Greater Greater Washington

Washingtonian features Greater Greater Washington

The Washingtonian's "Blogger Beat" interviewed me about how we can make Greater Washington greater. Here are a few the topics we covered; check out the article for the more detailed responses.


Photo by macwagen.

Three reasons Washington is great: Walkable neighborhoods (and not just in DC), Metro, and resident engagement in local government.

Three ways it could be greater: More transit, more affordable housing, and transportation departments that aren't beholden to vehicular "level of service."

How would you fix Washington's traffic congestion problem? Priority bus corridors (in the short run).

Local leader you most wish you could fire: VDOT head Pierce Homer.

Purple Line or Silver Line? Both!

The best thing Barack Obama could do for Washington is: continue moving it toward [full] self-government, including the parks, prosecutors and judges, and voting rights.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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I've always wondered about the quest for 'affordable housing'. Is that a euphemism for government housing? Does it imply rent control?

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 10:59 am • linkreport

I take it to mean that a teacher or a firefighter or a police officer or anyone earning a regular decent wage can afford to live in a home in the area they serve. Alexandria, for instance during this most recent boom, had at best 1 bedroom condo's for well over 250k, with most options being far more expensive. If you earn $75k a year, this is a stretch at best. You can't raise a family in a one bedroom condo.

by NikolasM on Feb 25, 2009 11:15 am • linkreport

I'm glad you see resident involvement for the positive thing that it really is, and not in a negative light. It IS a good thing, on balance.

Good things happen when everyone is respected!

by Jazzy on Feb 25, 2009 11:21 am • linkreport

Thanks, Jazzy. I see the solution to "parochial" resident influence to be more activism by people who want better communities, not to make it harder for people to participate. The Cleveland Park AWARE organizing is a great example, where residents rose up to support the project, to the surprise of some of the existing, more vocal opponents.

by David Alpert on Feb 25, 2009 11:23 am • linkreport

>I've always wondered about the quest for 'affordable housing'. Is that a euphemism for government housing? Does it imply rent control?

It's a euphemism for removing the overzealous density and parking regulations that unnaturally hinder the market's ability to create adequate housing supply.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 11:35 am • linkreport

The problem is there's no good answer for affordable housing.

First, how is the project composed? If it's a normal project offering some "affordable" units, are the "affordable" units identical to the others, just priced cheaper for special people who qualify? Or are they stripped-down versions rented at some cheaper market rate?

The problem with the former is that it creates a doughnut effect, whereby the very wealthy can afford an area, and the "authorized" less wealthy people just under the threshold can live in an area, but the masses in-between can't. For the latter version, it's unlikely even a stripped-down unit in an otherwise luxury building will be affordable to a firefighter at market rate.

I suppose it's possible to attempt as subsidies for rental projects, either through government payouts, or via rent hikes to other residents in a building (in the latter case by mandating or encouraging through zoning bonuses a few units to be offered cheaper, which are then effectively subsidized by charging more for the "market rate" units).

For affordable rentals, though, it's hard to really produce enough to satisfy demand (which is the whole reason housing is so expensive to begin with).

It's virtually impossible to do force "affordable" housing for owner-occupied units, though, because the land value in this area is worth *way* more than any improvement. A cheaper-than-market-rate unit sold to a "qualifying" teacher can just be flipped (though possibly after a few-year waiting period, if required) at the market-rate, creating a windfall for the first occupant. Even if the unit was a stripped-down version, because the value is in the land, $50k of improvements to the unit could bring it up to the quality of the others in the building, at which time it could be sold for a windfall.

