Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Chris Dickersin-Prokopp

Chris Dickersin-Prokopp spends his days in Anacostia and nights in Petworth. He studied Latin American Studies and Urban Planning. He runs the blog R.U. Seriousing Me? and occasionally contributes to the Washington City Paper

12 maps show how American cities sprawl differently

Some big US cities are dense, while others are spread out. This affects the economy, quality of life, and the environment. Here's a way to visualize the residential density of the country's 12 largest regions and their varying levels of sprawl.

Images by the author.

Earlier this year, Smart Growth America released a report titled Measuring Sprawl 2014, finding that New York is the country's "most compact, connected large metro area," with an index score of 203.4, while Atlanta is the "most sprawling," with a score of 41.0.

But what does that gap really look like? The world's most iconic skyline on one extreme, contrasted with a highway full of motorists stranded overnight due to a snowstorm on the other? What about viewed through a wider angle lens, at a regional level? Next City recently published a series of GIFs illustrating regional sprawl over time, and this post tells a similar story from a different perspective.

The visualizations below show residential density (as one unit of height for every person per square mile), by census tract, for the nation's 12 statistical areas of at least 5 million inhabitants. The images show Combined Statistical Areas (CSAs) with the exception of Miami, which until recently was not part of a CSA. The regions are viewed from the same height and distance, but from different directions, most often from the south.













Note: One census tract, 307.2 in Chicago, was omitted from this visualization as its population density is off the charts. The tract essentially encompasses only the land on which these three high rises are located.

Cross-posted at R.U. Seriousing Me?

Does public assistance affect private spending?

Yesterday, we looked at how our expenditures vary by income, and an important question came up: Do the income figures include government assistance programs? The answer is mostly yes.

Image by the author.

The chart above shows the percentage of total income by source for consumer units at different income levels. Income includes benefits from programs such as Social Security, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Unemployment Insurance. It excludes benefits that are paid directly to a service provider, such as Medicaid or Housing Choice Vouchers, but those amounts are also excluded on the expenditures.

The major source of income that is not accounted for here, or in yesterday's graphs, is refundable income tax credits. That mechanism helps close the gap between after tax income and expenditures slightly for lower income households, but there is still, on average, a significant shortfall that must come from a nongovernmental source.

See how housing and transportation costs hold the poor back

Everyone's spending habits are basically the same. But rising housing and transportation costs hit low-income households hardest.

Consumer spending by income. All images by the author.

Data from the Bureau for Labor Statistics show that people of all income levels tend to spend similar percentages of their budgets on each expenditure category, with some exceptions. For example, as income rises, Consumer Units (defined as families living together, financially independent individuals, or groups of unrelated individuals who budget jointly) dedicate an increasing percentage of their budget to personal insurance and pensions.

Consumers at the lower end of the income spectrum spend a disproportionately higher percentage of their budget on housing costs. But on most other measures, including transportation, health care, and entertainment, the percentages across income levels are fairly equivalent, as shown in the graph above.

But these percentages represent share of total expenditures, and not all Consumer Units are operating with a balanced budget. A comparison of income and expenditures shows that lower-income families and individuals tend to spend more than they earn while higher-income units are able to stash some of their earnings away. The graphs below attempt to illustrate this:

Low-income households spend more than they earn.

When you change the denominator in the first graph from Total Expenditures to Annual Income, a more accurate depiction of our spending habits is revealed. Consumers earning between $5,000 and $30,000 per year spend 62% of their income on Housing, 24% on Transportation and 23% on Food. That's 109% of their income gone just on these three basic necessities.

Low-income households are burdened by high housing and transportation costs.

This modified version of the first graphic presented gives a fuller representation of household finances at different income levels in the US. It paints a pretty bleak picture for low-income families and individuals.

A version of this post originally ran at R. U. Seriousing Me?

Anacostia has changed a lot since 1892

Ghosts of DC posted an 1892 Map of Rural Anacostia earlier this week. I've made it into a graphic illustrating some of the other physical changes to the neighborhood and its surroundings in the last 120 years.

What first struck me about the map when I saw it was how close the banks of the Anacostia River were to the neighborhood. My knowledge of DC history is minimal, so I did not know that between 1882 and 1927 the tidal marshes along the edge of the Anacostia were filled in, creating what would today appear on a map as Poplar Point.

