Greater Greater Washington

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Development


DC added record housing in 2015. That's slowing down price increases.

In 2015, DC permitted more new housing units—4,956, to be exact—than in any year since the Census started keeping track in 1980. This pace of housing growth compares favorably to other cities, and there's reason to believe it's helping to slow rent increases.


Photo by Ryan McKnight on Flickr.

The record-setting year is most likely due to both long-term factors (a shift towards city-living among young professionals) and short-term, cyclical ones (federal government job growth having recovered from the sequester).

The composition of 2015's housing permits in DC skewed heavily towards large multifamily buildings, as it has in recent years. Neighborhoods like Navy Yard and Southwest Waterfront, where there are fewer neighbors to oppose large development projects, are contributing strongly to the city's overall housing production.


Graph by the author, with data from the Census Bureau.

Accounting for population, DC got more permits than most other major coastal cities

How does DC's year stack up against other cities? Well, it's somewhat difficult to compare these numbers across cities for a few reasons:

  • Initial population matters. For example, 10,000 new units in one year would be a ton for DC, but very few for a bigger city like New York.
  • Population growth matters too. Baltimore has about the same number of people as DC, but there's little reason to build new houses if few people are moving to town.
  • Cities have arbitrary political boundaries. We could use a standardized geographic unit (like MSAs), but that captures a lot of single-family, sprawling development. At the end of the day, we're interested in the extent to which cities are allowing their cores to densify.
But we can still make some back-of-the-envelope calculations. One useful starting place is to scale permits by a city's population. In 2015, DC permitted 7.5 housing units per 1,000 residents.

That matches or exceeds the rates of most comparable coastal cities: Boston (also 7.5), Portland (7.1), New York (6.6, an outlier driven by regulatory uncertainly for the usually low-growth city), San Diego (4.5), San Francisco (4.3), and Los Angeles (4.1). It easily surpassed cities with lower-than-average job growth, like Philadelphia (2.4) and Chicago (2.1). And DC was out-produced by growth-happy Seattle (17.0), Denver (12.0), and Austin (11.0).

There's evidence that all this new supply is slowing rent growth

In recent years, real estate analysts have noted that DC's higher pace of building has led to rents that are slowing in growth, or even declining. This effect is especially seen at the higher end of the market, since most new construction is luxury.

Here's Multifamily Executive covering a new Yardi Matrix report:

The cities that had the smallest rent gains in 2015 were Richmond, Va.; Washington, D.C.; and Baltimore. Echoing other reports, Yardi says Washington's rent gains have been held back because of the large amount of new supply in its market, while Baltimore still lacks job growth. These cities can expect to see similar results in 2016, Yardi says.
A Bloomberg reporter who interviewed DC developers last summer collected relevant anecdotes:
Tepid job gains and a spate of construction that created almost 20,000 units in the past two years made Washington one of the worst markets for US landlords, forcing owners to grant tenants concessions such as months of free rent to keep new luxury apartments from going empty.
And early last year, The Washington Post wrote that an increasing supply had driven down rents, partly by pushing landlords of luxury buildings to lower prices so they could compete.

Any effort to make our region more affordable will require a good deal more market rate housing than what we currently have. Hopefully, DC will build on the successes of 2015 and continue to allow high levels of dense housing construction.

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Transit


Walking and transit score high in Virginia's transportation rankings

Scores that evaluate transportation projects in Virginia recently came out, and many of the highest belong to projects focused on walking and transit. That's because they provide the most bang for taxpayers' bucks.


West Broad Street and Oak Street in downtown Falls Church. Image from Google Maps.

In Northern Virginia, projects that focused on improving walking conditions and transit service came out on top in statewide rankings for cost-effectiveness. These included:

  • Sidewalk work in downtown Falls Church between Park Avenue and Broad Street (#2 statewide)
  • More marketing of transit and carpooling in the I-66/Silver Line corridor (#3)
  • Improving crossings at several intersections on Broad Street in downtown Falls Church, including at Oak Street (pictured above) (#8)
Passed in 2014, a state law commonly known as HB2 requires Virginia's Department of Transportation to use an objective and quantitative system to score transportation projects. The idea is to make planning more transparent, but high score doesn't guarantee funding nor does a low score preclude it.

In the most recent rankings, 287 transportation projects from across the state received two different scores, one based on the total projected benefit and one based on the benefit divided by the total funding request.

