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

Development


DC has few "parking craters" downtown. Here's why.

Most American downtowns are surrounded by "parking craters," or big spaces with swaths of parking lots and no buildings. But they have virtually disappeared from DC (all the parking for Congress being a key exception, of course) because downtown office space is in high demand and because each building can only be so tall.


Downtown DC's last privately-controlled parking crater, left over from when the Convention Center was demolished. Photo by the author.

Most surface parking lots are built as what zoning calls "an accessory use," which means they're an "accessory" to something else on the same lot. The parking lot at Sam's Park & Shop in Cleveland Park, or the Capitol's parking lots, are "accessory" parking lots.

Parking craters, on the other hand, are usually not accessory parking directly tied to another land use; they're paid parking lots whose owners are holding onto land that they speculate could be a future development opportunity.

A parking lot requires minimal maintenance, but pays out some income in the interim. Most importantly, a parking lot is "shovel ready"—unlike a building with tenants in place, whose leases might or might not expire at the same time, a parking lot can be emptied and demolished on short notice when opportunities arise.

Here's a map of all of DC's parking craters in 2011, before NoMa saw a huge influx of residents and City Center was built.


Click to enlarge. Map by Dan Malouff.

High rents and short buildings make parking craters impractical

The opportunity that many "parking crater" developers are waiting for is the chance to build a big office tower. Offices pay higher rents to landlords than apartments (although in the best locations, retail or hotels can be even more valuable).

However, the banks who make construction loans to developers rarely allow new office buildings to be built before a large, well-established company has signed a long-term "anchor tenant" lease for much of the new building's space. If the building isn't pre-leased, the result can be a bank's worst nightmare: a "see-through tower" that cost millions of dollars to build, but which isn't paying any rent.

Within downtown DC, robust demand and high rents mean that landowners face a very high opportunity cost if they leave downtown land or buildings empty for a long time. Instead of demolishing buildings years before construction starts, developers can make room for new buildings by carefully lining up departing and arriving tenants, as Carr Properties did when swapping out Fannie Mae for the Washington Post.

Less often, a developer will build new offices "on spec," or without lease commitments in place. A spec developer usually bets on smaller companies signing leases once they see the building under construction. Downtown DC has a constant churn of smaller tenants (particularly law firms and associations) that collectively fill a lot of offices, but few are individually big enough to count as anchor tenants.

Because office buildings in DC are so short, they're relatively small, and therefore the risk of not renting out the office space is not that high. In other words, it's easier to build in downtown DC.

In a city like Chicago, by contrast, few developers would bother building a 250,000 square foot, 12-story office building to rent out to smaller tenants. Instead, they could wait a few more years and build a 36-story building, lease 500,000 square feet to a large corporation, and still have 250,000 square feet of offices for smaller tenants.

This customer is always right

There is one big anchor tenant in DC's office market: the federal government. The government has some peculiar parameters around its office locations, which also help to explain where DC does have parking craters.

Private companies often don't mind paying more rent for offices closer to the center of downtown, which puts them closer to clients, vendors, and amenities like restaurants, shops, or particular transit hubs. The government, on the other hand, has different priorities: it would rather save money on rent than be close-in. The General Services Administration, which handles the government's office space, defines a "Central Employment Area" for each city, and considers every location within the CEA to be equal when it's leasing offices. It also usually stipulates that it wants offices near Metro, but never specifies a particular line or station.

As rents in prime parts of downtown rose, the government began shifting leased offices from the most expensive parts of downtown to then-emerging areas. Large federal offices filled new office buildings in the "East End," helping to rejuvenate the area around Gallery Place and eliminate many parking craters.

Next: Parking craters have almost disappeared from downtown. So where are the new parking craters?

History


How U Street almost became strip malls and office parks

Planners in the 1950s wanted to replace large swaths of central Washington with freeways. Canceling those plans saved the city not just from the freeways themselves, but also from an equally stunning plan to demolish thousands more blocks alongside said freeways and "renew" them with a suburban landscape of strip malls, office campuses, and apartment towers.

