Posts by Cheryl Cort
|Cheryl Cort is Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She works with community activists, non-profit groups and government agencies to promote transit-oriented development, housing choices, economic development and pedestrian safety, especially in less affluent communities.|
Prince George's County officials want everyone to know that the county is serious about transit-oriented development and making the most of its Metro stations. A promise to plan needed streets, sidewalks and parks around a short list of stations could be an important change to county spending that's been focused on big-ticket road projects.
The county has been lobbying hard to get the FBI headquarters at the Greenbelt Metro station. Next week, officials break ground on a new Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development headquarters at the New Carrollton station. And the county has committed to locate a $650 million hospital at Largo Town Center station.
All are examples of the county's strategy targeting five Prince George's Metro stations: Largo, New Carrollton, Prince George's Plaza, Branch Avenue, and Suitland. The county will speed up the approval process around these sites and offer financial incentives for transit-oriented development.
The county has also committed to plan infrastructure such as streets, sidewalks, and parks around each station. For the last few years, the county's requests to the state government for transportation projects listed infrastructure at Metro stations, but did not make a detailed request. County officials now are committing to assessing specific station area needs, to make sure that infrastructure at Metro stations are in the line for funding from the county, state, or other sources. The current draft of the county's 20-year land use plan also calls to revise the county's capital project lists to align with its transit-oriented development priorities.
But apart from the Purple Line, which isn't entirely in the county, the lion's share of local and state funds continue to flow to expensive road widening, interchanges and other facilities that chase sprawl.
The county has won a state commitment to spend $150 million on an interchange at Suitland Parkway and MD-4, and a new interchange for MD-210 (Indian Head Road) at Kerby Hill Road for $100 million. The Suitland and MD-4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) interchange feeds development at the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia project, which is a bad deal for the county.
The county's top request from the state this year is to fund another interchange for MD-210, which could cost close to $100 million. The complete plan for 7 interchanges along MD 210 prices at more than $600 million. Those numbers dwarf the $26 million the state committed last year for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.
Rushern Baker's administration's pledges to help spur development at priority Metro stations are very welcome. Residents are hoping to see them follow through.
For more than 10 years, we've discussed what kind of development at the Takoma Metro station would make this station a lively, safer place. A new plan for a residential building does just that, while offering a compromise to neighbors concerned about open space and parking.
Since 2000, WMATA has attempted to develop the area around the Takoma station. Last year, developer EYA proposed building about 200 apartments on a surface parking lot. The building would have 3 stories on Eastern Avenue and step up to 4 toward the train tracks. It would replace most of the parking, only about half of which is used at one time.
The plan keeps the existing 2.5 acre green space open, and offers some enhancements to make it more usable. The proposed building and residents overlooking the site will help foster a safer, more pedestrian-friendly environment by orienting the building to the bus drive, with entrances and windows facing the lane. Previous plans for live-work units or retail space have been dropped because of the weak market for retail at the site.
A 2006 plan that later stalled out offered about 90 townhouses and a one acre village green, but no replacement for the Metro parking, which is only for short term use. While the attractive townhouse and inviting village green were worth pursuing, I always thought this site would be better for an apartment building.
Image from EYA.
Then and now, some neighbors in both Takoma and the adjacent city of Takoma Park, which sits across Eastern Avenue, have opposed the project. In 2006, both supporters and opponents gave the developer grief about building homes with 2-car garages at a Metro station. But many critics also said that WMATA should replace all of the existing parking, in addition to preserving the whole 2.5 acre open space in front of the station and adding more bus bays.
The new plan responds to nearly all of the major criticisms, while at the same time more than doubling the amount of housing originally proposed. Now, opponents mostly object to the potential building's height, even though it is on a block with other 3-story apartment buildings, all of which face single-family houses.
The proposal's modest scale is in sync with the downtown district's eclectic variety of buildings. EYA has already agreed to make the building shorter and reduce the number of units from 266.
At a March 13 WMATA committee meeting about the project, the board members incorporated amendments that the city of Takoma Park requested into its resolution to move the project forward. This Thursday, the WMATA Board will vote on an agreement with EYA to pursue the project, and to hold an official public hearing.
If WMATA approves the project, it will go to the DC Zoning Commission, which will have an opportunity to refine the design in its review process. Neighbors will have ample opportunity to raise their concerns about any aspect of the proposal then.
Like with any proposal, there is room for more improvement. The proposal offers much less parking for residents than before, which makes sense for a site next to a Metro station. But it could be lower still, since this is the transit agency's land and the point is to build housing for more transit customers.
