The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Breakfast links: Purchase power

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It's quite fare: A WMATA Board committee tenta­tive­ly approved a fare increase which will eliminate "peak-of-the-peak" and add a $14 all-day pass. Changes would take effect July 1. (Examiner)

Never mind the fines: Secondhand shops with the wrong business license have gotten a reprieve by DCRA, which will give shops 45 days (up from 7) to comply, and help businesses get the correct license. (City Paper)

More on the height limit: Raising the height limit downtown could make office rents cheaper and protect adjacent neighborhoods from pressure to become part of downtown. Allowing taller buildings elsewhere might not have much effect. (RPUS)

Think regional?: The sprawling Greater Washington area would certainly benefit from economic cooperation, but its balkanized governance structure breeds competition among jurisdictions, and maybe that's not such a bad thing either. (City Paper)

Streetcars and bikes don't mix: As DC builds its streetcar system, it must be mindful of bike safety, since streetcar tracks can pose a threat. Even in Portland, 67% of cyclists have had a crash on the tracks. (TBD)

Existential transformations: The major changes along the H Street Corridor are causing residents and business owners to ponder race, culture, and what it means to be a neighbor when you're new to a place, and what it means to be one when you've never lived anywhere else. (Frozen Tropics)

Rail demand just keeps rising: Amtrak ridership is way up over last year, and Virginia ridership is far above even that. Ridership between DC and Lynchburg is up 27%, and is up 16% between DC and Newport News. (Railway Age)

Bikes rule Mexico City Sundays: Every Sunday morning, Mexico City closes down its major thoroughfares to cars and opens them to cyclists and pedestrians, improving the city's quality of life while building support for more bike lanes. (Post)

And...: Walkability and better food choice can dramatically reduce childhood obesity. (Walkonomics) ... Prince George's developers would freeze property taxes and abolish rent control. (Gazette) ... DC is probably lucky it has no official mayoral residence. (DCist)

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David Edmondson is a transportation and urban affairs enthusiast working on his master's in city and regional planning at Cornell University. He blogs about Marin County, California, at The Greater Marin


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In terms of commercial real estate, I think Layman's argument is a bit misplaced.

Isn't federal leasing constrained by price limits? GSA has a limit on what they can pay per square foot, and I've heard mutterings that ofice space on the R-B corridor is getting close to that. Downtown DC, even more so.

Layman posits that the absense of a height limit is driving private real estate away. IN reality, it is driving federal real estate away.

What is outrageous in DC is the price of housing, and in particular rental housing. But is that a supply issue, or a demand issue. When you have basically one city in the county where young people can get a job, I'm not shocked out rental real estate getting out of control.

by charlie on Apr 13, 2012 8:43 am • linkreport

The 38-day extension for affected small-business owners with resale items would seem to be little comfort to those who planned and grew their businesses based on DCRA's own statements that they needed only a general business license to operate.

Remember, this is about much more than just getting the right license and paying the (higher) fees -- unless DC follows through and mitigates the burden of regulations designed for pawn shops and now being imposed on these businesses (like the requirement that each secondhand business give MPD a list of their acquisitions *every *single *day), this is going to make an already unfriendly small-business environment much worse.

by Arl Fan on Apr 13, 2012 9:52 am • linkreport

I feel like DC easily could close most downtown streets on Sunday mornings without much disruption, since that area tends to be relatively dead during the weekends. Hell, most of the city could be shut down to cars on the weekend and the only people it would affect is church-goers from Maryland.

by MM on Apr 13, 2012 10:03 am • linkreport

That all-day Metro pass is the worst idea ever. I am ungodly sick of tourists in the morning and it's only mid-April, putting even more of them on the Metro is going to make commuting almost unbearable. The all-day pass should continue to be valid only after 9:30.

by Ms. D on Apr 13, 2012 10:20 am • linkreport

Ms. D,

I'd like to say that you need to lighten up and be more accepting of the tourists since, among other things, they do provide a large economic benefit to the city.