I admit it's unfortunate more people can't live in the communities in which they work, but I don't think we've stumbled on a viable "affordable housing" solution yet.

by Joey on Feb 25, 2009 11:41 am • linkreport

David, this is great. It's nice to see you get the publicity you deserve; you really work hard on all this, and I know all of us loyal site visitors appreciate it!

by Matt Glazewski on Feb 25, 2009 11:41 am • linkreport

Joey: DC's policy, as many elsewhere, uses the first of your two options. To get around the doughnut problem, it has a range of units at different percentages of AMI. To deal with the owner-occupied issue, it puts restrictions on the unit in perpetuity, to limit sales to people at whatever percentage of AMI or less.

by David Alpert on Feb 25, 2009 11:49 am • linkreport

@BeyondDC: I agree that eliminating some parking requirements could decrease the price of some units a bit (and I would advocate it), but I don't think it'd have enough impact to really make a dent in the problem. Except in areas within a mile and a half of downtown, separating parking out would likely result in less than $100/month of savings.

As for your other point, in a surprising twist I would never have guessed had I not seen it, raising density caps may have very little effect on affordability. If land is presently zoned for, say, 20 units of development, and the zoning is alterered to permit 100 units of development, the value of the land just skyrocketed, while the holding costs for the existing landowner stayed similar. The landowner will be able to sell his land to a developer for considerably more than he would have before. That new buyer, then, will have to have a lot more income to cover the increased land price, often resulting in more units at the same price as before.

This happened in downtown Atlanta, where the density caps were very high (I seem to recall them being in the range of 25 FAR). Because of this, landowners perceived exceptionally high values to their land and were willing to hold onto it, unimproved, for years (because they bought the land when it was far less valuable and didn't owe much on it). The result was a lockup in downtown building, because no one could afford to buy land with so much density potential. It's comical it worked out that way.

by Joey on Feb 25, 2009 11:53 am • linkreport

Congratulations. This is the best forum in DC for hearing all the various opinions out there for people interested in all things related to the built environment. Keep it up.

by Thayer-D on Feb 25, 2009 11:55 am • linkreport

Nice interview, especially your relentless focus on what's already great, a rarity in the snark-infested blogosphere. But I can't believe that someone who's lived in the SF Bay Area would go on to claim that the weather in DC is "great." Heck, of all the places you've lived, DC is the only one where it gets really uncomfortable without air conditioning in the summer. When it's 75 degrees with 90% humidity at 7 in the morning, you know it's not going to be a good day for cycling!

by thm on Feb 25, 2009 11:56 am • linkreport

BTW, I also agree . . . good interview. It's great you're getting such traction.

by Joey on Feb 25, 2009 12:08 pm • linkreport

Joey -

The problem with your density example is that those properties are still operating in an environment of over-regulation. The high-density parcels are worth more than they should be because there are so few high-density parcels available. They are so rare a commodity, they have to be used to their maximum potential or it's a waste of a rare resource.

If high-density parcels were the rule rather than the exception, that would not be the case. Developers would build whatever the market called for, rather than waiting for the perfect project to fill a handful of too-rare-to-waste properties.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 12:10 pm • linkreport

@BeyondDC: But *aren't* there only a handful of too-rare-to-waste properties in the neighborhoods we're really talking about? That is, in the expensive hoods near Metro like the Northwest Red Line and the Arlington Orange Line? The limiting factor isn't that too many on the periphery are regulated down to too little density; it's that there are only but so many properties within a 1/4-mile or 1/2-mile walk of a Metro station.

by Joey on Feb 25, 2009 12:25 pm • linkreport

Limited number of Metro station sites is also a problem, but it is possible (and desirable) to have density even in places not directly adjacent to Metro.

You know, like Adams Morgan. Of if you prefer suburban examples, Kentlands and Reston Town Center. Or, for that matter, downtown Seattle.

I'm not suggesting we build high-rise neighborhoods all over the region and not connect them with transit. There's middle ground between Manhattan and Loudoun. We could accommodate millions more people in this region without sprawling another inch just by raising densities along suburban arterial strips up to Glover Park or H Street like levels. All we have to do is turn this into this. Unfortunately, due to a combination of density/parking/land use regulations, that's illegal in most of the region (including the part of Fairfax pictured in those links).