The new proposal offers residential parking at about 0.7 spaces per unit, down from 1.5 to 2 spaces per unit in the townhouse proposal. It would be sensible for WMATA to require that developers on their property to build less parking and offer their residents incentives to ride transit and use carsharing. That makes it easier to market the building to transit-oriented households who rely much less on personal cars.
The other important way the WMATA Board could improve this project is to honor the DC Council's 2002 request that 20% of any housing at this site be set aside for households making 30%, 60%, and 80% of the area median income. This is still the right commitment for a property that the public transit agency and District of Columbia control, and our need for more affordable housing has only grown in the intervening years.
It's been a long time coming, but this proposal for the Takoma Metro station will make downtown Takoma a better place for everyone. It will help a greater number of people use transit, have daily access to local shopping, and live with a lower carbon footprint. This is exactly where our region should be growing, and where we can accommodate more people who seek a transit-oriented lifestyle.
If you agree, ask the WMATA Board to move ahead with this project. Click here to let them know.
When the District government bids out city-owned property for development, it asks for affordable housing to be part of the deal, but how much is enough? Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is proposing that 20-30% of the housing in any such deal be affordable for low-income households.
On properties that DC has offered for development, like Parcel 42 in Shaw or the Hine School on Capitol Hill, the city has a great opportunity to not only create and enrich walkable neighborhoods, but receive additional benefits for residents as part of the deal between the city and the developer.
One of the greatest needs we have right now is to increase the supply of affordable housing. But how do we best maximize affordable housing in public land deals and do so in a way that's the best deal for the city and residents?
One in five DC households spends more than half of their income on housing, a severe housing burden, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Nearly all renters with this severe housing cost burden earn less than half of the area median income (AMI), or less than $48,300 a year for a family of three.
The purpose of McDuffie's bill is to ensure that DC fully leverages the deals involving city-owned land to address the continuing challenge of housing affordability for low- and moderate-income households. Under the bill, when DC sells or leases public land for private multifamily residential development, at least 30% of the units would be affordable if the project is close to a Metro station or major transit line. Developments elsewhere in the city must include 20% affordable units.
Affordable rental units would be available to households earning between 30% and 50% of AMI, or just under $30,000 and $50,000 per year for a family of 3. Owner-occupied affordable units would be priced for households earning between 50% and 80% AMI, or just under $50,000 and $78,000 per year for a family of 3.
McDuffie's bill would allow the city to subsidize the cost of the affordable units by selling or leasing the land at a discount, allowing the developer to pass on the savings to buyers or renters. If the land value is not sufficient to subsidize the required units, the bill provides for the District's Chief Financial Officer to certify that the alternative proposal nonetheless maximizes affordability, taking into account all available subsidies.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth highlighted the unpredictability of the city's commitment to affordable housing in public land deals last year in a report called Public Land for Public Good: Making the Most of City Land to Meet Affordable Housing Needs. It's encouraging that DC leaders are using another tool to create affordable housing, ensuring that households of all means can have a place in the city as it grows.
DC's Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) policy requires developers to set aside units in new construction for low- and moderate-income households. But zoning commissioners say the units may be priced too high for those families who truly need affordable housing.
During a discussion Wednesday night on the zoning code rewrite, DC Zoning Commissioners said that they are ready to revisit the income requirements for IZ units, which are priced for households making 50% or 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI). For a family of 3, that equals about $50,000 and $78,000, respectively.
If $78,000 for a family of 3 sounds high to you, that's because it is. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has often pointed out that the biggest need for affordable housing is at the 50% AMI level and below. And commissioners agree that an 80% AMI target is too high to address the needs of most families who find themselves priced out of DC's rising market.
IZ units begin to enter the market
After adopting the policy in 2006, the Fenty administration delayed its implementation until 2009, following the housing market crash. By then, many already-approved projects had stalled. As the housing market recovered, these grandfathered projects, which didn't have inclusionary zoning units, moved through the construction pipeline.
One of those projects is The Louis at 14th and U streets NW, where a new Trader Joe's is slated to open soon. The original design for the project included IZ units, but they were eliminated due to the delay in implementation. Meanwhile, across the street is another sizable residential project that will also be completed soon, but since it was approved later, it has IZ units.
Only now are significant numbers of IZ units entering the market. According to the DC Office of Planning, as of July there were 265 IZ units on the market or about to be. That's about 11% of a total 2,404 units subject to the IZ law. Over the next several years, the pipeline is likely to contain about 1,000 IZ units.