But, truth be told, I'm 100% behind you for the very same reason. I hate getting on a Metro car filled with groups of tourists who have never been NEAR let alone ON a train before. I wish there were a way to confine them to special "Tourist Only" cars.

Oh, gotta go - there's kids running around on my front lawn!


by GrumpyPants on Apr 13, 2012 10:28 am • linkreport

I am generally quite nice to the tourists, but I am in no mood to be screamed at (for giving them correct, but unacceptable, answers to their inquiries like "what time does the Smithsonian open" or "how far is X from Y"), kicked, pushed, walked into, and blocked from getting on my train (I have missed 4 consecutive transfers this week due to tourists on the escalators/platforms/trains) before 9 AM. I don't see why it's important, or even advisable, to provide them with a pass that would allow them to make the most crowded travel time even more crowded, since many of the tourists attractions in DC don't open until 10 AM (hence, getting yelled at...because it's TOTALLY my fault that they couldn't use the intertubes to check that out before selecting a departure time). Also, their kids are generally unhappy with having been roused from bed at 7 on vacation. NO paper fare cards during rush hour (once they get this "passes on Smarttrip" thing figured out, and no one-day pass on Smarttrip), and forced letting kids sleep in on vacation, I say!

by Ms. D on Apr 13, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

I usually stay out of the biking discussions, but I'll weigh in here, with some personal perspective. Sunday biking is always a great idea. I grew up in Westchester County in New York, 3 blocks from the Bronx River Parkway. For the last 30 years, the Parkway has been closing for 4 hours (10-2) on Sundays in May, June and September, for bicyclists - a 13 mile track from Yonkers up to the Kensico Dam. Bicycles, skaters and, in recent years, joggers and walkers. Not a challenging ride, but very pleasant, especially for families.

Growing up, I also spent time every year with family in Mexico City. I haven't been back to the city in recent years, so I haven't witnessed their Bicycle Sunday, but the route is spectacular. The District could do something similar. It's certainly not necessary to close down the District to vehicular traffic, but for a few hours on Sunday, the District could do a loop around the Mall and maybe up and down from Dupont Circle to the water.

As for streetcars and bicyucles, this does sound like a dangerous mix. Their toughenough for unwary pedestrians. I arrived in a German city -- can't recall if it w as Frankfurt or Cologne -- and only learned about the streetcars when I was nearly hit as I started to step into the street when auto traffic had stopped. Their sudden appearance can be dangerous enough, without the added danger posed by the tracks themselves to bicyclists.

It seems to me that the answer is not to provide bike lanes to share the few streets that the streetcars will use. Rather, the bike lanes should be on parallel and perpendicular streets to ensure that bikes only cross tracks at 90 degree angles and with good visibility. Yes, you can put in Bikeshare stations on H St, but signs and lanes should direct bikes to travel as much a possible on parallel roads, and forbid bicycles from crossing the tracks except from right angles.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Apr 13, 2012 11:05 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by long-time resident on Apr 13, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

On the potential impact of taller buildings, I think the blogger linked above is blinded by seeing the world from commercial perspectives alone. No doubt, he is correct that putting up taller buildings away from the commercial core will not lure a lot of businesses away -- certainly not those want the cachet of a central location. He dismisses the potential of such development, because it will be largely residential. It is nonsense to ignore the salutary impact that greater apartment stock could offer the city. In fact, I think this is far more important than providing more commercial office space.

While scarcity has been great for attracting the interest of condominium developers, the shockingly high prices for condos and the equally exorbitant rents for apartments in many areas of the city really limits the city's potential, driving lots of young people and families into less costly suburbs. It also limits the spending power of those who stay in the city.

More housing stock would open up the city to many of the types of people a city needs to build vital communities. -- people with a stake in supporting local establishments and improving local services and schools.