Clusters of single family homes were developed and remain intact in places such as north of today's Good Hope Road (in the Fairlawn neighborhood) and around Morris Road. In the next ring of development, south and east of here, small apartment buildings become the predominant land use. And over time (as early as 1900 with the development of the Nichols School, which is now the Thurgood Marshall Academy), larger footprint buildings sprouted up on and around today's Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road.

Future development plans suggest that the next phase of growth will follow a similar trajectory, with moderate densification of the main commercial corridors and substantial expansion into previously undeveloped land, in this case Poplar Point.

A version of this post originally ran at R. U. Seriousing Me?

America's most efficient city is... Miami?

DC may be tops when it comes to green roofs, but the region stands out less on a more impactful environmental indicator: how efficiently our infrastructure is laid out.

The purpose of infrastructure is to connect people, goods, information, and services. When people live close together, less infrastructure is needed to make these connections. Consider one type of infrastructure, perhaps the most representative from an urban planning perspective: roads.

Roads cost money to build and maintain. Movement along those roads creates pollution and costs the users time. All else equal, it is more efficient to build, use, and maintain fewer roads per person.

Which of the 12 statistical areas in the United States with more than 5 million inhabitants has the greatest number of people per mile of arterial roads? That honor goes to the Miami Metropolitan Area, perhaps not by choice but rather by geographic necessity, tightly bound by ocean to the east and the Everglades to the west.

Statistical area2010 populationMiles of primary roadPeople per road mile
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL Metro Area5,564,6351,4623,807
New York-Newark-Bridgeport, NY-NJ-CT-PA CSA22,085,6498,0602,740
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA CSA7,468,3902,9512,531
Chicago-Naperville-Michigan City, IL-IN-WI CSA9,686,0213,8382,524
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, CA CSA17,877,0067,6632,333
Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia, DC-MD-VA-WV CSA8,572,9713,9502,170
Philadelphia-Camden-Vineland, PA-NJ-DE-MD CSA6,533,6833,3491,951
Houston-Baytown-Huntsville, TX CSA6,051,3633,1271,935
Boston-Worcester-Manchester, MA-RI-NH CSA7,559,0604,2291,788
Detroit-Warren-Flint, MI CSA5,218,8523,0111,733
Dallas-Fort Worth, TX CSA6,731,3174,1271,631
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville, GA-AL CSA5,618,4314,0481,388
Click on a column header to sort the table.

In contrast, the Atlanta Combined Statistical Area (CSA), the most sprawling of the 12 regions, has roughly the same population as Miami, but its roads total a distance nearly 3 times as long. Wouldn't it be great if we could spend all the money that goes to maintaining those unnecessary miles of road on something more productive?

The DC-Baltimore-Northern Virginia CSA ranks right in the middle, at number six, just behind Los Angeles, a fact that local environmentalists probably won't find especially comforting. At least we have both Houston and Dallas beat.

Miami is the only one of the largest metro areas not to have multiple Metropolitan Statistical Areas making up one larger CSA. Does that account for the change? No; even if you look at the individual Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas that make up those 11 CSAs, Miami's still has the most people per road mile.

The gap between the Miami metro area and the second place, New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA, is closer, and without Ventura County and the Inland Empire, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA metro area jumps to #3, but otherwise little changes in the calculation.

Cross-posted at R.U. Seriousing Me?

Where were District home purchases in 2012?

According to data from the DC Office of Tax and Revenue, 5,372 single family homes or condo units were purchased at fair market value in the District of Columbia in 2012. The geographic distribution of these homes and their sales prices follows some generally unsurprising patterns.

Homes are expensive west of Rock Creek Park; Condo sales are concentrated in the core of the city and along certain major arterial roads; and the markets for this specific type of residential real estate lagged east of the Anacostia River and along Eastern Avenue.

These maps make a statement about where mobile homeowners and investors are choosing to live and risk their money in the District, which in turn reflects the perceived existing or potential quality of life in those neighborhoods. They also provide insight into the District's housing stock.