Of the 265 IZ units the DC Office of Planning (OP) is tracking, 85% will be affordable for households making 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI), while the remaining 15% will be affordable for households making 50% AMI.
Housing market has changed since IZ began
At Wednesday's hearing, Zoning Commissioner Michael Turnbull asked OP if it would be feasible to require a larger set aside than the current 8-10%. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning indicated that they could look at it, and that the policy might be able to offer additional bonus density. And Office of Planning Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser said that her agency is planning to introduce a separate discussion on revisions to IZ regulations in January to address concerns about income targeting and other issues.
DC's real estate values are higher than they were before the housing bust, when the Zoning Commission adopted the IZ policy. This means there's more value in the bonus density that IZ gives a development as compensation for the cost of units rented or sold below market rate.
Not only does the current policy require builders to set aside IZ units based on income level, but it also distinguishes between high-rise and low-rise development. For high-rise buildings, which are more costly to construct and are generally 6 stories or higher, developers only have to set aside 8% of their units, and price them for households at the 80% AMI level.
But for low-rise construction with typically 5 or fewer stories, the set aside requirement is 10%, and the income targets are split between 50% and 80% AMI. Commissioner Peter May asked OP if this distinction gives developers an incentive to seek high-rise designation for projects that could also qualify as low-rise construction, and Steingasser said it does.
Housing prices in DC continue to rise. Despite a number of administrative problems that the city is still working to manage, IZ can offer an important source of new affordable homes and help preserve mixed-income neighborhoods.
After a rocky start, DC's new affordable housing program, Inclusionary Zoning (IZ), is getting on track. It's one of many policies needed to address DC's growing affordability gap. In many affluent parts of town, it may be the only new affordable housing available.
IZ requires developers to set aside 8 to 10% of new housing in projects with more than 10 units for households making between 50 and 80% of the area median income (AMI), or incomes of $42,778 and $69,530 for a household of two. One-bedroom apartments in the program rent for between $1,006 and $1,610 a month, while similar condos sell for between $116,600 and $220,100. It's similar to Montgomery County's Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program, which began in 1974.
Of 28 available units, one for-sale unit had been sold and 14 rentals had leased by July. According to the Office of Planning, another 262 IZ units are in the pipeline as part of 24 different projects, and more than 1,000 IZ units may enter the market in coming years.
How it works
Inclusionary Zoning, a national best practice, uses a zoning bonus to pay for additional affordable units in new residential developments. The subsidy for the affordable units is created through a density bonus, allowing more units than could otherwise be built there. This compensates the developer while saving the city money.
IZ also integrates below-market-rate homes into a larger, market-rate development as a matter of course. Mixed-income housing has long been recognized as having many advantages over exclusively affordable developments. Mixed-income housing in high-demand areas offer lower-income residents access to a higher level of services and amenities than is usually available in areas where affordable housing is concentrated.
It offers an important tool for creating and sustaining economically integrated neighborhoods. It helps ensure some level of diversity of housing choices in areas where demand is strong and growing, such as close to Metro stations, major bus or streetcar corridors, areas with good public schools, or close to downtown DC. The policy is designed to create below-market rate units wherever new housing is being built and keeps them affordable for the life of the building.
Unlike many other affordable housing programs, where low income housing tends to cluster in high poverty areas, IZ units around the country are predominately located in low-poverty neighborhoods. In DC's Ward 8, home to many low-income residents, as much as 90% of the housing in some census tracts is subsidized. But a 2012 study of Montgomery County demonstrates that IZ enables children from low-income families to live in more affluent neighborhoods and have access to high-performing schools.
Barriers to implementation
For all its benefits, DC has struggled to implement IZ since units began coming onto the market two years ago. The program's rigid implementation regulations made it cumbersome for the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to administer, and the program was severely understaffed as well. In addition, more restrictive Federal Housing Administration (FHA) lending standards made it next to impossible for buyers to obtain mortgages for affordable housing. The first two units to come on the market didn't sell after sitting on the market, and the developer responded by suing the city.
But today, the city is making progress. DC has changed the standard covenant in mortgages for IZ units that release any price constraints in the event of a foreclosure, as required by the FHA. DHCD is considering measures to recoup the public subsidy in the unit that would be consistent with FHA rules.
The city is also making the process for marketing and awarding IZ units to buyers and renters more flexible. Today, DHCD awards units through a lottery, which the agency has struggled to implement, finding it to be a time-consuming process, and has failed to build a sufficient list of eligible and interested applicants. Under the new regulations, developers can use the lottery or create their own DHCD-approved marketing plan to find and select applicants for IZ units.
