7404906,03014,850
Fairfax22,2404,7601,0308,0209,7506,91015,69040,380
Prince William33,6106,4002,48012,4909,6904,72015,72042,610
Rest of No. Va.411,7907,9107,14026,84012,1908,78052,200100,010
Northern Va.25,13021,55013,08059,76038,80022,420100,740221,720
Entire Region71,19050,89026,920149,00067,73035,400158,260410,380
(1) Includes Frederick County, Calvert County, Charles County, and St. Mary's County
(2) Includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church
(3) Includes the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park
(4) Includes Clarke County, Culpeper County, Fauquier County, Loudoun County, King George County, Spotsylvania County, Stafford County, Warren County, and Fredericksburg city
Numbers may not add due to rounding.
Sources: 2011 American Community Survey microdata, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and GMU Center for Regional Analysis

This is still a lot of sprawl

The GMU report considers the Washington region to be very large, spanning all the way to southern Maryland and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, while the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' definition ends at Prince Wiliam. The report estimates a lot of housing and job growth out in those mostly-undeveloped areas; it would be far better to concentrate job and housing growth in the built-up counties and cities, but that would require even more new housing than the high numbers in this report.

On top of that, the GMU report forecasts that a lot of the new workers who fill new jobs in the region will actually live outside of its definition Washington region and commute in. A lot of them commute to jobs outside the more central jurisdictions, but by far the most job growth is in Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George's, and DC, plus a lot in Loudoun and Arlington, in this forecast. Again, people commuting from so far away to these jobs is not ideal, but adding even more housing will reduce the sprawl pressure.

It's not impossible

The region can certainly accommodate these new people. As Bowser noted, DC once had that many people, though this was in an era when people lived in much smaller spaces and had larger families. The bigger obstacle is the widespread opposition to nearly any growth anywhere.

If that continues, displacement will increase and new jobs and housing will get pushed to the edges of the region. The report suggests, however, that it's not just poor workers who will lose out: it's seniors. Baby boomers will retire in great numbers and without jobs, and then make up many of the lower-income households.

DC and the other jurisdictions in the region will need to proactively plan for where this new housing can go, and get community buy-in ahead of time, to make it possible to build the housing the region needs.

Neighborhood commission catches "height-itis" on a Dupont Circle church and condo project

If a building is taller than 59 feet but you can't see it, does it make a sound? In Dupont Circle, it makes a big racket in one ongoing development controversy.


Images from CAS Riegler.

The St. Thomas Episcopal Parish, whose main church at the corner of 18th Street and Church Street burned down due to arson in 1970, wants to build a new church. To fund that, they want to use part of their property to build a new condo building.

The proposed church is not particularly controversial, especially now that the parish revised their design to a better one than they had first proposed. But many neighbors are fiercely fighting the adjacent condo building, which will be closer to nearby row houses. (Disclosure: My house is almost directly across the street.)

The building has now gone before the Historic Preservation Review Board three times, and will return for a fourth on Thursday. I've been fine with the condo building proposal since fairly early in the process, and the Dupont Circle Conservancy supported the version proposed in March. The HPRB and local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, however, have asked for more changes to further shrink the building.

The ANC reached what members thought was a compromise in March, where they agreed to support the condo building, but only as long as the perceived height for a pedestrian around the building was no more than 59 feet. And, in fact, on the recent versions of the proposal, if you are standing on the sidewalk across from the building, you won't be able to see any parts that are taller.

While I think it was unnecessary in this case, this can be a smart approach. Small setbacks on the upper floors of a building can do a lot to make a building feel shorter when walking past on the street, without actually taking away much of the opportunity to add housing. You can get a large building that feels small instead of blocking the building and the potential new residents it can hold.

Beware of "height-itis"

Unfortunately, many neighbors focus not on the human experience but the total number of feet at the building's highest point. Let's call this "height-itis." Some of this comes from the fact that developers often talk at early community meetings about the height that zoning allows, and present a "massing diagram" which depicts a large box filling the zoning envelope.

Even if the developers never considered building such a box, some neighbors get caught up in talking about the total number of feet. Later architectural plans also show elevations, where high floors are just as visible as low ones.

Other elements of a building, like materials, windows, landscaping, and street-level detail, ultimately will matter much more than height. Developers generally have some leeway to make design changes, but if forced to lop off whole floors from the building, it severely constrains how much they can "shape" the building lower down and still make the project work economically.

"Height-itis" often makes it harder, not easier, for residents to get changes that will actually affect their property, like setbacks on upper floors to minimize the shadows a building casts. It can also lead to buildings that look boxier and less appealing (just as DC's height limit does downtown).

