Greater Greater Washington

How can DC grow without losing its character?

How can DC keep its character in the face of rapid development? What urban planning processes and policies should we adopt to protect this growth as well as our city's character? How can citizens make their voices heard but not drown out others in the meantime? Last night, a group of DC citizens tried to answer these questions.


Panelists discuss urban planning challenges. Photo by the author.

At last night's Citizen Planner Forum, held at the District Architecture Center, speakers and attendees grappled with issues ranging from transit density, renter and homeowner affordability, neighborhood engagement, the power of developers, and DC's racial and economic dynamics.

Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning, told the crowd that these issues have a new urgency in the face of DC's accelerated growth. She said that the pace of growth has picked up over the last decade, particularly the last 4 years, with an average of 1,100 people moving into the city every month. These additions bring pressure to change and adapt, and how we react to that pressure will shape our city for decades.

Carolyn Sponza, chair of the American Institute of Architects' advocacy committee, also addressed this issue. In 4 recent focus groups, AIA and the Office of Planning found that residents wanted to be more engaged in urban planning and policies, but weren't sure how. Participants didn't know how development happened, or they didn't know the best way to get involved with their local agency or ANC.

The focus groups also found a hunger for stronger connections between neighborhoods because "sometimes best practices don't quite make it across ward boundaries" as well as a desire to improve DC's public spaces by making them more inviting and usable.

The event's panel echoed these concerns. The panelists, including residents from Friendship Heights, downtown, Hillcrest, and Anacostia, discussed how useful the ANC system is (or isn't) when it comes to promoting citizen engagement, and whether citizens who live very close to a proposed development have too much say over the project's outcome compared to those who live farther away but who also have an interest in the development.

A key theme of the night was citizen engagement, specifically how to engage the "silent majority" of citizens thought to be in favor of development but who don't get involved. As panelist Veronica Davis, a Hillcrest resident and founder of Black Women Bike, put it, "When people like something, they don't say anything."

Sometimes objections have nothing to do with the development itself, but fears of the development's impact on the neighborhood. Panelist Charles Wilson, an Anacostia resident, spoke about his experiences with neighbors who were worried that new development would lead to increasing home values which would drive them out of the area.

As with any DC discussion of urban planning these days, the phrase "dog parks and bike lanes" came up. Davis said that this phrase, as well as the phrase "long-time resident," were part of a code for race that allowed residents to "talk over one another." Members of the audience expressed their agreement; another panelist, Sue Hemberger of Friendship Heights, adding that local politicians frequently stoke this division to score easy points.

While no conclusions were reached at this event, it demonstrated that there's a vibrant community interested in these issues. The next step is making sure everyone is given the opportunity to be heard. One way to do that could be through web tools the forum showcased. Popularise allows people to comment and vote on how to develop a building or space, while its counterpart Fundrise enables people to directly invest in a local property.

DC's unprecedented growth presents challenges, but also enormous opportunities. The question is: what are we going to do with them? How can DC grow without losing its character?

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Comments

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Why assume that growth leads to a loss of character?

by Jasper on Oct 5, 2012 1:46 pm • linkreport

Because, according to many long time residents, any change is bad.

by William on Oct 5, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

So what is DC's character? Is it the federal city that is the seat of power and is for go-getters? Is it a sleepy southern city with a lot of local culture? Is it a crime ridden wasteland? Is it a place where you can ride your bike to the belgian cafe and talk about the Dismemberment plan?

It seems like defining which characteristics we like and don't like need to be established first.

by drumz on Oct 5, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

DC is a great theatre town!

by Tina on Oct 5, 2012 2:15 pm • linkreport

@ William:Because, according to many long time residents, any change is bad.