The high prices have been great for encouraging development, but even those new developments will benefit from the life brought into the neighborhoods by having more residents with spending cash in hand. No one should want great swaths of the District to become the functional equivalent of gated communities, as is happening in Manhattan and Brooklyn, because that has so many negative impacts. If teachers, emergency responders and other middle class workers are pushed to distant and unappealing edge neighborhoods, the entire city will be poorer for it.

This may be the most important issue for the District to manage as it continues to solicit luxury developments. The city needs LOTS more affordable housing than it has, and the new developments seem to be moving the city in the wrong direction. Raising height limits in residential areas outside the core may be even more crucial than raising the limits in the commercial core. It should be done in a way that doesn't turn it into a vertical city that kills off the neighborhood feel, but there is room for taller buildings to be mixed in.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Apr 13, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

Has Amtrak improved reliability on the DC->Newport News segment? Really surprised to see increased ridership on that one...

I used to travel that route, and usually avoided Amtrak, because the trains occasionally encountered completely insane (read: 20+ hours to get from NN to DC) delays, and the timing of the trains was already pretty inconvenient if things were somehow running on schedule.

Sure, the 20-hour delays weren't by any means typical, but I heard about it happening a few times when I was living there. Even on a typical day, delays of about an hour or two were fairly common.

I wonder what changed... I'm a big proponent of Amtrak, but God, that route was a mess when I lived down there...

by andrew on Apr 13, 2012 11:39 am • linkreport

I agree with taller commercial and residential developments in certain areas outside of the core, but I don't think we ought to build skyscrapers, or buildings that are beyond what current zoning that exists in the CBD, in those areas. Unless that's what people are advocating, than I don't really understand why areas that aren't built-out are being brought up. Likewise, in some of the built-out low-rise residential neighborhoods, we could build taller, but probably nothing that would require Congress' approval.

I'm only speaking for myself, but I don't think we should build true highrises just for sake of having them in areas that are outside of the core and also lack the infrastructure. I don't see anything wrong with building many 12 or so story residential buildings in appropriate neighborhoods to satisfy the current demand for affordable housing. I think the area where we should think about going much taller is in the CBD, where the market appears to want it.

With respect to the vistas, I think we can work around them, but I'll also say that a lot of the vistas that we have are because of our street configuration, not the height and that wouldn't be changed. There would be less light, but I don't think Midtown Manhattan is what anyone is proposing. With wide avenues and regulations on setbacks to preserve light, I think there'd still be plenty of light.

by Vik on Apr 13, 2012 11:45 am • linkreport

I once ran a very rough calculation of how many people DC could accomodate within an average height of 90 feet, using Paris' uniform height as an analogue ("How many people fit in a cubic foot of Paris?"), and it was over 8 million. I'm likely off by a huge amount, but DC has space for another 400,000 at least under the current height regime, if not a million more.

Development hasn't even touched the underutilized and abandoned projects of EotR. PG County's metro stations, if they ever develop, have huge potential for TOD and new residents. Hell, if the Blue Line ever get separated anything not protected from L to Q, if not L to U, has the potential to be redeveloped.

by OctaviusIII on Apr 13, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport


Except Paris doesn't really have any single family homes, and it's extremely lacking in real green space, so I don't agree that it's a good example to work from. I do, however, agree that there is significant room for growth in many areas of DC.

by MM on Apr 13, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport


I used only 80% of DC's land area for the 8 million calculation to account for park space. I think putting our theoretical maximum at 8 million is fair, with a real maximum somewhere between 800,000 and 2 million. A more granular analysis would take into account 1995 land-use patterns, compare them to 2012 land use patterns, and extrapolate out from there to the rest of the city.

by OctaviusIII on Apr 13, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

I would like to see the city preserve most of the single-family homes it has, but smart growth dictates that the city should go higher immediately around metro stations. Frankly, the city should be looking at utilizing some of the air space above a lot Metro stations, too. Given the constant work repairing escalators, that might not be plausible, but it might also prolong the life of those escalators.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Apr 13, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport

Why is building out virtually the entirety of DC to 90 feet preferable to building taller where the demand is the highest while keeping areas like Georgetown, Capitol Hill, etc. mostly unchanged? Is it just aesthetics? I think the aesthetics of some low-rise neighborhoods is as valuable as that of areas in our CBD that are "untouchable".