And for the record, you don't need particularly tall buildings to achieve very high densities. Columbia Heights is denser than Ballston, for example.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 12:56 pm • linkreport

I'm very leary of legislative attempts at "affordable" housing. I have a neighbor who bought their house through such a District program ... paying something like 1/5 of the fair market value at the time, who is now exempt from all property taxes on the property ... and who now drives a $100,000 vehicle (something I can't myself afford ... maybe because I paid full price for my house and AM paying property taxes.) I have another neighbor living in a rent controlled building down the street who works for the World Bank making easily in the 6 figures and pays almost nothing for his rent controlled building.

Making affordable housing available by putting in place the mechanisms to build more affordable housing (e.g. building more highways to buildable farmland outside the city) works, but attempts at legislating it do not in my experience.

by Lance on Feb 25, 2009 1:05 pm • linkreport

BDC seems to think that replacing one type of land-use regulation with another type of land-use regulation would result in better outcomes.

Distorting the market in on extreme is just as bad as distorting it in another extreme. Let density develop where the market demands that it does. I know that may be a blow to the egos of urban planners who have their egalitarian vision of a utopic dense community shattered, but over-regulation has only hurt housing allocation whether its minimum lot size or rent control.

I cannot find one example where zoning and regulation has been successfully used in an active manner to change the landscape to a more desirable result. My guess is that any of these proposals would just swing the pendulum from one side to another, bypassing the desirable middle.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 1:05 pm • linkreport

And for the record, you don't need particularly tall buildings to achieve very high densities. Columbia Heights is denser than Ballston, for example.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 12:56 pm

Ah. Music to my ears. I can almost guarantee you that if this were your starting point, you would gain a lot more traction with your point of view.

by Jazzy on Feb 25, 2009 1:12 pm • linkreport

@MPC: I call shenanigans. Consider the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. You may have enough vague statements in your assertion that you can claim otherwise, but I call the RB corridor an unabashed success, and even getting better.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 25, 2009 1:12 pm • linkreport

The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is only a success if you want a place that only caters to the needs and wants of 20-something year olds. Its blandness and single-purposedness won't make people want to stay there once they age beyond that point. It'll be a rolving door with successive generations of just-out-of-college folks looking for cheap eats, cheap beers, and cheap apartments. Eventually it'll go downhill because no one will have an incentive to maintain it ... and then become a slum. People don't want to live in dormatory style "boxes" all their lives. Only when "where one lives" is low in the priority of things. When people are footloose and fancy free. Not when they're ready to put down roots. We have a similar problem developing here in DC along Mass Ave. in Shaw.

by Lance on Feb 25, 2009 1:24 pm • linkreport

I'll admit that I'm rather in the dark about the nature and history of the zoning of the RB corridor occurred.

To my understanding, though, it was a streetcar suburb as early as the 1890's. So I don't know if it was planning that created density, or infrastructure which facilitated the density.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 1:27 pm • linkreport

MPC, there weren't any streetcars that crossed the river. The R-B corridor was car-dependent sprawl. Arlington County saw it was declining and they had no more room for growth using a car-dependent paradigm. They fought to get the Orange Line underground rather than in the I-66 median so they could retrofit the declining sprawl on Wilson Boulevard into something walkable that would better use the Metro. It also has enabled them to increase their tax base without more greenfield development. They used it as an opportunity to leverage their competitive advantage: their close proximity to the District.