Finally, the city is moving to address the program's staffing issues by getting additional assistance from nonprofits. DHCD plans to add capacity from experienced nonprofits to give low-income home buyers more help during the buying or renting process as well as long-term stewardship of the units. DHCD hopes to have new nonprofit assistance in place by October 1.
The construction pipeline is swelling with residential projects subject to IZ requirements, and IZ units are starting to enter the market in large numbers. We have proof that private residential projects with IZ units can get financed, and that IZ units can be leased and sold. While the program still faces many challenges, we can learn how to make it perform better and deliver more mixed-income housing opportunities throughout the city.
Like other IZ programs across the country, DC's faces many challenges. Montgomery County's nearly 40 years of experience shows that programs need adjusting and refining over time. One of the key concerns for future action in DC is getting more deeply affordable housing.
In the current pipeline, just 15% of IZ units will be set aside for households making less than 50% of AMI, far short of the 50% housing advocates had originally hoped for. Once the program is running smoothly, the Zoning Commission should consider ways to create more "very affordable" units.
Some of the program's challenges don't have easy fixes, but DC can find reasonable solutions. Addressing these challenges will take the hard work and good will of activists, developers, and public officials. Given the benefits of mixed income housing in walkable, bikeable neighborhoods close to transit, and the growing need for more affordable housing choices, making IZ in DC work is worth the effort.
Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker made the smart growth choice early this week, selecting the Largo Town Center Metro Station for a new $650 million, 259-bed regional medical center.
The decision caps a year-long campaign by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and community smart growth advocates to demonstrate the benefits of putting the new hospital at a Metro station. It will replace the existing Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly.
Operator Dimensions Healthcare will announce its official decision tomorrow. The organization's full board will vote on the recommendation for a new hospital site after its executive committee meets today.
With a projected influx of over 2000 workers each day, the new hospital will spur mixed-use development at one of Prince George's 15 mostly-underutilized Metro stations. Thousands of workers and visitors in this transit-accessible location presents a prime opportunity to create a walkable, mixed-use facility that could ultimately anchor a vibrant new downtown for Prince George's.
During the selection process, officials seriously considered rival site Landover Mall, which is over a mile away from any Metro station. From the beginning, placing the hospital at the shuttered mall seemed to be a given, especially considering that the University of Maryland Medical Systems Corporation was rumored to seek a site with 120 acres. In the end, a much smaller site with Metro access emerged as an important component for the winning site.
There are major economic, environmental, and social justice advantages to putting the hospital at a Metro station. While much hospital construction of the last 50 years has been increasingly spread out on large campuses, many new successful hospital centers take advantage of leading urban designs, compact footprints, access to transit, and mixed-use environments.
Smart growth advocates have pushed hard to encourage Prince George's officials to choose such a location for the medical center. Together with leading hospital design and construction experts, the Coalition for Smarter Growth released a series of case studies to encourage officials to choose the Largo site in February.
Building on the momentum of those case studies, the Coalition for Smarter Growth delivered a petition with over 1000 signatures and sent hundreds of emails to county officials asking that the hospital be placed at a Metro station. In February, a community meeting drew over 300 Prince George's residents in overwhelming support for a Metro-accessible medical center.
The path to a smart growth hospital is not over yet. Many decisions can happen during the design and construction phase that will advance or diminish the positive impact the medical center can have on the county. The IRS and Census Bureau headquarters at the New Carrollton and Suitland Metro stations are prime examples of "what not to do" when locating a major employer at a Metro station.
Despite future hurdles and a history of sprawl projects like Konterra and Westphalia, this decision shows the Baker administration's and state's commitment to smart growth and transit-oriented development. Putting the new regional medical center at Largo Town Center pursues the promise of real transit-oriented economic development with a more than half-billion dollar investment.
The effort offers Prince George's the opportunity to take advantage of existing transit connections not only to provide better access to quality healthcare, but to build the kind of mixed-use district that study after study shows is where people want to live, work, and play. This regional medical center can be a true catalyst for that kind of healthy smart growth development.
If you live in Prince George's and think this is a good decision, you can take a moment to thank County Executive Baker for his leadership and smart choice here.
Prince George's County wants to encourage growth in the right places by speeding up the approval process for transit-oriented development. The county council unanimously passed a bill last week that just might do it.
Developers have often said they don't want to do business in Prince George's because of its lengthy and unpredictable development review process. Bill CB 20 creates a fast-track development review process for projects within ½ mile of the county's 15 Metro stations and the Bowie MARC station.