Never knew DC was a conservative city.

by Jasper on Oct 5, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

DC's character *is* a large, growing city.

by Tom Veil on Oct 5, 2012 2:45 pm • linkreport

I guess the first question is, what is DC's character? That question needs to be addressed with the understanding that cities evolve. But ultimatly the question will bring up the boogey man of preservation. My guess is the easyest way to get a feel for what people like and don't like would be to take a poll. I know a lot of architects and other design professionals will object to this as stooping to the lowest common denominator, much like asking a orchestra musician what they think of Britney Spears. Still, I think it would be an interesting excersise, and who knows, maybe it could lead to some form based zoning that would ease the nimbyism that so much development seems to encounter.

by Thayer-D on Oct 5, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

The character will change whether we allow the growth or not. The only constant is change.

by Alex B. on Oct 5, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

I think the majority of longtime residents are 90% negative and mostly complain, so why listen to them?

by mikem on Oct 5, 2012 3:40 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.
That's really all that needs to be said about this.

by gob on Oct 5, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

"Is it the federal city that is the seat of power and is for go-getters? Is it a sleepy southern city with a lot of local culture? Is it a crime ridden wasteland? Is it a place where you can ride your bike to the belgian cafe and talk about the Dismemberment plan? "

The district as a residential place (which is what is at issue I think) has several characters including its sleepier neighborhoods west of Rock Creek, its older affluent townhouse areas, etc. But mostly its the african american characters with their distinctive cultural traits (and they have probably changed less since the 1960s than other areas have, so they feel more like they have a stable character). All cities change, and this one, with its ties to the federal govt, is probably even more intrinsically subject to change than some others. That does not mean the real concerns people have should simply be ignored or dismissed - they should be listened to, and ones that are inaccurate, or unreasonable, need to be seperated from ones that are fears of things that will really happen, and where the effects of changes can be mitigated with limited cost.

Whether thats about IZ, cultural preservation, architectural character (as Thayer mentions) or what have you.

by AWalkerInTheCIty on Oct 5, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

We lose our "character" (however you define it) even without new development as trends/personal preferences/living arrangements change. In the 1950's, Georgetown was a slum, Langley Park was a middle-class Jewish neighborhood, and poor blacks lived in Potomac.

The socioeconomic makeup of all three of these places have changed dramatically, and thus they have very different character. The built form is generally the same, though (maybe in Potomac the houses are bigger and have running water now, but it's still rural-ish) and maybe that's what's worth preserving. Retaining aspects of our cultural history, in some form, is important as well. But even if you try to stop development in a neighborhood in the name of preserving the existing population, it may not work if those people decide to move anyway.

by dan reed! on Oct 5, 2012 6:24 pm • linkreport

I think Dan Reed has it right. There's a city's physical fabric and human fabric. The human fabric is the socio/economic character of cities, while the physical fabric is the architectural character of cities.

Historically, the human fabric has changed faster than the physical fabric, especially with recent demographic changes and the increasing appeal of urban living. The physical fabric has had a more gradual evolution, with sporatic moments of violent change like urban renewal. And while it's certainly true that "The only constant is change", it might be worth taking a more nuanced view of these changes and how they affect the quality of life of our residents.

This understanding of our neighborhoods character(kind of how Walkerinthecity stated) should influence the City's master planning so we don't loose sight of the qualities that make our neighborhoods unique and livable. I think it's possible to accomodate future growth while building on the what makes our city so attractive to both residents and newcommers. If we think Washington is a great city, then let's make it greater, not just bigger.

by Thayer-D on Oct 5, 2012 8:59 pm • linkreport

Allow me to be specific. We must keep the height restrictions, at least downtown. It's really that simple. It's the human scale of D.C. that makes it almost unique among large American cities. Let's keep it that way.

by caryoreilly on Oct 5, 2012 11:01 pm • linkreport

Washington's character is being the capital city. Ethnic groups come, go, and move around, as they do in all cities. But the grand monumental core, the green spaces, the panoramic vistas, and the unique l'Enfant Plan make us more than just another American city.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 6, 2012 9:40 am • linkreport

Because, according to many long time residents, any change is bad.
I think the majority of longtime residents are 90% negative and mostly complain, so why listen to them?
Quite a few of the comments here are very disheartening. I hope some at least see the irony in them. This actually makes me think of Michael Wilbon calling DC a "terrible" sports town when referring to the fans. He lived in the region for decades and used the people to make his career, but he never attempted to get to know the people who do call this area home (although he would often speak for them).

by selxic on Oct 6, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

"Quite a few of the comments here are very disheartening."