Justement U St 1
The cloverleaf to the right is what the intersection of 16th, U, and New Hampshire nearly became. Aerial perspective rendering by Louis Justement. Photo by author.

Architect Louis Justement was tremendously influential from the 1920s through the 1960s, both locally and nationally; he chaired the American Institute of Architects' national Committee on Urban Planning for a spell. Gravely concerned with the tremendous overcrowding and traffic congestion that characterized wartime Washington, Justement published a short book in 1946 called New Cities For Old.

In it, he proposed not just replacing many major streets within DC with limited-access freeways. He also wanted to replace the neighborhoods that had grown up alongside those routes—or, rather, along the streetcars which traversed said streets—with modern new buildings suited to line those modern new roads.

Justement U St 2
A more detailed look at the proposed Jefferson Boulevard. Plan by Louis Justement, photo by author.

Justement's startling vision for the U Street corridor would have replaced T Street NW with "Jefferson Boulevard," and the slightly confusing intersection of 16th, U, and New Hampshire would have been radically simplified with a giant cloverleaf. The backs of two-block-long stripmalls, fronted by broad parking areas, would have lined Jefferson.

Between R and S Streets, the rowhouses and small apartments would be replaced by regimented rows of slabby tower-block apartments. Lining the towers up north-south and leaving space in between would, in theory, make sure every unit got an equal chance at sunlight, and would leave room for plentiful surface parking as well.


Development surrounding a freeway that would have run between Decatur and Emerson Streets NW and between 7th and 16th streets NW, north and west of Sherman Circle. Image from the Theodor Horydczak Collection at the Library of Congress.

For the blocks between Buchanan and Gallatin Streets NW, around Sherman Circle in the Petworth area, Justement proposed something even more radical: a ""Lincoln Boulevard" circumferential freeway bound by surface "access roads," with a constant series of loops permitting cars to switch back and forth.

A giant parking garage would fill the two blocks currently bound by Georgia, 13th, Emerson, and Gallatin, serving a monstrous shopping mall (crowned with office towers) stretching from 7th Street over to 16th. The blocks beyond would see yet more towers-in-parking-lots.

Justement plan for NW
Connecticut Avenue NW between Cathedral Avenue NW and Albemarle Street NW. Plan by Louis Justement, photo by author.

Even upper Connecticut Avenue, where developers had been building auto-oriented buildings since 1930, was to be comprehensively renewed. Within 20 years, Justement forecast, Connecticut would become a freeway, with underpasses and "feeder streets" carrying local traffic. The streetcar would be replaced with buses that would pull off the freeway into parking lots.

Cleveland Park's shops, which Justement said caused "traffic hazzards" by being arrayed on both sides of Connecticut and thus inviting pedestrians to cross the road, would be consolidated into a shopping center where Tilden Gardens stands today. The grand apartment houses lining Connecticut would be summarily demolished, replaced with new towers further from the unceasing traffic.

While most of DC was lucky to escape these ideas, there was one DC neighborhood where Louis Justement's vision came to pass: the Southwest Waterfront.

The rest of the country was not as lucky, though. Many of the ideas that Justement sought to impose on DC found their way into other plans all across America. His ideas for Petworth resemble the march of office towers lining the access roads of the Katy Freeway outside Houston; his sketch of Connecticut Avenue looks like the geometric clusters of offices arrayed between Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills, the "feeder streets" paralleling the Dulles Toll Road in Reston; his plan for U Street resemble any number of Edge Cities, like Tysons Corner or Parole outside Annapolis.

Public Spaces


The feds own RFK. Here's what they plan to do with it.

There's been a lot of talk lately about what to do with RFK Stadium and the land around it. One detail that's largely been left out of the conversation: the federal government owns the entire 190-acre site, and it has already developed and adopted an ambitious plan to fill the site with mixed-use development, recreation, and culture.


This parking lot should be active recreation, according to its owner. Photo by the author.

Some have made the occasional calls for sports facilities, like a football stadium or an Olympic arena. RFK's 10,000 parking spaces are also frequently brought up as the solution to any land-use challenge the area faces, particularly new housing.