Projects are eligible for the speedier process if the Planning Board finds they meet best practices for urban design, like mixing housing with retail and making engaging streetscapes.
The bill aims to increase transit ridership, reduce auto dependency, and encourage walking for more trips. It's one of several recommendations county planners say could draw more investment to the county's Metro station areas.
Concerned about attracting unwanted commercial uses, the bill contains a long list of uses that are not eligible for the expedited review, including adult entertainment, liquor stores, pawn shops, strip malls, and drive-throughs.
An earlier version of the bill would have eliminated most requirements for public meetings or site plan review. This could have potentially rushed low-quality projects to approval without giving the Planning Board and the public enough time to review proposed projects.
Not surprisingly, many people opposed it, and the County Council tabled the bill last year before putting together a roundtable to discuss ways to improve incentives for transit-oriented development. The current bill combines 2 overlapping versions councilmembers Eric Olson and Mel Franklin submitted earlier this year.
The bill's most important feature is streamlining the review process. It prevents the County Council from arbitrarily dragging out the process, a power they've abused in the past that creates uncertainty and discourages developers from working in the county. Developers say that the unpredictability of approvals in Prince George's County often makes it not worth the time and money spent there.
While the current bill shortens the review process, it still gives the Planning Board and members of the public enough time to offer feedback. If the Planning Board approves a proposal, the County Council has a few days to decide whether or not to review it as well. Project applicants or residents can also use this time to appeal the board's decision.
Bill CB 20 is just one of many actions Prince George's County has taken to encourage investment at Metro stations. Recently, county officials have also reduced the impact fees developers pay to support schools and public safety. Economic analysts say excessive fees discourage investment altogether, meaning the county won't even receive the fees it seeks to collect.
Another element of ensuring development goes at Prince George's Metro stations is having a good countywide plan. There is a town meeting this Saturday, 10 am-1 pm at the University of Maryland, to work on a plan for the county's growth over the next 20+ years. You can help push for a plan that works in concert with this legislation to encourage TOD at Metro station sites.
Prince George's County has diverged from its smart growth goals, says the county Planning Board in a searing assessment. The board says residents have a choice: push for more transit-oriented development and walkable communities, or "be resigned to business as usual."
The board released a policy paper called How and Where We Grow as part of an update of the county's 20-year plan for growth and development. It offers aggressive proposals to tame sprawling, scattered development and focus public resources at Metro stations and priority urban centers.
While official plans and rhetoric say transit-oriented development is important, land use trends show a different story on the ground. The county must recommit to managing its growth in a sustainable way by preserving open space and focusing development around Metro stations, says the board. Otherwise, the county will remain a place known for bedroom communities, underutilized Metro stations, and weak job growth.
Members of the public can offer their input on the county's future at a day-long town meeting next month.
Prince George's is at a crossroads
"Prince George's County is at a crossroads," the Planning Board states. "Will we choose bold action or business as usual?"
The document recounts how the 2002 General Plan vision for growth and land use fell short of its original goals over the years. Without commitment to a new direction, the county can expect more spread out development, continued failure to capitalize on the promise of transit-oriented development, and lagging investment to spark revitalization of communities inside the Beltway.
Between 2002 and 2010, residential growth in the county departed from the General Plan by spreading out into over 6,400 acres of the "Developing Tier," a rapidly suburbanizing area outside the Beltway. The lion's share of the county's development occurred there, including 73% of residential and 60% of commercial growth.
In the "Developed Tier," inside the Beltway, growth lagged. It fell short of goals by capturing 25% rather the hoped-for 33% goal. However, what was built there consumed just 5% of the county's land area.
Development in the pipeline, which has been approved but not yet built, promises more of the same. More than 79% of residential units in the development pipeline are single-family detached houses in the Developing Tier. Yet according to the Planning Board, demand forecasts show that more than 60% of the new housing units to be built should be multifamily units located in walkable communities at transit-accessible locations.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
How and Where We Grow points to the costs of these growth patterns: spread-out development at densities that are difficult to support with quality transit or retail services, long commutes, and a future as a bedroom community to the region. Over the past 40 years, a third of the county's open space, agricultural, and forested land were converted to low-density residential development. The loss of open space has fragmented natural areas and undermined the agricultural economy.
Furthermore, the board notes that the county has attracted the fewest number of new residents of an area jurisdiction from 2000 to 2010. "Without recalibration of county priorities and policies that promote TOD [transit-oriented development] and high-quality, mixed-use development," the paper says, "it is likely that the county will be at a continued disadvantage to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide."