The Dupont ANC gets stuck

This is where a tricky detail comes in. The ANC's resolution says the condo building (not the church building) should look to be no more than 59 feet from anywhere on Church Street, 18th Street, P Street, or the nearby alley. If you go far enough down a street, then set back parts of the building would become visible, but the whole building is also far away and much smaller visually.

That's why historic preservation standards generally look only at the appearance of a building from right nearby. For example, other neighbors are adding a fourth story to their row house, which I will be able to see from my upstairs windows, but it's set back so you can't see it from the sidewalk (and, honestly, I'd be fine with it even if they didn't have to set it so far back, since the design looks very well done).

But the ANC's resolution is stricter. And many HPRB members look not at detailed legalistic standards, but the overall tenor of community feedback. Just having the ANC say it doesn't support the project has held it up significantly.

Further, the HPRB is not immune to "height-itis." One member, Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox Architects, is in fact one of its most acute sufferers. He consistently suggests that buildings take off a floor and is rarely satisfied with setbacks that simply make it look shorter, as in a contentious case at 13th and U in 2013.

So HPRB has sent the project back for revisions multiple times. Last month, board members had only very minor changes, which the developer made. But Davidson opposed a motion to let the preservation staff handle any further issues, and instead suggested the project return on what's called the "consent calendar," where the board can approve it without a hearing and vote.

The ANC, however, passed yet another resolution opposing the project, saying that it doesn't meet the letter of their March resolution. Opponents are pushing for HPRB to take it off the consent calendar and force yet another hearing because of this.

The ANC says make it shorter, but acknowledges making it shorter is silly

Their resolution is strange. On the one hand, it says the ANC won't support the project. But on the other, it says,

Whereas the ANC 2B Zoning, Preservation and Development committee acknowledges the current design with its limited visible elements above 59 feet subjectively creates a more textured and attractive building and removing the 7th floor altogether may lead to a subjectively less attractive building design.
In other words, they know lopping off the floor would make the building worse, but hung their hats on 59 feet before, and won't budge. The resolutions have also been unanimous, even though some members have told me privately that they don't actually object to the building at this point.

Unfortunately, the effect is for the ANC to force HPRB to eventually disregard their views, perhaps diminishing the ANC's credibility. It also has delayed this project and forced everyone to attend numerous hearings.

Asking to improve a project is fine, but neighbor requests and ANC resolutions are most effective when they're well-considered. Succumbing to "height-itis," and then being stubbornly unwilling to consider more creative ways to deal with concerns, is not a good way to represent neighborhood interests on complex development projects.

Update: HPRB voted Thursday morning to approve the project on the consent calendar. Davidson and fellow board member Nancy Metzger advocated for further delay and hearings, but other board members supported moving the project forward.

A Maryland road widening will be more costly than the transit it replaces

Maryland governor Larry Hogan wants to build roads with money saved from cancelling the Baltimore Red Line and cutting back the Purple Line. The governor says the two light rail lines cost too much. But his marquee highway project, a wider Route 404 on the Eastern Shore, looks to be far less cost-effective than either.


Route 404. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

The Route 404 widening will turn 12 miles of two-lane road between Route 50 and Denton into a four-lane divided highway. The work will cost $204 million: $160 million in new money plus $44 million budgeted earlier.

The governor presents his road plan as a way to speed traffic. But the travel time savings from widening Route 404 will be far more expensive than the time saved by the two rail lines.

The two-lane road only backs up on summer weekends when people drive to the beach. According to Google maps, the average traffic delay on summer Friday and Sunday afternoons varies from zero to six minutes. By a generous estimate, this adds up to 60,000 hours lost each year in traffic backups, making the construction cost $3,400 per annual hour saved.

Building the Purple Line will cost $288 per annual hour of rider benefits, and the number for the Red Line is $456. The amount of money the state is spending to save a minute of travel time on Route 404 is seven and a half times greater than the amount it refused to spend to save a minute of travel time in Baltimore. That means a Baltimore bus rider will wait an hour so that an auto passenger can get to the beach eight minutes faster.

Highway safety is another goal, but widening 404 may not help much

Eastern Shore officials offer another rationale for widening Route 404. There are many fatal crashes on the road, and they suggest that the planned widening will fix that. But it's unlikely that the death toll will go down significantly.

Using web searches and a memorial website, I found descriptions of 11 fatal crashes on Route 404 since 2010. Seven of them were on the 12-mile section of two-lane highway; four on the 12-mile stretch that is already four lanes.

Of the seven collisions on the two-lane road, only two involved vehicles crossing the center line. Three vehicles were hit from the side as they turned onto 404 from side roads. There were two rear-end collisions. On a four-lane divided highway, center-line crossing would be impossible, but turns would be more difficult. These numbers suggest that widening 404 would only modestly improve safety, if at all.