Each of the projects above would cost between $500,000 and $1 million, while most other projects would cost many times that amount. For total project benefits, the addition of High-Occupancy/Toll lanes to I-66 outside the Beltway has the highest score, but it requires a $600 million public investment.

Here's more detail about the law

Virginia law requires that "congestion relief" be the primary metric in scoring projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Scores also account for a project's environmental impacts, how it fits with local land use plans, and what it might do for economic development.

Three agencies developed the evaluation system: Virginia Department of Transportation, the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, the and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The agencies have posted a wealth of data on the HB2 website. You can search for projects in various ways, including by jurisdiction. Data points such as whether or not a project has bicycle facilities, and how it is coordinated with nearby development projects, are posted in an easily navigable format.

What do you think of the analyses? Is there a project in your area that scores higher or lower than you would have expected?

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Meta


Here's Greater Greater Washington's budget for 2016

Our goals for 2016 include targets for raising more money, including from our upcoming reader drive, foundations, and corporate sponsors. When we posted the goals recently, some of you asked to hear more about our budget and why it's getting bigger.


Budget image from Shutterstock.

Last spring, Greater Greater Washington was in a very different place financially. We had just formally set ourselves up as a nonprofit organization,* and through the reader drive and gifts from our board, editors, we were pulling in enough to pay for a half-time editor (Jonathan Neeley).

However, editing the blog is much more than a half time job, and a part-time job is not a recipe to keep someone for the long haul. Our all-volunteer editorial board and board of directors were amazing, but most are far more interested in urban policy than running fundraisers. What to do?

What it takes to be sustainable

We could pull off an annual reader drive, but that alone would not make a sustainable organization. We especially needed someone to run the organization—to do all the financial tracking and tax filings and office policy writing and fundraising that it takes. Plus, there was a lot more we wanted to do—write more about topics besides transit, especially housing; about Maryland and Virginia and east of the Anacostia; about politics, education, and more.

Fortunately, the Open Philanthropy Project wanted to fund organizations that care about how not enough housing for everyone pushes housing costs up and up. A combination of a direct gift from Cari Tuna and a grant to our fiscal sponsor* funded us to grow to three people: Jonathan full-time, a Managing Director (Sarah Guidi), and a Housing Program Manager, who we're working on hiring.

Big opportunity, big challenge

This is a big opportunity and we're really excited about it. It's a chance to make the blog better, and also achieve far more than we can by "just" running a blog. We're doing this to make the city and region better, and want to find ways to actually push the ideas we discuss toward action. This is chance to do that.

It also creates a big challenge. First, we have to do a great job with the housing program Cari Tuna and Open Phil have funded. Second, even though this grant let us grow to three staff, they didn't give us 100% of what we need to operate with three people. They provided two years of funding, but there's no guarantee (far from it) that we'll get another grant from them. So, we need to raise more money to keep Greater Greater Washington going at the current level.

Here's our budget

Greater Greater Washington's budget for 2016 is $253,126. This budget is a projection. It reflects what we think it will cost to run the organization in 2016 at this new level of growth.

Most of the time, organizations look at the previous year's expenses to inform the current year's budget. Since this time last year Greater Greater Washington was still a mostly volunteer organization with no full-time staff or office, we didn't really have a budget. So, we had to build one from scratch. Our actual revenues and expenses may look a bit different at the end of the year, but we will aim to keep our revenues and expenses aligned with this board-approved guideline.

What we have to pay for

Management and the board predict it will cost approximately $253,000 to run the organization in 2016. That includes running the blog, carrying out the housing program, and exploring other projects that can further Greater Greater Washington's mission. Here are the main categories of expenses we anticipate in 2016.

FY 2016 Greater Greater Washington Organizational Budget
Personnel$ 179,493
Computer and web20,210
General operating47,923
Reserve5,500
Total expenses$ 253,126



  • Personnel: salaries, benefits, and payroll taxes for three, full-time employees (Staff Editor, Housing Program Manager, and Managing Director)
  • Computer and web: server and hosting fees, plus costs for website upgrades (we are planning to move the blog to a real modern platform this year).
  • General operating: rent, insurance, legal and accounting costs, professional development, processing fees to receive donations, printing, office supplies, etc.
  • Reserve: It is good practice for a nonprofit to build a reserve that can be used to make up for the unexpected loss of a funding source, to purchase equipment not covered in a grant, or to invest in opportunities that will generate additional revenue.
Where the money will come from

Here are the types and amounts of funding we plan to raise in 2016:

Fiscal Year 2016 Greater Greater Washington Organizational Budget
Individual donors$ 72,500
Foundations176,250
Corporate sponsorships11,000
Earned income2,500
Revenue$ 262,250

We're hoping to have foundation funding plus donations from individuals (the reader drive and some large gifts) make up almost 95% of our revenue. Sponsorships from corporations and income from providing services for a fee (earned income) would make up the other 5%.