The county needs a unified vision
The board notes that the structure of county government undermines unity and fosters internal competition through the lack of at-large council members on the county council. "While the County Executive can focus and coordinate resources, the nine different Council members, oftentimes with nine different priorities, it is difficult to agree upon a single vision for the county," says the paper. "In practice this means that public dollars get spread across the county, instead of being concentrated in a few places to make a truly significant impact."
A "clear mismatch in stated goals and actual infrastructure investment" emerges when assessing the county's transportation spending priorities, the board finds. There's also far more commercial and mixed-use zoning than the market can support. The paper notes that the county's weak commercial tax base makes it a challenge to compete for employers or have the financial resources to address community needs, like crime and poor schools.
Given these tough observations, the planners put forth a realistic agenda for the future with this set of specific recommendations aimed at leveraging existing infrastructure:
- Define density targets and growth goals for the tiers to shift the focus of development to the centers and the Developed Tier.
- Make a stronger commitment by targeting new growth to the Developed Tier and increase the growth objectives for the tier.
- Locate the new hospital center and key government functions at a transit-oriented development location.
- Reduce the backlog pipeline development (which can linger for decades). Prioritize and phase development by requiring bonding for infrastructure improvements. Also use the water and sewer process to more aggressively discourage greenfield development.
- Prioritize and fast track building permits in targeted areas (County Council is currently advancing a bill to do this).
- Revise surcharge fees for schools and public safety, encourage development in the Centers and Developed Tier by reducing fees, and phase growth in the Developing Tier through fee increases.
- Adopt new zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations. Ensure they are supportive of the General Plan goals, including encouraging transit-oriented development.
The planning board's honest, stern assessment of the county's challenges and practical list of reforms offer the chance for Prince George's County to change its ways. County leadership has shown some appetite for meaningful reforms. At the request of the county council and executive, the state delegation enabled the county to reduce fees for developments around Metro stations during the last Maryland legislative session.
The County Council is also advancing a bill to expedite development review for projects close to Metro stations. Meanwhile, the debate over where to locate the proposed Regional Medical Center has shifted away from expansive open sites to parcels around the Largo Town Center Metro station.
However, the county's spending priorities still reflect business as usual, with a focus on building costly intersections for new communities like National Harbor and Konterra instead of investments to enhance access to transit stations or improve bus service. Expensive sprawl-supporting highway projects remain high on the county's wish list for state funding, such as roads to support the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia development located outside the Capital Beltway and miles from the nearest Metro station.
Despite the mixed and sometimes contradictory priorities pursued by the county, the Planning Board and staff are making waves by pointing out the costs of continuing old ways that will allow the county to fall further behind.
DC's Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) affordable housing program has suffered from serious administrative problems in its start-up phase. As a policy, however, it is still sound, and is the right policy for DC's future.
A handful of IZ units are on the market, along with over 900 units in the pipeline. There are also 1,000 units that came through the Zoning Commission's Planned Unit Development (PUDs) process since 2000, using the same policy standards as IZ.
Unfortunately, 2 early IZ units sat on the market for more than a year, and the developer has sued the city to get out of the IZ requirement. This doesn't reflect a fundamental flaw in IZ; rather, it arises from understaffing at the DC government and rigid local and federal regulations. There's not much time to fix the sputtering implementation of this important affordable housing policy tool.
IZ brings many benefits
IZ sets aside 8-10% of new housing construction for households earning 50-80% of Area Median Income (a 50% AMI household of 3 earns $49,250 per year, a 80% AMI household earns $78,221 per year). IZ is worth fixing because we have plenty of evidence that this kind of program can produce results beyond what other housing programs can. IZ provides affordable housing in mixed-income and wealthier neighborhoods throughout a jurisdiction rather than concentrating it in a few neighborhoods.
This benefit of economic integration has been documented. Low-income children in programs like IZ perform better in school than their peers, because they live in low-poverty neighborhoods and attend local low-poverty schools. Another other advantage of IZ is that it does not require a direct subsidy from the government to construct the affordable unit, but rather lets the developer to build extra market-rate units, and uses that value to pay for the below-market ones.
Other than a nominal administrative cost, IZ is a very cost-effective way to sustain the city's production of new moderately-priced homes. There are many successful similar programs throughout the country, including Montgomery County's long-running IZ program, Moderately-Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs).
DC IZ also has a sister program which creates affordable dwelling units through PUDs and public land deals. (Confusingly, these are often called ADUs, which is the same acronym, but not the same thing, as Accessory Dwelling Units, market-rate basement or garage units inside someone's house). This program does not appear to have problems filling units at the same income levels. That success shows that IZ can also overcome its challenges with some concerted attention.