Much of the city can be denser under the existing system; I don't think anyone would deny that. But, I think building out these areas will take a longer time, along with necessary infrastructure improvements, than targeting high demand areas where the action is. And in the meantime, businesses and residents would rather set up shop in areas that are further developed already than take a chance on an area well-outside of the CBD that you're hoping will develop at some point, although this might be attractive to some.

And a lot of people say that areas on the fringes of the CBD like NoMa wouldn't develop if it weren't for the height limit, and while this may be true, even though I think higher density in the CBD would lead to development on the periphery w/o the height act, I think there definitely is a limit to how far the CBD can spread before it becomes prohibitively expensive.

by Vik on Apr 13, 2012 12:21 pm • linkreport

@Fischy @Vik

Totally agree, but there are marginal areas that haven't even been touched, from Skyland to Bladensburg to Capital Heights. The desirable maximum and the theoretical maximum are two very different things.

The "blessing" of the height limit I mentioned yesterday was the increased value of decking over rail yards and freeways, as well as banishing the parking garage, neither of which even Manhattan has done.

by OctaviusIII on Apr 13, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

I'm pleasantly surprised that this current resurrection of the Height Limit debate seems to be a lot more reasonable and cool-headed than previous iterations, and is starting to focus on areas of common ground, namely:

* Move the height limit a bit higher downtown, and develop better rules for setbacks. This is a no-brainer.

* Allow mechanical penthouses to be occupied. Machinery can be moved into the building's core or underground. Buildings get no taller, developers get more usable space, everybody wins. Another no-brainer.

* Ratchet up the height limit for residential buildings, and encourage true mixed uses. Again, I don't quite understand why this arbitrary restriction even exists.

While folks on both sides of the debate can continue to argue, it makes sense to coalesce around the points that we can agree upon, and get those codified into law for now. It won't end the debate, but it will help resolve some of the downsides of the current status quo.

I also don't think that anybody is clamoring to upzone our single-family neighborhoods (except around Metro stations). If we can solidly agree that nobody is really proposing this, I think that the debate can also continue in a much more civil manner. (Dealing with vacant lots/blocks in established neighborhoods, however, is going to be much more contentious).

Personally, I fall on the pro-height-limit side of the fence. So far, I've failed to hear a convincing argument about how a significantly increased height limit would lead to meaningful increases in density or livelier streetscapes in DC.

It seems like medium-density mixed-use development, coupled with a good transit system can provide all of the benefits of tall buildings, without leading to overcrowding and paralyzing levels of density.

by andrew on Apr 13, 2012 12:54 pm • linkreport

Some people advocate for a relaxing of the height limit, or getting rid of it altogether, not because of livelier streetscapes. Some of them advocated for this policy because of economics. A lot of people in favor of the height limit support it almost exclusively because of aesthetics.

As we know, downtown could be a bit more mixed-use than it is, and it would be great if commercial real estate prices decreased. I think raising the height limit would definitely result in meaningful increases in density if it were raised high enough. I also think there's truth to the phenomenon we see where gov't related businesses crowd out other types of businesses in the CBD.

There's also an aesthetic argument in favor of relaxing the height limit, but that's not the primary reason I want to see the height limit relaxed.

by Vik on Apr 13, 2012 1:37 pm • linkreport

Washington has already achieved the third highest downtown employment density of any US city (trailing only New York and Boston) and the third greatest proportion of all metro area jobs in the central business district (behind only New York and New Orleans). It is not low or medium density – the Washington CBD has more jobs per square mile than the Loop in Chicago.