Other than the reader drive and the foundation funding from Open Phil, these categories are something of a guess as we don't have specific committed revenue for any of these yet nor do we have past years' experience with them. Therefore, there's a good chance the end totals might shift a lot. That's also why the numbers don't all add up to exactly the same as the expenses. We may, however, need to go far above in one of the categories to make up for coming in far below in another.

We hope this is helpful. Please keep the questions coming. One of our major values, as a community-driven site, is being open with you about some of what's going on behind the scenes. Thanks for being a part of our community!

* We are incorporated as District of Columbia Not-For-Profit Corporation. We have applied to the IRS to be classified federally as a 501(c)(4), which is able to talk more freely about politics (as we do on the blog) than the "typical" 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit, but also for which donations aren't tax-deductible. A fiscal sponsorship arrangement with Smart Growth America allows foundations to fund some of our 501(c)(3)-eligible activities. Read more here.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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Transit


National links: No more grocery stores

Walmart has turned many towns into high-dry food deserts, Nashville is considering its transit options, and Uber had to get creative to get insurance. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Alison & Orlando Masis on Flickr.

Walmart's small town shuffle: Walmart is closing shop in a number of small towns despite only recently arriving and putting other grocery stores out of business. Residents say the effect is devastating. (Bloomberg)

Music City moving: Nashville's transit authority is working to put forward a plan for developing transit. The most robust possibility would build new light rail, streetcars, and bus lines, and would cost $5.4 billion. The smallest plan, at $800 million, would focus on buses and the existing commuter rail line. (Nashville Tennessean)

Uber insurance: Uber as a ride hailing service might not exist if not for one of its employees convincing insurance agents to cover drivers. There's a lot of grey area in how to insure someone who is waiting for the app to connect them with a customer. (Buzz Feed News)

Build up for cars: As soon as cars came on the scene in cities, residents and businesses needed places to put them. In dense places, people put cars on elevators and stored vertically. These pictures show how that technology evolved from the 1920s to 1970s. (Mashable)

To live and ride in LA: Transit ridership has gone down in Los Angeles by 10% from the high reached in 2006. Officials are wondering how to attract more high-income riders, and whether they should stick with current plans to build more bike and bus-only lanes. (Los Angeles Times)

Cities as testing grounds: Gridlock at the US Capitol and in state houses nationwide has liberal leaders testing new laws and ideas at the municipal level. The hope is that cities will prove certain laws work, which will lead to change at state and federal level. (New York Times)

Quote of the Week: "The government is one group that doesn't get to choose its customers. We want to make it work for everyone." Jennifer Pahlka, who started Code for America to help cities work better with their citizens. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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Architecture


The winner of a design competition will build the WWI Memorial. Here's what that means.

Today, the sponsor of the World War I Memorial will choose the winner of its design competition, meaning we'll get a sense for what the memorial will look like in the end. Whether or not design competitions succeed depends heavily the work that goes into planning them.


Pershing Park and its memorial today. Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The Memorial will go into Pershing Park, a secluded 1970s plaza at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue, near the White House. Congress chose that location because it already has a memorial to General John Pershing, who led US troops in World War I.

The memorial sponsors sent out an open call for ideas last year. The winner will come from of one of the five finalists named in November 2015. After getting feedback, these five designers have revised their projects and submitted them to a jury of architects, historians, and politicians. On Tuesday (after a snow delay), the memorial commission will vote on the jury's choice.

Here's how design competitions work

Design competitions aren't part of the process for most buildings, but governments and other big institutions like them for major projects. They give those sponsoring the competition (and ultimately responsible for the building) a few options to choose from rather than picking a designer based on prior work and a business plan.