Three problems have stalled IZ
Three debilitating problems with the program's administration can be fairly easily corrected and get it back on track: severe understaffing, rigid regulations, and rigid FHA lending rules.
Severe understaffing: Only 1-2 people administer the program inside DC's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Without a few more staff people, IZ and the sister affordable dwelling units (ADUs) cannot be administered effectively. The Mayor and DC Council need to provide a few more staff positions to manage these programs.
An alternative to administering the program entirely inside the DC government would be to give responsibility for the for-sale units to a nonprofit experienced in managing permanently affordable homeownership programs. CityFirst Homes is already doing a similar job with the District's first major housing land trust. Evidence suggests that more hands-on assistance from a non-profit like CityFirst Homes can drastically cut foreclosure rates and yield more successful homeowners.
The other component that requires sustained support is the housing counseling agencies who educate applicants and help them through the process. Ensuring the city's budget provides for this is another key ingredient to success. In all, these administrative costs amount to a modest budget item and are a fraction of what it costs to subsidize new affordable housing construction.
Rigid IZ regulations: DHCD manages a process for connecting a person who qualifies for affordable housing to available units. This involves a centralized application and lotteries. Details of that process have proven too rigid to accommodate the realities of matching housing seekers and available units.
The city is in the process of revising the regulations to give the program necessary flexibility. This revision should be in effect in a few months.
An alternative to the current lottery system would be to let the developers market the units to qualified households, and simply have the District housing agency certify the applicants as qualified and provide general oversight. This is already the process for the PUD and public land "ADUs."
With sufficient support from housing counseling agencies, residents in search of an affordable home should be able to get enough help to conduct that search, especially with the city's useful website, dchousingsearch.org.
Rigid FHA lending rules: The Federal Housing Administration has emerged as the predominant mortgage backer in the post-2008 affordable homeownership world. Nationwide, most local housing programs have encountered a critical conflict with FHA rules where local programs (like IZ and ADUs) often require that the affordability provisions survive foreclosure. FHA does not allow for this.
The only way to deal with FHA mortgage lending standards that conflict with local program requirements is to change the program to conform to FHA's standards, and get FHA to sign off on the changes. DC is acting to change its standards to comply with FHA. The timeline for receiving FHA's approval is uncertain but the city hopes it will happen shortly, we hope in the next month or so.
If a unit goes into foreclosure and then sells on the market, the city would lose its investment in an affordable home. There are other safeguards the city could put in place that do not conflict with FHA. They would at least allow the city to recover the value of the affordability of the unit, should a foreclosure occur and the unit sell on the market.
With these three administrative fixes in place, DC should be ready to smoothly operate a program to place the right applicant in the right unit as 900 more IZ units come online.
Mend it, don't end it
IZ's growing pains have led to some calls to more fundamentally modify or scrap the IZ program. We should consider and debate these suggestions only once DC fixes the immediate problems and the program administration is running smoothly.
Some opponents continue to question the policy itself, but experience across the country points to IZ as a valuable and effective tool to create moderately-priced housing in strong markets with virtually no direct cost other than a small budget for staffing the program.
What's the difference between a hospital that's a springboard for economic development, and one that's not living up to its potential? Answer: Design, location, and connectivity. Local groups compiled a set of case studies to point the way as Prince George's County moves forward with its proposed Regional Medical Center.
The new hospital is an important healthcare facility for the county, and as an employer of 2,000 workers, it can also catalyze economic development in an area where new investment has lagged.
Hospital officials are rumored to be interested in a sprawling 80-120 acre suburban-style site away from Metro, likely the old Landover Mall site. The sponsors of the case studies hope that these examples of great hospitals, designed by leading architectural firms, can help decision-makers understand the benefits of a more mixed-use, compact and transit-oriented site.
Envision Prince George's Community Action Team for Transit-Oriented Development, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and American Institute of Architects Potomac Valley collected the design case studies. They provide examples of mid- to large-scale hospitals with footprints of 1.5-48 acres. In fact, larger hospitals (measured in number of beds) are at the lower end of this range of acres, while the smaller hospitals tended to occupy more land area.
While Prince George's continues to pursue additional federal offices (like the new FBI headquarters), a new $600 million medical center could be one of the best opportunities to jump-start transit-oriented development at one of the county's 15 underutilized Metro stations.
In contrast to courting federal agencies, the state and county control the decision about where to locate and how to design a new medical center. Not encumbered with stringent federal security requirements, a regional medical center offers a better opportunity to connect to surrounding uses and fuel spinoff economic activity than an FBI or Homeland Security building.