The Height Act has, I would guess, helped rather than hindered this density, by reducing land speculation and encouraging the steady horizontal spread of a dense CBD (assisted greatly by the construction of Metro and the lack of an interstate "belt" encircling the downtown). Tower-based downtowns in similarly sized cities, such as Houston, are much smaller, less dense, and contain a smaller proportion of MSA employment.

The effect on rental costs is ambiguous. The author argues that taller buildings will lead to lower office rents, but in his post admits that "expansion through extension of the central business district" leads to "rent/sq. foot [that] isn't substantively cheaper than space downtown." If horizontal expansion into less desirable locations doesn't lead to lower rents, why would vertical expansion in the most desirable areas do so?

by CG on Apr 13, 2012 2:31 pm • linkreport


The horizontal expansion does lead to lower rents. Asking rents in NoMa or the Riverfront are lower than the core of Downtown. But they're still higher than the uses that existed in those places before.

by Alex B. on Apr 13, 2012 2:40 pm • linkreport

So, acknowledging that the Height Act has been helpful, does it mean that it has to stay that way forever and ever?


I don't think we know for sure whether absent horizontal expansion, w/ the Height Act, that prices would be where they are.

Horizontal expansion into less desirable locations would lead to lower rents if companies were satisfied with moving to those less desirable areas. Moving to those less desirable areas would lead to demand decreasing in the CBD. This may have happened to some extent, but some companies may have chosen the suburbs instead. But, there still remains a high demand for office space in the CBD, and these outer areas may not be worth it for some companies.

by Vik on Apr 13, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

@andrew, Amtrak has made improvements in on-time performance (OTP) for the Northeast Corridor and the Virginia Regionals. There has been a noticeable improvement in the official endpoint OTPs for the Acela and NE Regionals on the NEC in the past 3-6 months. The endpoint OTP for the Acelas was 96% in February compared to 83% in February 2011. Some of it has been mild weather, but I think much of it can be attributed to the increased capital funding since 2008 which has allowed Amtrak to upgrade tracks, replace/repair the NEC power system, overhaul and return to service cars that had been mothballed due to lack of money for maintenance.

The VA funded additions of the 3rd track at Alexandria through AF interlocking, bridge replacements improved traffic capacity in the northern VA end of the RF&P line. The overall OTP for the Virginia Regionals to Lynchburg, Richmond, Newport News is much better. The two Regionals to Newport News can still get delayed on the tracks to Newport News because of the increased CSX freight traffic taking coal to the port for export overseas. But I have heard of few multi-hour delays.

The daily NE Regional to Charlottesville and Lynchburg has seen remarkable ridership growth, exceeding all expectations. There are reports that VA and Amtrak are looking at adding a second daily Regional to Lynchburg. When the Norfolk service starts in December with 1 daily train initially, increasing to 3 in several years, that should do very well in ridership.

by AlanF on Apr 13, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

"Asking rents in NoMa or the Riverfront are lower than the core of Downtown. But they're still higher than the uses that existed in those places before."


I can't offer hard numbers, but this is a ridiculous assertion. I would guess a single apartment in those areas now rents for more than a row house did there in the 90s...assuming you could find one in neighborhoods that had surface lots, abandoned buildings and mechanic shops.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Apr 13, 2012 4:40 pm • linkreport

Fischy: I think what you are saying is the same as what Alex is saying. He said rents are higher than what was there before, and you said a single apartment rents for more than a row house before. So yes, higher.

by David Alpert on Apr 13, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport


Yes, that's what I was trying to convey.

The rents had to increase - developers wouldn't have invested their capital in those buildings otherwise. Yet, even with those new buildings, they still don't command the premium rents that a new building in Downtown will.

by Alex B. on Apr 13, 2012 6:00 pm • linkreport

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