Every competition begins the same: with a design brief, a document that outlines what the sponsor wants. Then, they split into three basic formats:

  1. The most celebrated kind is an open competition where pretty much anyone can submit a design. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the best example, and the World War I Memorial is using this model.
  2. An invited competition, where a client looks at only a hand-picked few designers is the second type. The Lincoln Memorial is one outcome of this format.
  3. A slight variation on that is a qualified competition, where anyone can submit qualifications, out of whom a few get asked for designs. The Eisenhower Memorial followed this model, which is common for federal projects.
Most open competitions, including the World War I Memorial, have two stages. In the first, anyone can present their design in a very limited format. For the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, the jury winnowed 1,200 entries to six finalist from a single drawing. Qualified competitions make the same selection by looking at past work or credentials.


Henry Bacon beat out one rival for the Lincoln Memorial, John Russell Pope. This design by Pope is closer to what the McMillan Commission envisioned. Image from the Library of Congress.

In the second round, open, qualified, and select competitions work the same. Each team works out a detailed conceptual design. In better competitions, the competitors work with the sponsor, review agencies, and constituents to refine the design. Then, at the end of this, a jury composed of stakeholders or designers picks a winner.

Well-run design competitions can have big upsides

Malcolm Reading, a design competition designer, who ran recent competitions for Gallaudet University, and the Guggenheim Helsinki, put it this way in an interview: "I would say that competitions are, in general, more meritocratic. The process itself, run properly, allows talent to rise to the top and a level of public debate and engagement that would not be possible with a direct commission."

The best example of this process working is the tightly controlled competition that brought us the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Take a look at this booklet promoting the memorial. It outlines so much of what makes that design iconic: an apolitical remembrance of the dead, a list of names, and a site of personal reflection. That's interesting, because this is the design brief, written months before Maya Lin began her class assignment that eventually become an American icon.


Detail of Maya Lin's first-stage entry, showing visitors' experience at the center of the memorial and exiting. Image from the Library of Congress.

Lin realized these conceptual elements with brilliant clarity. But the competition's designer, Paul Spreiregen, had laid the groundwork for a minimalist design like hers to win. He wrote the brief to encapsulate the desires of the Veterans who commissioned it. Washington's design review agencies wanted something low, so he pushed for a landscape design in Q&As, and set up a jury of accomplished modernist designers.

History shows design competitions aren't a simple solution

Good outcomes aren't guaranteed. If a sponsor issues a bad brief, ignores problems with the site, or doesn't trust the jury, all hell can break loose.


The winning design for the World War II Memorial changed a lot. (Image from Friedrich St. Florian)

The sponsors of the World War II memorial imagined a huge project when they picked a design, including an underground museum in a floodplain. Both the design and what the commission asked for changed dramatically over years of controversy and costs.

The chairman of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Richard Stilwell, fired the designers of the tragic winning scheme and instructed the local architect of record to execute a heroic diorama. A similarly heavy-handed client guided the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.


In the winning scheme for the the Korean War Veterans Memorial, visitors would have "walked home" between statues of troops. (Image from Lucas Architects)

The World War I Memorial designer has a lot of changes to make.

The World War I Memorial's process is mixed. The designers brought collaborators onto the design teams in the second stage for mid-point review, which is great. While the brief gives fewer aesthetic preferences than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's sponsors did, the goals of commemoration are clearer than other recent memorials.

But the memorial commission made a huge mistake when picking a site. After getting rejected from converting DC's World War I Memorial as a national one, the memorial commission went around the city's review agencies by getting Congress to pick the site.

The brief contradicts itself, encouraging designers replace the existing park because it is secluded, but also forbidding any activity-generating features and ignoring how this memorial plot connects living city around it.


Some WWI competition entrants have changed significantly already. Here's the first stage entry for "Plaza to the Forgotten War"

As a result, a surprising number of groups have spoken out against the competition. That includes the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts and the DC Historic Preservation Office, which led to designers needing to change their schemes significantly.


In the second-stage mid-review version, design now preserves more of the existing park. (Both images from Johnsen Schmaling Architects.

World War I has little political clout. Unlike World War II, there are no living veterans. Pershing Park has a lot of influential supporters. Whatever is chosen will change significantly. By proceeding without realistic about what they could do on the site, the memorial commission wasted the primary advantage of a competition: choosing a designer based on a concrete vision.

