Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Payton Chung

Payton Chung, LEED AP ND, CNUa, sees the promises and perils of planning every day as a resident of the Southwest Urban Renewal Area. He first addressed a city council about smart growth in 1996, accidentally authored Chicago's inclusionary housing law, and blogs at west north

Most of DC's new housing is in high-rises, which most people can't afford to live in

At first glance, the District's central-city housing boom might seem to be completely benign: as long as new housing is being built, does it matter where it is? But by funneling almost all new residences into central-city high-rises, the District is all but requiring that new housing be built with only the most expensive construction techniques, on the most expensive land. Potential residents need more choices.

Photos by the author.

Where housing is built influences how housing gets built. That, in turn, determines how much new housing will cost and thus, who can afford to live there. Given how the city is building high-rises, it's no wonder that the resulting housing is expensive: these buildings are expensive by their very nature, and far more expensive than what most of the District's new residents can afford.

High-rise buildings are built to last, with solid materials like concrete and steel plus expensive fittings like elevators and sprinklers. All of that heavy-duty construction costs a lot of money—up to twice as much as low-rise buildings, per square foot. Those fittings also cost more to maintain over the long run. And since these buildings aren't built on land that was cheap to begin with, it should be no surprise that high-rise apartments are expensive.

High-rises are too expensive to rent for anything but top dollar

How expensive are central city high-rises? The cost of just materials, labor, design, and appropriately-zoned land for a high-rise building in central DC amounts to over $400 per rentable square foot—and that's before its developer has made a single cent on her investment, much less paid interest to her investors, paid attorneys to get the site zoned correctly, paid for community improvements like transportation or affordable housing, or brought in the gimmicky amenities.

These high costs go a long way towards explaining why so little of the District's new housing is affordable to low and moderate income households. It's not necessarily because developers are greedy, but because developers can't afford to sell their products at a 50% loss.

For instance, take a theoretical two-bedroom, 1,100-square foot unit in a newly built high-rise building. The play-an-apartment-developer online game handily provided by New York City's nonprofit Citizens Housing and Planning Council, reprogrammed with DC's considerably lower costs for land, construction, and property taxes, yields a rent of $3,993 for that two-bedroom apartment.

Under HUD's standards for affordability and household size, this theoretical unit could house a three-person household earning $159,720 a year, or 163% of the Area Median Income for three-person households in this region (which is $98,253). Alternately, to make the unit affordable to a "low-income" household that can afford rent of $1,966 a month, the developer would have to lose (or the government would have to pay) over half of the monthly rental cost.

Requiring high-rises also affects the diversity of the new housing that's built. Building fewer but larger apartments in a central-city high-rise divides the building's high costs among fewer units, pushing per-unit prices up even further relative to cheaper low-rise buildings. A typical three-bedroom unit sold in DC this year had 1,336 square feet; the CHPC's calculator indicates such a unit would be affordable only to a four-person household earning more than twice the Area Median Income.

Wages in the region aren't keeping up with rent costs

All of this would be fine if the new jobs that this region is creating were all high-paid, but they're not. A June report by Jeannette Chapman from George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis forecasts that only 37% of the new households that will settle in the District from 2011 to 2023 will earn middle or high incomes (120% or more of Area Median Income). That leaves 63% of all new households, and 73% of new renter households, earning low or moderate incomes.

Most of DC's new households, then, will be priced out of most of DC's new housing. 30,000 new households of more moderate means, who can't afford fancy new high-rise apartments, will instead have to compete with existing households for existing housing, pushing prices up across the board.

High-rise apartments under construction near the Navy Yard.

The District could step in and provide tremendous subsidies to pay the high rent on high-cost high-rises, which is sort of what inclusionary zoning does on a very small scale. Or it could acknowledge that while luxury high-rises have their place, they cannot meet everyone's housing needs, and that new housing is also needed that's intrinsically more economical—built using less-costly low-rise and mid-rise techniques and on less-expensive land.

That would be possible if more housing were being built outside of the central city, which is exactly what the Comprehensive Plan calls for.

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic by Peter Dovak.

One part of town is building far more than its share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DC built 13% less housing over the past decade than its own citywide plan calls for

In 2006, DC adopted a Comprehensive Plan to guide its development efforts. At the time, the District's population had just started to perk up after six decades of decline, and the plan reasonably foresaw that growth could continue into the future. The District's population has indeed grown substantially, but its housing stock isn't keeping pace.

Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Three years before the Comp Plan came into place, Mayor Anthony Williams pointed to recent population gains when he announced a bold goal to bring 100,000 new residents to the District within a decade [PDF]. The 2006 Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force recommended adding 55,000 new housing units over 20 years (a recommendation reaffirmed by a 2012 housing strategy update).

Those units could accommodate 114,400 additional residents at the then-current household size of 2.08. It also took the pace of construction seen in 2005's construction pace well into the future.

The comp plan incorporated much of the Housing Strategy, noting in its Housing Element that "The increase in [housing] demand has propelled a steep upward spiral in housing costs, impacting renters and homeowners alike... The housing shortfall will continue to create a market dynamic where housing costs increase faster than incomes."

To address the shortfall, the comp plan's very first housing policy opens with, "The District must increase its rate of housing production if it is to meet current and projected needs through 2025 and remain an economically vibrant city," and raised the forecast slightly, to 57,100 additional housing units over the plan's 20-year horizon.

As a whole, the District isn't meeting its goals

Yet despite all the new construction over the past decade, including two building booms, DC is currently on track to miss its 2025 goal by 13%. Instead of building 2,855 units per year, DC's averaged fewer than 2,500 each year over the past decade.

The big reason why is that homebuilding nationally came to a near-standstill during the 2008 crisis, and the District was no exception: building permits crashed by 81% from 2005 to 2008, and remained at low levels through 2010. Many proposed projects, like CityCenterDC and Half Street, came to a halt when banks collapsed. Yet all that time, the city's population, and thus the demand for new housing, continued to grow.

Construction has since rebounded to new highs, with 39% more building permits issued each year between 2011 and 2014 than in 2005. Still, the new boom hasn't yet erased the 3,000-unit backlog from the slow years.

To get back on track, building permits would have to keep up at recent years' record-setting pace for at least another three years—and perhaps longer, since the next ten years will also inevitably include another economic slowdown that will subdue construction.

Housing growth has lagged behind population growth

Even though housing construction has been slower than projections, the city's population has continued to grow. Instead of moving into new housing, all of these new residents have in recent years just filled holes in the existing housing stock.

Vacant units—the slack in the District's housing market—have steadily disappeared in recent years. Between 2010 and 2013, the Census reports that the number of vacant housing units in the District plummeted by 13,319 (or 31%), far outpacing the 6,850 units that were added to the District's housing stock.

It's convenient that so many vacant housing units just happened to be available just when the District's population began booming, but that feat can't continue forever. A growing population will, at some point, require new housing.

Indeed, current market indicators show that there's still tremendous demand for newly built housing: Even though a record number of new apartments have been built recently, they're being snapped up as soon as they're available.

The recent slowdown in the District's population growth isn't reason to rest: It could be that slower population growth is a result of inadequate housing growth. Slower population growth largely results from reduced domestic migration, as either more people move out of DC or fewer people move in. The #1 reason behind domestic out-migration from DC is because of its inadequate housing. (No surveys track why people choose not to move to DC in the first place, but the reasons are likely similar.)

Local environmental goals require even more population and housing

David Alpert's Sunday op-ed referred to the District's aspirations to a greener future, which require that the District grow by even more than the comp plan envisioned.

DC's Sustainable DC Plan, which was adopted in 2012, acknowledges that the District needs to "increase urban density to accommodate future population growth within the District's existing urban area," and sets a target of welcoming 250,000 new residents by 2032. That target implies at least 100,000 new housing units, a figure confirmed by recent studies from George Mason University and echoed in the region's long-range plans.

Adding more residents to the region's core will result in a substantially smaller environmental impact than adding those residents at the region's edges. Accommodating more population growth within existing built areas, like the District, reduces the overall environmental impact of new development. And that isn't just because it relieves pressure to pave over outlying wildlife habitat and green space.

People who live in dense settings close to the regional core live more lightly on the earth as a matter of course: Residents of the urban core drive less than half as much as residents of sprawling suburbs, a fact that regional transportation plans rely upon to keep traffic congestion and road expansion down.

DC can take a fresh look at housing

As David wrote on Sunday, the upcoming Comprehensive Plan revision is a great opportunity to review the District's housing needs. As part of that review, the Office of Planning should examine the comp plan's policies in light of the District's new, more ambitious goals along with its failure so far to deliver sufficient new housing to meet demand.