Same thing I was gonna say. Sounds like Ms. V nailed during the panel...

by H Street LL on Oct 6, 2012 1:34 pm • linkreport

Beth Scott has presented a very balanced replay of the Citizen Planner Forum that appears to reflect concerns and comments expressed by residents from many areas of the city. For those who have questions or doubts about the city's neighborhoods, you might want to check out the city's Comprehensive Plan that cites Washington has at least 130 distinct neighborhoods, and it is those neighborhoods that give the city its local character. Yes, we do have federal character as the nation's capital, but the feds aren't proposing changes to accommodate the 1,100 monthly arrivals Harriet Tregoning noted, the local planning office is proposing change through a new set of zoning regulations. The feds keep a careful eye on the impact of local development on their interests through the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). "Caryoreilly" is correct about maintaining height limits in the downtown. Why would the city want to look like Roslyn instead of the nation's capital? We can look at Roslyn, we don't have to look like Roslyn. This statement is not meant to derail the original purpose of this comment -- familiarize yourselves with the Comprehensive Plan for a better understanding of the city's character and the importance of its neighborhoods.

by Alma Gates on Oct 6, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

the grand monumental core, the green spaces, the panoramic vistas, and the unique l'Enfant Plan make us more than just another American city.

Except that none of us who actually live here go anywhere near those places, except when our relatives are in town.

by Tyro on Oct 6, 2012 6:07 pm • linkreport

"Ethnic groups come and go"

Not all that fast. There was a Dutch element to the NYC elite as late as the early 20th century. Jews have played a big role in NYC from the late 19th c to today. Boston still has an Irish influence, and even part of its elite descended from the Puritans. They may move around from particular neighborhoods, but they still form elements of the city and metro areas character.

I think losing the african american elements in the citys swirl (not that I think current gentrification threatens such loss) would be a bigger change than adding a couple of stories to the height limit.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 6, 2012 11:24 pm • linkreport

The Office of Planning is doing such a miserable job,,, changes are un-coordinated, like the wasteful mess they are making with (not) undergounding the power lines, and not coordinating this with streetscapes and anti-environmental paving all over the place.worsening flooding and heat island effect,, and a dirty city. They are not using sensible moderate urbanisation to reduce flooding issues, nothing so wonderful about wholesale destruction of our mature trees and neighborhood character,,it is stupid.. Office of Planning wasted McMillan Park for almost 30 years and came up with mundane forced mediocre development,, where we need a world class great place,,,
We need a park at Mcmillan and the Yuppy onslaught only wants it's coffe shops and Whole Foods at any cost to our neighborhoods, even sewage in your basement when it rains. We have a Peoples plan for McMillan on youtube, that preserves the park and creates a huge DC Market in adaptive re-use of the underground galleries..Where is Harriet Tregoning on this brilliant idea? Protecting here client developers who gave a $65,000 donation to Harry Thomas Junior?
Your whole paradigm to develope every square inch,, IS THE PROBLEM!!,, like the denuding of a swath of mature trees through Brookland for over-urbanization,, is destructive and unecessarry. You and the Yuppy onslaught want a brand new unit built for each of the 1100 new residents every month..You just aren't creative, nor adaptive, nor resourceful,, nor protective of what has value in the historic fabric of DC. Too hard for the smart genxers, to find, and utilize the numerous alternatives,like renovating derelict properties, converting the hideous abandoned industrial tracts to lofts,, etc. etc, etc...I hope you all support coal mining(mountain top removal),,clear cutting the forests,and developing oil in the arctic national wildlife refuge,, and every where offshore , cause your providing the unrealistic demand for endless resource waste!! Not resourcefulness! see Friends of Mcmillan,,People Plan for McMillan on youtube, join a movement to have green, open spaces, gracious urban vista like the old DC, no flooding, a major central park for culture, performance , art, theatre,,youth training, urban beach, orchards, urban gardens,alternative energy, there really is more to a city than your own consumerism,,check it out.