But since the land underneath RFK is part of the National Park Service's Anacostia Park, the site is owned by the federal government and the National Capital Planning Commission will ultimately decide what to do with it.

NCPC is a federal agency which "preserves and enhances the... federal assets of the National Capital Region to support the needs of the federal government," and it's the federal agency that "coordinates the planning efforts of federal agencies that construct and renovate facilities within the National Capital Region," an authority granted to it under the National Capital Planning Act.

So what does NCPC envision for this "dramatic gateway to the city," half the size of the National Mall? In December 2006, the agency published an "RFK Stadium Site Redevelopment Study" [PDF] that envisions "a lively destination for residents and visitors," with "new cultural and commemorative uses to attract visitors" plus "residential and neighborhood commercial development in this area of the city that is ripe for revitalization," and a chance to "address the recreational needs of local residents."

NCPC RFK vision
Image from NCPC.

Here are the particulars of the plan:

  • Active recreation on 80 acres along the waterfront, replacing the existing parking lots. Not only would new parkland provide considerable space for a city that, while long on total park space, is often short on space for sports. The new parkland would also provide almost enough space to double DPR's existing inventory of 47 playing fields. Returning the site to green space, with a generous natural buffer and trail along the river's edge, would improve water quality in the Anacostia River and reduce the impact of future floods.

    Note that the parking lots are almost entirely below 10 feet above sea level, and thus within the Anacostia River floodplain. They cannot be developed without first raising them out of the floodplain, either by building heavy-duty seawalls or by trucking in lots of dirt.

  • Memorials or museums, on two sites totaling 45 acres: a 30-acre parcel encompassing the existing stadium, and a 15-acre parcel across from the DC Armory. The 30-acre site might be an outdoor memorial on a site slightly larger than the Gateway Arch site in St. Louis, or could house a cultural complex larger than the National Gallery of Art's entire campus.

    The 15-acre site could house a museum, performance house, aquarium, or civic building of 300,000 to 800,000 square feet—about the size of the National Museum of the American Indian on the smaller end, or the National Museum of American History on the larger end. Unusually for a site in DC's neighborhoods, a large and wide building (perfect for a museum) wouldn't look out of place on this site, since it faces the Armory and Eastern High School.

  • 20 acres for mixed-use development, roughly between the Armory and the existing stadium, between 21st and 22nd St. NE, and Independence Ave. SE and C St. NE. The site can accommodate 1.2 million to 2 million square feet of development, in buildings ranging from mid-rises (70 to 90 feet tall) at the center of the site down to low-rises (40 to 60 feet tall) at the edges. The buildings would be no higher than the existing Armory, whose existing ceiling is 88 feet tall.

    The scale of development NCPC identified would be somewhat smaller than what's been built so far at CityCenterDC, or two or three times as large as the Monroe Street Market development at the Brookland Metro. If it were predominantly residential, it would accommodate up to 2,000 housing units at a mix of sizes, plus neighborhood-serving retail and office. The heights that NCPC identified wouldn't be high-rises, but rather relatively more affordable mid-rises.

NCPC identified these three uses for the site as far back as its 1997 "Extending the Legacy" plan for the region, released the same year that FedEx Field opened. That plan "envisioned the site with a major memorial surrounded by new housing and commercial development."

There's room for all three uses

Precedent also exists for the happy coexistence of all three uses in urban national parks. For instance, when the The Presidio in San Francisco was added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, its five million square feet of buildings (including residences, offices, and educational uses) were retained by a new trust that supports park restoration and programs.

Some citizens are calling for DC to fulfill at least part of NCPC's plan by converting the northeast parking lots into a youth sports park and green space. That can happen without changing the terms of the National Park Service lease, as can future active or passive parkland on the southeast lots.

Any changes to the central part of the site, around the Armory and on the existing stadium footprint, would require negotiations between DC and the federal government. If that happens, DC should respect the federal government's wish to build a new neighborhood, and space for year-round recreation and reflection.

Development


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.

Development


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.

Development


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.

Retail


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.

Development


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.

Roads


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?

Architecture


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.

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