Another opportunity will arise from another update to the Housing Strategy, which is also due this year.

In recent years, it's gotten harder, not easier, to build new housing in the District. New zoning restrictions, like the "pop-up ban," have made it even more difficult and costly to build new housing units in large swaths of the District. Even when proposed developments meet existing zoning, they often face costly and time-consuming litigation.

Since the comp plan guides the zoning regulations, a revised comp plan should guide future zoning changes that can make it easier for the District to meet its housing and environmental goals.

When DC's fish market comes ashore, it will re-create a historic food destination

The Maine Avenue Fish Market on the Southwest Waterfront, the oldest open-air seafood marketplace in America, was exiled offshore in 1960. There are now plans underway to expand it back onto land and expand its offerings beyond just seafood.

The renovated oyster shed in the foreground, along with a proposed distillery, and under-construction office building. Rendering by Hoffman-Madison Waterfront/McGraw Bagnoli Architects.

Today, the barges the market sits on hugs two piers that jut into the Washington Channel. Market vendors alternately look up or down upon their customers, depending on the tides. The piers will remain essentially untouched, but today's ragtag parking lot will be replaced with a "shared space" Market Square, stretching east to the newly installed stoplight at Maine Avenue.

Five small buildings and temporary kiosks on the square will house a variety of local food businesses. Closest to the piers, a pair of World War I-era structures built to shuck oysters will be become an oyster bar and dining patio. These new businesses could open as soon as spring 2017.

Perusing the fish market in 2006. Photo by Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography.

A pair of three-story buildings on its eastern side, near a 10-story office building with several restaurants, will house a rum distillery, a restaurant with wine bar, and a deli. Two additional single-story pavilions could house vendors selling sandwiches, coffee, bread, and flowers.

An additional pier, now under construction just east of the market, could provide room for four additional waterborne retailers. Market services like fish cleaning would move into a new building under the highway bridge. A quarter-acre of outdoor dining space will ensure that everyone can get a seat.

McGraw Bagnoli Architects, whose prior work includes the interior of Right Proper brewpub, designed the new structures.

Oyster shucking shed at the fish market
The oyster shed today. Photo by Payton Chung.

"By and large, we love the way it is," developer Monty Hoffman told the Washington Business Journal's Michael Neibauer. "We're embracing it and we plan to add more on the land side," as part of "repositioning it for the next generation."

Hoffman-Madison Waterfront holds a long-term lease on the market as part of its larger redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront. Next door is The Wharf, where nine blocks of mixed-use development are now under construction.

HMW filed the plans with the federal Commission on Fine Arts, which reviews developments along the waterfront and other scenic locations. The CFA applauded the plans for "maintaining the vitality and eclectic character of the beloved Maine Avenue Fish Market."

They also noted the fine line that the development faces in combining a messy, 200-year-old social institution, 100-year-old buildings, and shiny new buildings, and "cautioned against trying to recreate this random, energetic character in the architecture of the new buildings, which will inevitably result in a falseness made obvious by the authenticity of the existing context."

Yet expanding the fish market onto shore also honors its history. The site was once home to Eastern Market-style municipal market halls for fish and for produce. When those were demolished in 1960 along with the rest of the Southwest neighborhood, some of the fish vendors decamped to their boats, leasing dock space directly from the District—but, under federal law, selling only seafood. With this plan, the Maine Avenue market can come full circle and once again serve Washingtonians a complete meal.

Think the rent's too high? Try your hand at managing a landlord's budget

The rents in the brand-new apartment buildings all around town have caused some serious sticker shock. If you've wondered just how the rent got to be so damn high, you might find a few minutes with a new online game to be instructive.

Image from the author. And yes, he lost on his first try at the game.

"Inside the Rent," created by New York City's Citizens Housing & Planning Council, lets you examine the construction and operating budget for a new-build apartment building—and translates those up-front costs into average monthly rents.

Players get to choose between various factors like location, construction type, and how much to pay construction crews and maintenance staff. Then they watch the costs add up. In the likely scenario that the costs exceed the player's "market price," the player can also apply for various government subsidies, like tax breaks or free land.

Although construction costs and land prices in the Washington region aren't quite at New York City levels, many factors apply nationwide. For instance, federal law requires that subsidized housing pay "prevailing wages" to construction workers, which raises costs.