Silver Spring, Chevy Chase and College Park were streetcar suburbs. Brookland and Takoma Park were stops on the Metropolitan Branch. Bladensburg, Alexandria, and Georgetown were local ports. Upper Marlboro was a farming community.

by Cavan on Feb 25, 2009 1:46 pm • linkreport

MPC, I also don't know the specifics of the RB corridor ... other than as recently as 5 - 10 years ago there was almost nothing there ... other than a few low rise older buildings, lots and lots of single family homes, a few shopping centers and lots of parking lots. I suspect it may have a experienced a period of declining where it lost density, but I seriously doubt it ever had the monolithic, "apartment land" density it now unfortunately has. It looks like they're just trying to pack folks into boxes. Reminds me of Cabrini Green in Chicago.

by Lance on Feb 25, 2009 1:46 pm • linkreport

Don't want to interrupt the debate, just reposting my comments from the Washintonian website:

David, et al, is doing a great job of getting people to think in a different way. Since I started reading his blog, I have begun writing to Congress, I’ve redoubled my participation in efforts to bring redevelopment to Arlandria (north-east portion of Alexandria), and I’ve really begun to appreciate and crave additional transit and walkable urban centers. The funny thing is, I didn’t realize I was thinking in a car-centric way until I began reading and saying, "that’s been me", about just wishing roads were wider. I didn’t think about the systemic problems that lead to traffic and demand for wider roads. So, in a nutshell, thanks for all your effort and keep up the good work!

by Nick Partee on Feb 25, 2009 1:47 pm • linkreport

In Arlington, all currently existing walkable places on the Metro were planned to grow with the Metro. You already know that Alexandria dates back to the colonial era. In Maryland, the only place like that that is currently fully on line is Bethesda (which had a tiny town before but most of what is there now is due to planning to take advantage of the Metro). Silver Spring was the biggest streetcar suburb in the region. I mentioned in my previous post about Takoma Park. Wheaton was a tiny town that was a crossroads farming community that was seeded by a small Civil War fort. Rockville goes back to the colonial era, but had its entire historical grid destroyed in favor of mid-20th century "urban renewal". The downtown street grid that is there now was largely built this decade to capitalize on its central location (with respect to Montgomery County) and its proximity to the Metro. I mentioned College Park and Bladensburg in the previous comment. Riverdale was a stop on what is now the MARC Camden Line and it was a farming community. I think Hyattsville was a stop on the streetcar that terminated in College Park. I don't know off the top of my head about Capitol Heights. Mount Rainier was also a stop on the same Rhode Island Avenue streetcar.

There weren't really suburbs in Virginia until the automobile became widespread. There were very few bridges and people didn't really have the same concept of commuting that we currently do. It really shows in the layout of outer DC, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County compared to western Alexandria, Arlington outside of their Metro lines, and all of Fairfax County except for the independent cities of Falls Church and Fairfax. I think it's great that Fairfax is getting a Metro-mulligan with the Silver Line so they can replicate the success that Arlington has had.

by Cavan on Feb 25, 2009 2:00 pm • linkreport

> BDC seems to think that replacing one type of land-use regulation with another type of land-use regulation would result in better outcomes... Let density develop where the market demands that it does.

MPC seems to like to put words in other people's mouths in order to make rhetorical points.

Letting density develop where the market demands is all I want.

If MPC can find a way to accomplish that, I am all ears. Really.

>The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is only a success if you want a place that only caters to the needs and wants of 20-something year olds.

That is simply not true. I live in Ballston, and my high-rise is full of older people, families and immigrants (in addition to 20 and 30 somethings). The medium-density rowhouse and bungalow neighborhood immediately adjacent to the high-rise district is even more full of the demographic you claim does not exist.

******

Regarding the history of the R-B corridor, there *were* streetcars there (they didn't cross the river, but started in Rosslyn). However, the only part of the corridor that was particularly built up was Clarendon. Before the arrival of Metro, most of the corridor looked very much like Columbia Pike or Route 29. R-B was until recently, for the most part, a suburban strip.

Also, the difference between the mixed-use, mixed-income urban-oriented buildings in R-B and the modernist housing projects of Cabrini Green is comparable to the difference between Georgetown and an airport warehouse district. The buildings are the same height, but that's about the only similarity they share. Their effect on the street and community is tremendously different. Anyone who suggests otherwise is being disingenuous.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 2:04 pm • linkreport

In the absence of regulation, either ones encouraging sprawl (minimum lot size) or density (whatever Arlington does), what do you think the nature of development would have been?