Neighborhoods with high concentrations of apartment buildings, whether 4 units or 400 units, will not have a dominant presence on the maps. Turnover rates and neighborhood density also influence these visualizations, as do many other factors that readers will surely suggest in the comments.

Some notes about the data: The above total includes 2,286 condominiums (horizontal or vertical) and 3,086 single family homes (attached, detached, or semi-detached). Some of these may have been sold more than once in the calendar year, but because the figures only reflect the most recent sale, those cases only count once.

Cross-posted at R. U. Seriousing Me?

Where could a small grocery store thrive in Ward 8?

The Yes! Organic Market in DC's Fairlawn neighborhood has struggled to survive, and Anacostia's only grocery store recently closed. Why can't grocery stores thrive here? Mainly, economics. But one spot could work.

There are many factors that determine the success of a retail enterprise, including marketing, accessibility, visibility, competition, demographics, and location. Yes! Organic may have been difficult to access for westbound drivers, and it could certainly have benefited from an improved outreach campaign, but the fundamental challenge for the store is that it is located in an area with low aggregate income, a result of relatively low household incomes and the presence of relatively few households.

Much of the area around Fairlawn's Yes! is undeveloped (Anacostia Park and River, Fort Dupont Park, etc.), and the developed blocks are low- to medium-density. The graphic above helps illustrate how the purchasing power the store's service area compares with those of other grocery outlets in the city.

The Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket closed its doors because the former owner sold the property. The buyer is optimistic about the site's potential, but in a presentation to the Historic Anacostia Block Association in February of this year, he all but ruled out the possibility of bringing in another grocery store. He said that the potential grocery tenants he spoke with were deterred by the presumed arrival of Walmart at Skyland, just up the street.

Does the eventual presence of two full-service grocery stores at the top of the hill mean that Ward 8's flatland neighborhoods will be forever without their own market? If there is a location best suited for a store to fill the gap, it is at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE and Howard Rd SE, immediately adjacent to the Anacostia Metrorail station and Metrobus hub, and the meeting point for the Anacostia, Hillsdale, and Barry Farm neighborhoods.

The ideal, and most feasible, site for new development at this intersection is the vast lot owned by Bethlehem Baptist Church, currently used as parking. It is not uncommon for churches, often major landowners, to develop the land they own for a purpose consistent with their mission.

Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, two blocks from Bethlehem, recently oversaw the development of a new affordable housing complex on one of their parcels. Across town, at 10th and G Streets NW, the First Congregational United Church of Christ was part of a redevelopment team that delivered a new facility for the church on the ground floors of an office building.

Bethlehem Baptist lot. Photo by the author.

By developing their vacant land as housing, office space, or a community or spiritual facility, with ground floor retail including a grocery store to replace the shuttered Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket, Bethlehem Baptist Church, and its pastor Reverend James E. Coates, DC's inaugural Ward 8 councilmember, could cement a legacy in the District while doing a huge service to their neighbors in the heart of Ward 8.

Cross-posted at R. U. Seriousing Me?

Who’s commuting to east of the river DC neighborhoods?

WMATA's latest data release confirmed what we already knew: most Metrorail riders take the train from the suburbs into DC. But relatively few ride to the District neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Where are they coming from and going to?

About 75% of total trips in the AM peak terminate at one of the 42 stations in or immediately adjacent to the District (within 500 feet). Only 2% of these riders, or 1.5% of all trips, get off at one of the 7 stations in or bordering the portion of the District east of the Anacostia River.

Of the more than 3500 riders who make up the numerator of this statistic, 40% get off at Anacostia and 20% at Minnesota Ave, affectionately known as the downtowns of their respective wards (8 and 7). The reason nearly 5 times as many people take the train to Farragut North as to all East of the River stations combined is obvious: Land use.

The Anacostia and Minnesota Ave station areas offer fairly similar non-residential uses, which include a limited number of destinations one would commute to on a weekday morning. Both have a few schools nearby, one relatively new District government office building, a smattering of small retail stores and restaurants, mostly carryout, and a number of light industrial sites.

Anacostia has a couple additional office or medical buildings, while Minnesota Ave boasts a grocery store. For those who do commute to work or school in these neighborhoods, parking is cheap or free, and buses often offer a superior option to rail for those who are traveling between East of the River neighborhoods.