One quirk that I noticed in the game: the game shows that construction of high-rise buildings costs 25% more than mid-rise buildings. (Here in DC, the same 25% cost differential exists between mid-rise and low-rise buildings.) However, the game doesn't acknowledge that high-rise buildings can fit more units onto the same piece of land, and thus reduce the land cost per unit. Another cost that isn't part of CHPC's game, but which can very substantially raise rents, is the high cost of building parking.

Interestingly, one of the few "costs" that is fixed in all game scenarios is the developer's minimum profit, which is 5% in all cases. That might seem generous at a time of near-zero interest rates, but consider that for investors, a whole lot more can go wrong with a construction project than with with long-term bonds, which are often considered a comparable (but less risky) asset. Indeed, as the prices to buy or build apartments have risen, the profit margins that investors make on operating those apartments have fallen to new lows.

If you're the type of geek who prefers to examine Excel spreadsheets rather than constantly reload your phone's browser, CHPC has also made the spreadsheet underlying the game available.

Have you noticed anything different about DC's traffic signals?

Over the past two years, and especially over the past few months, the District Department of Transportation has re-timed hundreds of traffic signals throughout DC. Most recently, many stoplights downtown have been reprogrammed, which means that the street network now works very differently.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Some of our contributors have noticed, and have had divergent reactions. Ned Russell says his ride on Madison and then onto 15th is longer since the light at 15th and Maine no longer synchronizes with the previous light at Independence, especially considering it's a downhill ride.

Jeff Lemieux thinks that there are longer cycles overall, which make things easier for rush hour commuters from Maryland and Virginia since there's more time to clear intersections and also less box blocking.

Personally, I've noticed that I can now bike across the Mall at 4th or 7th streets without hitting a red light in the middle.

Regardless of whether you walk, bike, or drive to get around DC's streets, have you noticed a change in the traffic signal timing along your route? If so, what have you noticed—are cycles generally longer or shorter, better or worse? Have these changes affected your travel patterns at all? Are there small changes to signal timing that could improve safety?

It's about to get easier to build mid-rises in DC

Soon, it might be a lot easier and less expensive to build mid-rise buildings along transit corridors in DC. This is thanks to a 2015 update to the International Building Code.

The View at Waterfront, new buildings

The View at Waterfront, a proposed 85' tall wood-framed building. Rendering by SK+I Architecture.

The code now permits light-framed buildings of wood or steel, which are often faster and less expensive to build than equivalent heavy-framed structures, to reach eight stories and up to 85' high—just shy of the 90' limit the Height Act imposes outside of downtown.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

How much less expensive? The blocks above illustrate three potential scenarios for a light frame apartment building built with wood or steel studs, and with sprinklers.

On the left, the building has five floors of light wood framing (yellow) over a one-floor "podium" of heavy concrete framing. On the right, the building has eight floors, all of heavy concrete framing. Switching from the left to the right increases the building area by 33%, but because concrete is more expensive, costs increase by 60%.

When I wrote about this topic last year, seven- and eight-story buildings had to be built from heavy-duty concrete or steel, welded or poured on-site, for fire reasons. This "Type I" construction process is time-consuming, material-intensive, and expensive.

Eight-story buildings made economic sense on 14th Street NW, where land values are high. But the high cost of construction stymied development in less pricey neighborhoods.

What the 2015 building code permits is a compromise, with a taller "podium" of concrete framing. That's the middle example. This building has 23% more area than the building on the left, but costs only 26% more.

DC currently operates under the the 2012 version of the IBC, but will soon start reviewing the 2015 code for formal adoption. DC law requires that the Council consider adopting the updated IBC by July. Maryland is on a faster track, having adopted the new code in January, and Virginia is about one year behind.

The new code in practice

One site where this compromise is being applied is adjacent to the Waterfront metro station. In 2007, a developer first proposed building apartments on two parking lots between Arena Stage and the Metro.

Since Southwest DC is considered part of downtown, it has a 130-foot height limit, and the developer got zoning approval for a pair of 11-story, 112-foot tall reinforced-concrete high-rises.

Mill Creek Residential, which developed the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station's parking lot into the Avenir mixed-use complex, recently bought what they're now calling The View at Waterfront. SK+I Architecture redesigned the proposed buildings with wooden frames.