I would assume that demand would be higher near the Metro stops anyways, encouraging dense construction. Wherever Metro access wasn't possible, the demand would then drop off again, and you'd get a healthy mix of the two.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 2:05 pm • linkreport

@Cavan: I don't think that's quite right about the streetcars. My undestanding is that a DC streetcar crossed the potomac and went around Rosslyn Circle. At that point, people could transfer to various other rail lines running through and beyond Arlington.

The R-B corridor, though portions of it were once streetcar-suburban centers, had devolved into low-density strips by the 1960s. Ballston (before it reverted to this name) had taken on the monker "Parkington" after a large shopping center named such on the site (with lots of free "parking"). The entire area was punctuated by car dealerships, pawn shops, and parking lots, and rarely a building over one or two stories.

The placement of the metro stations and the rezoning efforts were undoubtedly instrumental in shifting the nature of the entire corridor.

by Joey on Feb 25, 2009 2:05 pm • linkreport

BTW, this is all to say, I'm all in favor of reducing or Heliminating some density regulations -- but I don't think it will have the effect on housing prices that others expect. That was the whole start of this debate.

by Joey on Feb 25, 2009 2:10 pm • linkreport

@Joey and BeyondDC, thank you for the information. I didn't know that Arlington had its own streetcar network to transfer from the Rosslyn terminus.

by Cavan on Feb 25, 2009 2:12 pm • linkreport

BTW, if we're going to talk about transience in neighborhood design, we would be remiss not to mention that the typical suburban development pattern requires entire neighborhoods to be built for one demographic at a time.

Regardless of whether Ballston can be home to a mixed-population, the average "American dream" subdivision cannot be. Most of those 20-somethings Lance seems to hate are absolutely incapable of living in (say) those subdivisions off Stringfellow Road in Fairfax.

There is room in Ballston for people of just about any income to live, one way or another. If some choose not to, that's entirely different than subdivisions that cater exclusively to one demographic.

If we're going to talk about transience, let's be intellectually honest with where it's the biggest problem.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 2:12 pm • linkreport

>In the absence of regulation, either ones encouraging sprawl or density, what do you think the nature of development would have been? I would assume that demand would be higher near the Metro stops anyways, encouraging dense construction. Wherever Metro access wasn't possible, the demand would then drop off again, and you'd get a healthy mix of the two.

That is reasonable.

But it also belies a miscommunication between us that comes up all the time.

You seem to think that assuming no other regulations, high density near Metro stations would be a natural occurrence.

Part of what we mean when we say that a fully free market is impossible is that somebody had to decide where to put that Metro station. So even absent zoning or any other regulations, the government would still be controlling the market by virtue of having control over the infrastructure.

The only way for the government to get fully out of the infrastructure business would be to grant eminent domain authority to private businesses, but even that would be a form of regulation, since somebody would have to decide which businesses would get that power.

Long story short: It's easy to say there shouldn't be regulations, but that's not really realistic. The trick is to find the right regulations. I completely agree that the ones we have now are overzealous in many ways.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 2:19 pm • linkreport

That is reasonable.

Good enough for me.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 2:26 pm • linkreport

Can you see where I'm coming from on the rest of it?

I don't want to mandate that everyone live in a high-rise. Regulations that went that far (even unintentionally) would be a failure just as much as our current zoning. I want regulations that are as fair as possible to the market, and make it possible for the market to respond to true costs and needs. But that takes more than throwing out zoning; it means we have to (for example) require that the market pay for indirect costs (like pollution) itself. A subsidized market is not a free one.

It's like that famous quote about democracy - that it's the worst possible form of government, except all the others that have ever been tried.

Unfortunately, I'm not smart enough to come up with a better system. The only system I'm smart enough to implement is regulatory trial and error, learning from past mistakes and trying to correct them.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 2:51 pm • linkreport

Fair is a subjective term and thus really doesn't matter to me.