But what about the chosen few who do take Metrorail to these 7 stations? In contrast to the system-wide statistics, 63% of trips ending east of the river originated in DC, 28% in Maryland, and 9% in Virginia. The share coming from the suburbs is certain to increase when the federal Department of Homeland Security campus at Saint Elizabeths is completed.

Interestingly, 9% of riders traveling East of the River boarded at the Columbia Heights or Georgia Avenue-Petworth stations. Without additional data, one can only hypothesize why so many people (relatively) are making this specific commute. One driver may be the schools. For example, Thurgood Marshall Academy, a high performing public charter high school across the street from the Anacostia metro station, draws students and teachers from all over the city.

Perhaps WMATA could release a subset of their data showing trips made with discounted student passes? That would make it possible to further explore this hypothesis.

Cross-posted at R.U. Seriousing Me?

Can Big K catalyze commercial development in Anacostia?

Today, we have 2 articles on the Big K site in Historic Anacostia. Also see John Muller's piece.

Named for a defunct corner liquor store with an enormous "K" painted on its side, the true significance of the Big K site in Historic Anacostia lies in the three decrepit but once majestic wood-frame historic homes that sit on contiguous lots adjacent to the Big K itself.

Last week, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) released a Solicitation for Offers for the development of the Big K Site in Historic Anacostia. A Solicitation for Offers (SFO) is essentially the same as a Request for Proposals (RFP), an equally bureaucratic but slightly more familiar term.

The first Agency Goal listed in the solicitation is, "Consistency with the recommendations of the Big K Community Advisory Group." The Community Advisory Group was guided by two relatively conservative DHCD-commissioned market studies (housing & commercial). For the most part, the recommendations are straightforward and predictable:

  • Desire mixed-use project;
  • Project that will support/benefit the community;
  • Prefer commercial use over housing;
  • Full-service restaurant was top choice for retail; and
  • Interest in having cultural use / community garden on-site.
In this case, the desired mix of uses appears to exclude residential. The SFO states specifically that the Advisory Group recommends no housing at all. However, the solicitation also gives weight to the Comprehensive Plan, which values this type of metro-accessible site, located on a commercial corridor, as an opportunity for higher density mixed-use development that does include housing.

More importantly, adding households within walking distance of this site will increase the demand for retail goods and services, raising the feasibility of the project's commercial component.

Physically, the site has some constraints, though none are insurmountable. DHCD only owns 4 of the 5 properties on the block. The one that it does not control is currently operated as a used car lot. Prospective developers could sweeten their offers by gaining control of the car lot and proposing to pair it with the adjacent lot (2228 MLK) included in the solicitation that contains a historic single family home approved to be razed (Solution 1, below).

The Big K liquor store on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave and Morris Rd (2252 MLK) lies outside of the Historic District, but considering the historic nature of the overall site and the community's desire for preservation, it may be wise for a developer to save as much of the building as possible. With that said, there is still plenty of room for the structure to grow up and out (Solution 2), and even laterally behind the adjacent homes (Solution 3).

The two remaining detached, single family homes (2234 and 2238 MLK) are located smack in the middle of their respective lots and must be preserved. But why not move them up to the lot line (Solution 4)? If the additional density gained justifies the cost, this may be an option worth exploring.

Ultimately, what gets built at the Big K will depend on the creativity of the development teams that respond to the solicitation, particularly in their ability to lure commercial tenants and make effective use of the plentiful incentives available at this site. While DHCD does not explicitly offer a subsidy beyond, presumably, selling the property for less than the appraised value, the project may be able to take advantage of Historic Tax Credits, New Markets Tax Credits, and/or Tax Increment Financing. Plus, if a high quality proposal is received and championed by residents of Anacostia, the Mayor and Council may be able to find a way to make it work financially via grants or tax abatement.

Here's to hoping the Big K gets some visionary responses, and why wouldn't it? Developers, architects, and preservationists should be drooling over the opportunity to be able to say that their project triggered the revitalization of Historic Anacostia.

Vacant properties delay neighborhood reinvestment

On March 30, 2010, three teenagers were shot to death while hanging out in front of an abandoned, 4-unit apartment building at 4022 South Capitol Street SE. Last week, five men were convicted of murder for their involvement in the string of events that culminated in the deadly attack.