Under the new building code, the concrete podium can have multiple stories.

To take advantage of the change, the new plans for the View include a two-story concrete podium with five and a half stories of wood frame above, according to drawings within the zoning filing. The podium will contain a retail space (probably a restaurant) facing Arena Stage, resident common areas, and apartments.

Builders have a new material at their disposal, too

Another building code change that took effect in 2015 officially allows cross-laminated timber, a "mega-plywood" that mimics the heavy timber beams of yesteryear. The code limits CLT buildings to the same heights as conventional, light frame buildings, even though some countries' codes allow its use for taller buildings: 10-story buildings have been built from it in London and Melbourne.

T3 in Minneapolis
T3 in Minneapolis. Rendering by Michael Green Architecture.

For now, CLT may find a niche in commercial buildings due to its unique appearance, and ability to span wide-open spaces. The first mid-rise CLT building in the United States, a seven-story office building, will break ground this summer in a Minneapolis neighborhood known for its brick lofts.

Bob Pfefferle from developer Hines (which also built CityCenterDC) told Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star-Tribune, "it provides an authentic building that is respectful of the neighborhood. This will have the ambience of the old warehouses with timber beams that everyone wants, but solves all the problems of energy efficiency and light."

CLT could be an intriguing new technology to watch for in new commercial buildings in areas with an industrial heritage, like Union Market or Ivy City.

Tomorrow's special election candidates talk streetcar, bus lanes, and more

The DC chapter of the Sierra Club asked candidates in tomorrow's Ward 4 and Ward 8 special elections about their stances on transportation issues. The Club heard back from Brandon Todd in Ward 4 and from Eugene Kinlow and LaRuby May in Ward 8.

Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The questionnaire, which covered bus lanes, streetcars, parking, and bike trails, was part of the Sierra Club's endorsement process. In total, the Club reached out to one candidate in Ward 4, Todd, and to three in Ward 8—of all the candidates in the mix, that's how many it deemed to be running viable campaigns.

In the Ward 4 race, Brandon Todd's campaign answered "Yes" (but didn't elaborate) to all four of the Club's questions. That means he's in favor of endorsing "parking cash-out" so that employees can choose not to drive to work, creating transit-only travel lanes on key corridors downtown, fully funding DC's 37-mile streetcar plan, and reallocating District resources to complete major off-street trails.

The Kennedy Street Development Association also polled Ward 4 candidates on transportation and smart growth. KSDA's Myles Smith noted:

No candidate supports a Streetcar on Georgia Avenue, though they do support other transit investments: all back $2 billion in funding for the Metro Forward plan. Andrews, Todd, and Toliver support 16th Street bus lanes, adding new bike lanes even at the cost of parking, while Bowser opposed.
Oddly, on the Sierra Club questionnaire, Brandon Todd endorsed the full streetcar network—including… a streetcar on Georgia.

In the Ward 8 race, Eugene Kinlow's campaign answered "Yes" to three of the Club's questions, but "No" regarding the streetcar. "I still have doubts about the benefits of this investment and believe that other transit opportunities such as small area circulators and increased access to affordable biking options may prove more worthwhile for the ward," he said.

LaRuby May's campaign answered "Yes" to the Club's questions about parking cash-out and about bicycle trails. In response to the question about the streetcar, the campaign wrote that May "supports the creation of alternative transportation methods to better address the connectivity issues faced by Ward 8 residents. Whichever method most efficiently gets the people I serve to where they need to go is the one I will support." The campaign also wrote a similar response about bus lanes.

The Club contacted Marion C. Barry's campaign several times but got no response.

Full text of the questionnaire's transportation-related questions:

Subsidies for Parking and Driving: Subsidized employee parking favors commuters from the suburbs who disproportionately drive to work, as compared to DC residents. Employers would retain the authority as to whether, to what degree, and to which employees they provide a parking subsidy, sometimes called parking cash out.

Q: Will you support legislation requiring DC employers that choose to subsidize employee parking to offer an equivalently-valued subsidy to non-driving commuters?

Reallocation of Road Space: The District has limited right-of-way for travel and access. A disproportionate amount of this right-of-way is taken up by lone travelers driving on unrestricted travel lanes and on-street parking, with the result being poorer air quality in the District and less attractive transportation options than if such right-of-way were to be rebalanced.