Why a smaller, urban footprint?
Hospitals must plan for growth, and a working "rule of thumb" for traditional suburban or rural 200-bed hospitals (similar in size to the Prince George's facility) is a minimum of 40 acres. This footprint provides a suburban or rural site with room for the initial building, associated drop-offs, parking, and room for future growth. Growth is common in medical facilities, whether for outpatient clinics, specialty centers, or the hospital itself.
Hospitals in a more urban context plan for similar growth, but within sites that are typically 10 acres or less. This smaller footprint offers several benefits over a suburban medical campus. Connecting a hospital center to a larger mixed-use environment where people can work, shop, and live helps attract and retain highly sought-after skilled healthcare workers. By better integrating into the surrounding community, an anchor institution like this can support a vibrant, walkable, thriving new hub.
Designers also point to sustainability benefits from a more urban design and context. A limited footprint disturbs less land and reduces the heat island effect. Placing a more compact medical center in an urban hub also allows for more environmentally-friendly transportation choices with frequent transit service, and walk and bicycle options for short trips. Driving and parking will remain an important mode of access, but a more urban hospital allows for lower parking supplies, greater access for those who do not have a car, and the choice to take some trips on foot or by bicycle.
While a footprint of 10 acres may seem small compared to a suburban campus of 40 acres or more, hospital complexes around the country and beyond are developing successful, busy hospitals on sites as small as a few acres.
The just-released case studies of 11 successful moderate to small-footprint hospitals of comparable size to the planned Prince George's regional medical center share 3 common success factors: access, flexibility for future growth, and a connection to the surrounding environment.
Success factor: Access
An important factor for any healthcare facility is convenient and easy access to and from the site. High-quality public transportation, stores and services, and housing within walking distance create opportunities for staff and visitors to get outside the hospital while still being nearby, and enable some to come and go without having a car.
Several of the examples in the report show major hospitals that are integrated into city blocks. Hospital staff and visitors have easy access to a local services and transit options. For example, the Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center is a 448-bed hospital, 7 stories tall situated on 3 acres of land. Within a block is the Red line light rail station and major bus routes.
Closer to home, the 6-7 story, 371-bed George Washington University Hospital occupies 2 acres. The front door of GWU Hospital opens onto the busy entrance of the Foggy Bottom Metrorail station and is embedded in a thriving urban district that mixes health, university, private office, retail and housing uses in a highly walkable, transit-accessible environment.
Medical facilities woven into the fabric of a larger mixed-use district served by transit can have an advantage when competing for medical professionals who desire to be in a lively, diverse place, and need flexibility with their commutes in a two-worker household.
Success factor: Flexibility for future growth
While suburban hospitals are typically designed with extra acreage to accommodate future growth, urban medical centers can anticipate similar growth, but plan smartly within a more constrained footprint.
Planning a smaller-footprint facility guides planners to take into account their overall surroundings, making better use of pedestrian connections to the surrounding community and supporting services. In the case of both the vertical high rise addition to Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, with the 260-bed Bunting Center inpatient hospital on 1.5 acres, and the 350-bed American Hospital Dubai campus on 11 acres, planning for growth accounted for the sites' larger surroundings.
The hospital designers from AECOM point out that an urban design and location provides significant advantages in offering the ability to walk to a nearby restaurant to avoid yet another meal at the hospital cafeteria or the convenience of staying at a nearby hotel for someone visiting a sick relative.
Success factor: Connection to green spaces
Numerous studies show that access to outdoor places and views of green spaces create a state-of-the-art healing environment. But urban hospitals don't need to concede healing green features to their suburban and rural counterparts. Roof gardens, courtyards, and natural light are all achievable in small-footprint hospital centers.
The centerpiece of the Bunting Center at Mercy Hospital healing environment is a multilevel roof garden, accessible on various floors and overlooked by room occupants above the midway point along the rise of the building. The 9th floor garden offers direct access from the ICU waiting room.
On the 28 acre campus of the 600-bed Seattle Children's Hospital, 41% of the campus is dedicated as open space. Pedestrian paths are provided throughout the facility to promote walking and offer outdoor connections.
Innovative design and urban context show the possibilities
The 11 case studies offer examples of innovative architectural design, connectivity to the surrounding context, access to transit, green features and compact footprints. These features highlight how a regional medical center for Prince George's and Southern Maryland could establish a new leading healthcare facility that not only attracts the staff and patients it needs to succeed, but fits into a larger district that thrives on the influx of activity.
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