Much more goes into commemorating history than the spectacle of choosing designers. The jury, the site, and the ambitions of the sponsor are as important to a good outcome. In this case, the simplicity of competition seems to have hidden fundamental problems in the project.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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Government


We can all help during a snow storm. Here's how.

There are lots of ways to help keep your neighborhood safe during a storm, and speed recovery once it passes. From pitching in to clean up snow and ice to just staying off the roads or visiting neighbors, every little bit helps.


Photo by DVIDSHUB on Flickr.

On Wednesday, when we got our first (and much smaller!) wave of snow and ice, I watched a DC Circulator driver stop his bus and wait rather than drive on icy, untreated roads. Doing so meant blocking a lane of 37th Street NW, but it also meant that he was not putting people using the street at risk.

That got me thinking about how we can all help care for our communities when bad weather hits. Local governments can't do it all, especially during events as historic as what we just experienced. Here are some things you can do:

Move snow off the sidewalk

Clear snow and ice, starting with your sidewalk and nearby curb cuts. If you can, help your neighbors who may not be able to shovel. It's particularly helpful to focus on areas that, when clear, make it a lot easier to get around, like entrances to crosswalks and bus stops. Also, dig out areas around fire hydrants so firefighters can get to them quickly if there's an emergency, and around storm drains so melting snow doesn't cause flooding.

Worth noting: When you shovel, don't just shovel the snow away from your house and onto other parts of the sidewalk; the entire block needs to be clear! Also, if you have a car and you clear it out, don't try and save the spot. No one owns the street.

Use the roads sparingly and responsibly

Plows have made many major roads driveable. But officials across the region need us to avoid driving if possible because there's still tons of snow to move, and they don't want response resources going toward stuck cars. The fewer cars that are on the road, the easier it is for both plows and emergency vehicles to do their jobs. Pedestrians can also help by not walking on the roads unless that's the only option for getting anywhere.

Drivers who absolutely need to be on the road should clean the ice and snow off windows, lights and roofs. Check out traffic cameras and news reports to plan your route, and rely on snow emergency routes and major roads that are treated more often; drive extra carefully and give priority to snow plows and emergency vehicles; watch for pedestrians in crosswalks or potentially on the roadway in places where sidewalks have not been cleared.

Stay informed and share information

Keep up to date on the weather and snow recovery activities in your area and across the region. Government officials and utilities need help spreading the latest information, which is constantly changing. These are some of the local governments you can sign up to get text alerts from:

Radio, television, and news and government websites also work well for broadly applicable information, and neighborhood listservs and social media like Twitter provide more localized updates.

Regardless of where you get information, there's no guarantee all your neighbors have seen the same updates. Make sure to share what you find both online and by word of mouth—it never hurts to knock on a neighbor's door and tell them what's up.

Report issues quickly and often

During and after storms, it's critical to quickly report water line breaks, natural gas leaks, dripping fire hydrants, or electrical outages, but keep in mind that utility crews may take longer to respond than normal and that problems that are usually quick fixes can be more difficult. Call 311 or report issues online that require local government attention, including knocked over street signs, traffic light outages, potholes, or street and sidewalk repair. And remember, crews would rather hear about a problem multiple times than not at all.

High priority streets that serve as snow emergency routes are always the first to get plowed, with secondary and neighborhood streets taking a back seat. Here are a few area plow maps:

And here's where you can report unplowed streets:Visit your neighbors for help and companionship

Take a walk around your building or street to visit those who you haven't seen out and about during the storm. Sometimes even a brief "check in" can make all the difference, both for some needed social interaction and for safety. Some people may not have been able to go out since the storm started, and a friendly visit can mean the world to them. Single parents or other caregivers who have been at home for days might appreciate and accept an offer for childcare or watching those for whom they care.

For safety's sake, talk with people you see shoveling the snow, especially the elderly or those who don't often perform difficult physical tasks. If they are having trouble breathing or look tired, suggest they need a break from shoveling. Even with the worst of the storm over, ask neighbors if their smoke and carbon monoxide detectors work or if they want to have a free smoke detector installed. And check if they still have adequate supplies of batteries, water, food, and other safety essentials. It never hurts to ask if they have their list of emergency numbers to call, plus an easy way to contact a friend or relative for assistance.

Our actions and decisions make a big impact during and after a storm

Local governments continue to respond to and recover from the storm, but they can only reach one neighborhood at a time. We can all help speed up the pace by taking action in our community. And that can go a long way.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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