Q: Will you support DC Department of Transportation creating bus-only travel lanes on 16th, H, and I Streets NW, and placing further streetcar lines in transit-only lanes?

Streetcars: The District has planned for a 37-mile streetcar system, including lines along Georgia Avenue NW and Martin Luther King Avenue SE and Wheeler Road SE, which would put nearly half of DC's population within walking distance of rail transit. Last year, the Council cut funding levels for the streetcar, and the reduced eight-mile network that DDOT has now proposed to put out to bid, as a single construction contract, would serve neither Wards 4 nor 8.

Q: Do you support raising taxes or reallocating funding to restore full funding for the 37-mile streetcar plan?"

Bicycle Trails: The Capital Crescent, mainstream Rock Creek, Oxon Run, and Suitland Parkway bicycle trails are all in need of major repair and maintenance. The Metropolitan Branch and Anacostia Riverwalk are left at various stages of completion.

Q: Will you demand that the DC Department of Transportation allocate the resources and energy to complete the rehabilitation and construction of those trail segments and reallocate resources, even at the expense of other projects, to complete?

The author is a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Jobs are clustering in parts of the region, but the east is falling behind

There's a growing economic gap in the region, with jobs concentrating in the west while poverty is growing in the east. This from a new Brookings Institute report on how close people were to jobs in 2000 and 2012.

A map showing areas that saw an increase (or decrease) in nearby jobs. Image from Brookings.

Most poor residents can only afford to live in the east, which leaves them stranded far away from job opportunities.

DC has a "favored quarter," and if you don't live in it, it's hard to find work

Jobs in the DC region are heavily concentrated in a "favored quarter" that starts downtown and stretches west-northwest. Residents in the ten-mile-wide circle that covers the northwest quadrant of DC, Arlington, and neighboring parts of Montgomery and Fairfax counties, can easily commute to about a million jobs.

For people in that area, chances are pretty good that one of those jobs will suit them. City Observatory recently noted based on Brookings' data, core-area residents in the DC region have, on average, three times as many jobs within commuting distance as residents of more distant areas.

DC's favored quarter is also adding more jobs. Between 2000 and 2012, about 100,000 new jobs became available within a reasonable commuting distance of north Arlington, Bethesda, Wards 2 and 3 in DC, Herndon, and Sterling.

In the years the study looks at, the average resident of the "core jurisdictions" inside the original DC diamond (the District, Arlington, and Alexandria) saw their proximity to jobs improve by 8.6%. That's far better than the region-wide 2% average.

For a practical look at these findings' implications, consider Tysons Corner and Largo Town Center, two areas opposite one another on the Capital Beltway. Tysons residents have four times as many jobs within commuting distance. Largo residents, on the other hand, have to commute across the entire region in search of work.

The difference between being inside and outside of the core is even starker for areas with non-white majorities. Census tracts within the diamond where most residents are not white saw 7.5% more jobs within commuting distance in 2012 than in 2000.

While most of the region's jobs didn't shift far from the favored quarter,
the Dulles Airport/Route 28 area did emerge as a big new job center. Unfortunately, that area is far from transit, and very far from where most of the region's residents live.

And most areas in the favored quarter are doing a pitiful job of adding new housing units, meaning they're missing out on opportunities for people to live near where they work. Policy makers in these areas seem content to let housing prices rise, while rejecting new transit lines that would improve connections to their job centers.

Job locations have a huge impact on home values

When it comes to housing costs, proximity to jobs has a whole lot to do with why housing prices within the diamond have increased relative to farther-out areas.

That difference in home values is growing as job opportunities keep expanding in the west and shrinking in the east, causing poverty to shift farther into eastern areas that are sometimes ill-equipped to deal with service needs.

Outside of the Beltway, the lack of job opportunity in Prince George's and eastern Montgomery counties has depressed property values and ruined many families' finances.

All of this leads to what social scientists call a "spatial mismatch" between jobs and affordable housing. Over time, a spatial mismatch can widen into what sociologist Robert Putnam calls an opportunity equality gap, disadvantaging families for multiple generations.

Despite all this, smart transit and planning are reasons to be optimistic

Encouragingly, some job location trends in recent years are chipping away at the problem, particularly for residents who live within Metro's reach and especially within the diamond. Jobs are shifting away from distant locations, towards transit accessible areas like downtown DC. This shift should make it easier for residents who live outside the favored quarter to reach job opportunities.