Imaginary baseball card for 4022 S Capitol SE. Click to see reverse.

The fact that the victims had been gathered on the stoop of, and presumably at some point inside of, a vacant and unsecured building neglected by its owner has nothing to do with why they were killed. But that this was the setting of the worst massacre in recent District history is symbolic: the scene represented the intersection of decades of disinvestment in both people and place.

The disinvestment in the young men who perpetrated the attacks, their families and the institutions responsible for forming them is the truly devastating issue here. However, disinvestment also applies to the built environment.

Systemic forces like white flight, black flight, redlining, blockbusting, wage stagnation created this problem, and numerous challenges impede reinvestment in neighborhoods like this one.

There are 2,232 addresses on the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs' (DCRA) vacant and blighted properties list, the principal data source for the maps above. The list includes 4022 South Capitol Street as well as the two apartment buildings immediately adjacent to it.

These are not normal short term vacancies, simply between leases. They are the buildings that are unleasable in their current state of disrepair. Some are bank owned, some are city owned. Some have absentee owners, some have local owners who live in poverty and have no means with which to fix up their assets.

In some cases, the owner listed on the title is deceased and there are multiple heirs to the property. Many require a significant investment of time and money before they can again be occupied.

The purpose of DCRA's list is to identify targets for the District's first line of defense against dilapidated buildings: taxation. By threatening to raise property taxes to 5% for vacant properties and 10% for blighted properties, the city encourages the owner to either bring the property up to code or sell it to someone who will, probably at a price less than what the owner would otherwise be willing to accept.

Ultimately, if the owner neither takes action nor pays the elevated taxes, the property goes to tax sale and is awarded to the highest bidder. If no one bids, ownership rights go to the city, but that doesn't mean that a fresh title magically appears in the name of the District of Columbia. The District, like any other winning bidder, must first go through foreclosure proceedings, sorting through existing liens on the property and attempting to resolve any other title issues that exist.

In other words, no one, least of all the District government, wants it to get to that point. This approach is a relatively new, boutique initiative that seems to have promise, as Lydia DePillis has thoroughly described.

In the grander scheme of things, there are really three variables that affect the rehabilitation or redevelopment of nuisance properties:

  1. Acquisition cost: the cost of purchasing the property, which may include substantial legal fees, and interest or investor payments on borrowed money.
  2. Redevelopment cost: site preparation (potentially including demolition), design and construction costs, interim maintenance and taxes, debt payments.
  3. Income from the redeveloped property: the income that the property generates once it is redeveloped and operational, whether in the form of net operating income if the owner chooses to lease it out, or income from the sale of the property minus any costs associated with the sale.

For redevelopment to make sense, the sum of the first two variables must be less than the third, and when it doesn't, the free market won't mitigate vacant properties and blight.

The first two solutions presented require a taxpayer subsidy. Is it justified?

It is easier to quantify the costs associated with rehabilitating blighted properties than it is to quantify the benefits. The broken windows theory suggests that blight can encourage and support illegal activities, but it is difficult to measure to what extent that is the case.

Blight may lower surrounding property values and deter new investment. It can also contribute to the stigmatization of a neighborhood if dilapidated properties are seen as representative of the entire community. Across the country, the consensus seems to be that investing public funds in individual nuisance properties in order to battle the negative effects of disinvestment is a worthy cause.

The Gray administration, like previous administrations, uses a combination of the three strategies discussed in the previous graphic to combat long-term vacancy and blight, though there seems to be an intentional focus on Solution #3. Dedicating a greater share of energy and resources to large-scale economic development projects, which in Ward 8 tend to revolve around St. Elizabeths, is certainly a more glamorous approach and it probably will have a greater impact on the District's bottom line in the long run.

However, it is interesting that there has not been a more coordinated, ambitious, or heavily-funded government proposal for dealing directly with vacant and blighted properties where they are most concentrated. After all, this is the topic that Ward 8 residents ranked as their top development-related priority at the Ward 8 Community Summit, and unfortunately it is an issue that will forever be intertwined with the tragic events that occurred two years ago at 4022 South Capitol St SE.

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