Fine, I'd agree with internalizing environmental costs into the taxation of property lots. But AFTER those costs are internalized and accounted for, how could you possibly think that non-market forces could most efficiently distribute the land?

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 2:59 pm • linkreport

I don't.

How can we internalize and account for all those costs using only the market?

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 3:01 pm • linkreport

... including placement of infrastructure?

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 3:02 pm • linkreport

Argh. Take econ next time. You internalize the costs via a tax. That's the whole bloody point, since markets can't account for that crap.

Placement of infrastructure is easy. You buy land where you want to put your roads/rails.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 3:10 pm • linkreport

Whoa whoa whoa. Tax? You mean regulate? Taxes are a form of regulation.

That markets can't account for all that crap is the whole point. We can't completely deregulate, because markets can't account for everything. All we can do is adopt the best regulations possible.

What are we arguing about?

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 3:13 pm • linkreport

Because every "Smart Growth" plan I've ever run across goes far beyond accounting for external costs and tries to completely dictate how the makeup of the community should be.

My view is, after we account for external costs, if a developer *still* wants to build "sprawl" developments, then he still has that right.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 3:22 pm • linkreport

So your response is to oppose all attempts to flatten the playing field?

I have to say, that's not really productive.

If the Smart Growth growd is getting it wrong, then help us to get it right.

Don't obstruct any change when you know change is needed.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 3:25 pm • linkreport

lolwut?

Ok here's what we do: Tax external costs. No other regulation/subsidies. At that point, the field is as flattened it will ever be. No one will be able to claim that one side has an unfair advantage over the other.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 3:29 pm • linkreport

No other regulations/subsidies? Please explain how that is possible.

Here is one example of an indirect subsidy: When the government builds a military base, private sector jobs locate nearby, helping the economy of that locality. By locating its base in that locality, the government is subsidizing nearby land values.

There are 1,000 such examples, and probably 10,000 more nobody will ever think of.

What's your plan to accommodate for them?

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 3:36 pm • linkreport

Nothing. It's a windfall for the locals.

Now, if the base was placed there as a political favor, then that's a whole other can of worms. As it turns out, that's often the case.

If government optimized its placement of investments in terms of utility and price, then I would say that its no different than if a firm places its HQ in town X as opposed to town Y.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 3:44 pm • linkreport

I don't want to go on a rant, here, but America's foreign policy makes about as much sense as Beowulf doing it with Robert Fulton at the first battle of Antietam. I mean when a neo-conservative defenestrates it's like Raskolnikov filibuster deoxymonohydroxinate...

what the hell does RANT mean?

by anonymous on Feb 25, 2009 4:14 pm • linkreport

OK. So just to be clear, in your perfect system we still have both subsidies and regulations which must be managed by someone in government.

Since that's clear and tidy, let's move on and talk about privately-imposed (but quasi-governmental) regulations. I assume you've heard of community covenants, neighborhood associations, and the like? Do we outlaw them entirely, permit them with limited authority, or permit them with unlimited authority?

Assuming we permit them one way or another (since there's certainly a market for them), how are their regulations different than regulations imposed by a democratically elected government in a society with citizens generally mobile enough to choose their jurisdiction of residence?

Presumably ability to escape is the answer. Since there are no jurisdictions with no regulations, people who don't want to be regulated have no options. But that begs the question of why they don't all get up and move to the same jurisdiction in order to create a majority there. Vote with their feet, as it were. That hasn't happened, which implies that EITHER

1) There is no market for people who don't want to be regulated.

OR

2) People are less mobile with their decision making than we hope and will stay where they are regardless of the environment, which would imply that the market is just as incapable of producing choice as any other system, since most people just accept what they're handed.

... I've digressed. At this point I'm just thinking out loud.

The key point is that we both agree that a fully deregulated system is impossible, and that the best we can hope for is the right set of regulations.

by BeyondDC on Feb 25, 2009 4:29 pm • linkreport

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