New transit links to existing job centers, like Maryland's Purple Line, will also literally bridge the east-west divide. More infill residential development within the favored quarter, both at job centers like Tysons and within neighborhoods, will also improve access to opportunity and cut long commute times.

One caveat about the report: due to data limitations, the study assumes that people travel a "typical commute distance" in an as-the-crow-flies radius around their homes. It doesn't take into account whether transportation routes, like bridges or transit lines, are available between those points.

What else do you notice from the report? How can we cut down the spatial mismatch between jobs and housing in the DC region?

Think you know Metro's neighborhoods? This quiz might surprise you

Yesterday, PlanItMetro posted maps showing what's within walking distance of each Metro station. Check them out (and maybe read up on what walk sheds are and how they differ across the region), then take our quiz to test what you know.

A map of the area around the Columbia Heights Metro station that's easily walkable. Images from WMATA.

1. Which of these stations has the most jobs within walking distance?

U Street
Pentagon City

2. Which of these stations has the fewest jobs within walking distance?

Medical Center
Federal Triangle

3. Which of these stations has the most jobs that are nearby, but not within walking distance?

Van Ness
West Falls Church

4. Which of these stations has the most households within walking distance?

Dupont Circle
Silver Spring
Columbia Heights
Court House

5. Which of these stations has the fewest households within walking distance?

Friendship Heights
Pentagon City
Crystal City
Georgia Avenue-Petworth

6. How many households live within walking distance of Metro?


7. Which of these stations has the lowest Walk Score?

Morgan Boulevard
Fort Totten
Arlington Cemetery
Van Dorn Street

8. Which of these areas has the smallest area within walking distance?

West Hyattsville
Southern Avenue
National Airport


1. U Street might not have many high-rise office buildings, but the medium-density neighborhood does have 9,034 jobs within walking distance. Logan Circle's density isn't just for residents: its lack of parking lots and high street connectivity mean that it also has plenty of economic opportunities nearby.

2. Federal Triangle, the very heart of the federal bureaucracy that built Metro to bring commuters into the city, has fewer jobs nearby than the three big edge cities it's grouped with. (That's partially because PlanItMetro's assessment is for non-overlapping walk sheds. This is why Federal Triangle has so few jobs: they're assigned to neighboring sheds.) Medical Center may not look like much from Wisconsin Avenue, but its 32,473 nearby jobs put it in a league with several Downtown DC stations.

3. At Franconia-Springfield, 92% of the nearby jobs aren't within walking distance. Springfield Town Center is beyond a half-mile walk, and the new FBI headquarters site even the site Virginia is promoting for the FBI is cut off from the station by a ravine. (At Branch Avenue, 96% of nearby jobs are outside the walk shed.)

Franconia-Springfield walk shed.

4. Columbia Heights just edges out Dupont Circle for this title, 10,842 to 10,636. Relatively low-rise Court House has the highest household concentration outside the District, with 8,100 within walking distance.

5. It's Friendship Heights, although all of these have between 4,071 and 4,623 households within walking distance. High rises don't always mean high residential density, especially if there are lots of offices and shops mixed in. Crystal City probably has a higher density, but its walk shed is also constrained by the George Washington Parkway.

6. 190,631. Contrary to what those ubiquitous "Steps to Metro!" real-estate listings might tell you, just 9% of the 2,091,301 households in the metro area live within a ten-minute walk of Metro.

7. Morgan Boulevard has a paltry Walk Score of 6. Even Arlington Cemetery's is somehow 15. Twenty five Metro stations are in locations with a Walk Score that's "car-dependent," and just 30 are in places deemed a "Walker's Paradise."

8. Landover. Hemmed in by a railroad and US 50 on one side and by its own parking lot and an industrial park on the other, its walk shed covers a mere 80 acres. That's not fair to the almost 1,000 households, mostly on the other side of 50, who are less than half a mile away but can't easily reach the station.

Landover walk shed.

How did you do?

0-3 correct: You're a Metro Newbie! While you're playing #WhichWMATA, step outside those stations and explore!
4-6 correct: You're a Metro Explorer! You've walked around many of Metro's stations, and always want to see more!
7-8 correct: You're a Metro Voyager! Are you sure you didn't download that 113-megabyte Atlas and take this quiz open-book?

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