Also of note: five of the 11 crashes involved tractor-trailers. Requiring through trucks to use US 50, which has far fewer intersections without signals, might have prevented most or all of these.

Moreover, former Maryland highways chief Parker Williams has said that Route 404 isn't an especially dangerous road, which implies that highway safety money could be better spent in other places. For the cost of widening 404, the state could install some 2,000 of the flashing crosswalk lights known as hawk beacons. They would undoubtedly have saved a good number of the 630 pedestrian lives lost on Maryland highways between 2009 and 2014.

The highway projects in Governor Hogan's package have never gotten the sort of detailed assessment of costs and benefits that the Red and Purple Line projects were subject to. The numbers for Route 404 suggest that cancelling the Red Line was not at all the cost-conscious decision the governor presented it as.

A development on Florida Avenue would add affordable housing, but the DC Council is stalling

Around Florida Avenue and 9th Street are large superblocks of mostly-vacant land. Current plans to redevelop one long-debated parcel would bring activity to the area, a grocery store, and substantial new affordable housing—but only if DC Council moves on the project.


Rendering of 965 Florida Ave. NW by MRP Realty.

The project, led by MRP Residential in partnership with The JBG Companies, will include 352 apartments including 106 affordable units, anchored by a ground-floor Whole Foods.

The affordable housing will meet the requirements of a new law passed this spring to increase the city's affordable housing supply. Under the law, when the District sells off public land for new housing development, 30% of that housing must be affordable to "deeply affordable" levels. This is especially important here, since the site is so close to a Metro station and major bus lines.

Accordingly, 106 of the project's 352 apartments (30%) will be permanently affordable for households earning below 50% of the area median income (AMI) and 30% AMI. For example, a two bedroom apartment affordable to a family earning 30% AMI would rent for $722 rather than the market price of more than $3,000.

The project is also slated to incorporate support for a number of job training and local business assistance programs. These will include a Community Grants Program to support local non-profit organizations provide employment training and skill development for DC residents, as well as a Local Retailers Assistance program to provide rent subsidies for nearby small businesses.


The surrounding area. Image from Google Maps.

Community members support the project, but it hasn't moved forward

The DC Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) reached an agreement to sell the land to developers MRP and Ellis Development in 2013, but it was then modified to comply with the new law requiring substantially more affordable housing at deeper levels of affordability.

Despite agreement on the revised plan between the development team and the mayor, the DC Council hasn't yet approved the deal. According to the Washington Business Journal, if they don't move soon, Whole Foods could pull out of the project.

On Thursday night, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B, where the project is located, passed a resolution encouraging the council to move the project forward. "965 Florida is critical to continuing the growth in our neighborhood, and meeting the expectations of our neighbors, numerous civic and neighborhood associations, two Mayoral Administrations and their agency offices, and the current and previous Ward-1 Council members," said Commissioner Robb Hudson, who chaired the evening's meeting.

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau has introduced an emergency resolution aimed at pushing the project ahead. The bill, which is expected to come up for a vote at the DC Council on Tuesday, would both declare the land surplus and approve of its sale.

Bills to declare the parcel surplus and approve the sale to MRP and Ellis Development have been before the Council's Committee of the Whole since May, but haven't been brought up for vote. If the emergency legislation passes Tuesday, the development team's next step will be to take their plans through the review process at the DC Zoning Commission.

Paying for more affordable housing is the sticking point

The sticking point for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) may be the proposed sale price of $1.4 million, given that DC government appraisal has valued the property at $27 million.

Despite the District frequently selling DC land for a nominal price in exchange for public benefits, this proposal seems to have caught the attention of some decision makers. As Rebecca Cooper reported, at a hearing in June, Cheh said, "[It] seems so paltry, compared to the other valuations. I'm trying to find out that the District [is] getting proper value for this property."

But DC is getting more value than just $1.4 million; it's getting substantial affordable housing which it would otherwise pay money for. According to Matt Robinson of MRP Realty, the sale price was reduced thanks to the increased affordable housing components earlier this spring, when Council passed the new law mandating 30% of public land deal projects be deeply affordable. That requirement increased the number of affordable units from 65 to the current 106, and made them even more affordable.

Regardless, given the community's strong support of the project, and the urgent need for additional affordable housing stock close to Metro, advocates say the Council should move the project forward.

"Political battles should not be fought over this well-discussed and well-settled development," said ANC Commissioner Hudson. "It's costs are real, but 965 Florida Ave should not fail just because some on the Council are not comfortable with the unintended consequences of last year's affordable housing legislation—namely moving the price of affordable housing from essentially a line item in the budget and into the land valuation of public parcels up for development—we all must pay for it somewhere."

In advance of Tuesday's expected vote, the Coalition for Smarter Growth is hosting an email-writing campaign to the Council in support of the project.

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