by Daniel Wolkoff on Oct 7, 2012 7:17 am • linkreport

There is an unfortunate attitude here against our long time residents,,,too arrogant, disrespectful and selfish, I find it obnoxious! I guess a yuppy has excellent values and nothing to learn form elderly folks.You just don't demonstrate it with your self righteousness.

by Daniel Wolkoff on Oct 7, 2012 7:20 am • linkreport

The "character" of DC has always been somewhat splintered. It had settlements of northerners (Mt Pleasant) and European ethnic neighborhoods (parts of Foggy Bottom, G'town and Brookland), as well as place that seemed characterustically sourthern with their feudal economic structure (mostly S & E of the Anacostia).

The difference between the 90s when I came to DC the first time and the present day is that it is more of a cosmopolitan, "urban" place. It's been slowly moving in that direction since the 60s. Much of the gentrification represents advanced stages of social change that has been in place for decades. G'town was not a "slum" in the 50s--it was becoming "fashionable" on the heels of a process of rediscovery that began in the New Deal years. As G'town became more expensive, redevelopment moved Eastward and joined the rediscoveruyy of neighborhoods in the Connecticut Avenue corridor from Cleveland Park southward which had begun in the late 50s. H Street has been rediscovered after decades of slow redevelopment in Capitol Hill which gradually inched N & W.

What is different now is that the changes are less gradual and have fewer fits and starts (places like Adams-Morgan and Shaw/Logan/U went through drought periods and even reverses as in A-M after the '68 riots), and developers play a much bigger role. Other trhan a few big catalytic projects like DCUSA and its neighbors in Columbia Heights, most redevelopment in DC has been driven by small business and individual homeowners and landlords, which has insured that areas retain some degree of character and that there be an organic quality to change. Places like NoMa and the baseball stadium area need to learn from past cycles of centralized planning and developer driven redevelopment like SW and the less residential areas like the West End and Pennsylvania Avenue, which are easily the most lifeless parts of the District.

It's easy to pick on planning tools, because they have foisted so many lifeless places on us and they often include outmoded assumptions about development, but they do represent a tool for managing emergent, developer-driven redevelopment.. The organic, small scale nature of many early stage redevelopers may lead to fights over small parcels or indidvidual liquor licenses, but large scale redevelopment offers a much greater opportunity to shape the future or let it be shaped by the usual band of unimaginative, well financed interests.

by Rich on Oct 7, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

@rich Metro says "hello".

As to McMillan, last time I checked, it was a parcel owned by the city and being fostered by the DMPED, not the Office of Planning. Complaints should be directed to Mayor Barry and all of the follow-on mayors.

by william on Oct 7, 2012 12:54 pm • linkreport

Too hard for the smart genxers, to find, and utilize the numerous alternatives,like renovating derelict properties

They did renovate derelict properties, and the old-timers got really angry that they were coming into those neighborhoods and changing its character when they did so... and even worse when they started creating places to eat and shop, as well.

by JustMe on Oct 8, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

JustMe- There's always jealously of newcomers with money renovating. That's not the issue to many of us. Rather it's making innovative use of existing structures rather than just tearing down a structure except for it's facade which is the common practice now. It may be cheaper and more economic but it's not greener and it does change an area's character immensely.

It's hiding demolition behind preserved facades.

And too often the "creating places to eat and shop" just becomes adding more bars and not much else.

Rich- There weren't any riots in Adams-Morgan in '68, although many of the saturday-night college student drinking binges there might qualify today.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 8, 2012 1:34 pm • linkreport

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

by ceefer on Oct 8, 2012 3:26 pm • linkreport

Indeed, what IS DC's character? We could look at the motto on the license plates: "Taxation without Representation". Clearly some aspects of DC's character need to change, such as that one!

You have to decide what you're trying to preserve. "Character" is vague.

by Nathanael on Oct 9, 2012 4:41 pm • linkreport

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