Greater Greater Washington

Mendelson endorses overlay purity over neighborhood vibrancy

Councilmember Phil Mendelson (at-large) testified against the proposed Giant development at Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street on Monday. His was the only testimony aside from the official presentations by the Office of Planning and DDOT, as cross-examination by the many individual parties in opposition, each representing a small number of nearby residents, consumed the entire evening. The Zoning Commission hearing will resume for its third, though likely not final, night on April 23rd.


Overlay model of zoning. Image from Franklin, Tennessee.

Here is Mendelson's testimony. He makes two points. First, he believes that this area ought to remain "low density commercial" and that the Giant proposal is not low enough for him. Second, he argues that the neighborhood zoning overlays ought to remain sacrosanct, trumping the development plan.

The commercial corridors are the right place to put higher density along Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues. Much of their length, including near the Giant project, are already moderate or even high density. At the first installation of this hearing, Councilmember Mary Cheh argued for Smart Growth on these corridors and sees "broad-based support" for her viewpoint within her ward.

While Cheh looks forward to a better Ward Three, Mendelson looks backward, to the anti-development neighborhood fights of the 1980s when he was an ANC Commissioner and helped downzone the area and institute the overlay. Then, cities were demolishing valuable, walkable neighborhoods to replace them with isolating and ugly suburban-style buildings that we're now arguing over whether to tear down. Many of the Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) communities successfully blocked in the 1980s would indeed have damaged their neighborhoods. But today, many PUDs instead repair those scars by filling in gaps with attractive, vibrant streetscapes.

This area has a zoning overlay that prohibits PUDs from exceeding the height that's otherwise allowed by zoning, and the Giant proposal goes about one story higher. In his testimony, Mendelson argues that if the Zoning Commission approves a PUD that violates the overlay, that would not only "destroy" this neighborhood but the sanctity of overlays in general. We need zoning tools that aren't so rigid.

The PUD process intentionally provides latitude in exceeding zoning requirements in exchange for greater scrutiny, deeper resident involvement, and community benefits. The overlays unilaterally prohibit certain types of latitude, as in this case, or ban PUDs entirely, as in Dupont Circle. This patchwork now just makes it more difficult to improve the most politically-connected neighborhoods, even when, as in this case, most residents support the project. Slavish adherence to these overlays today, simply because they were necessary twenty years ago, would condemn today's good ideas because some people, like Mendelson, are still preoccupied with yesterday's bad ones.

Opponents of the Office of Planning's Low and Moderate Density Residential zoning recommendations will argue the same points at tonight's hearing, part of the comprehensive zoning rewrite process. The report suggests, among other things, replacing the crazy quilt of overlays with a more generalized system that accomplishes the same purpose. The proposal would replace the current broad zones like M, C-2-A, and R-5-B that impose the same setbacks, side yards, building heights, lot coverage and more on diverse neighborhoods, supplemented with completely nonstandardized overlays.

Instead, OP suggests a system with a set of variables, like height, setback, and yard size. Each neighborhood or even each block can set those variables differently. To begin, the new rules would set those variables at the same values as the current zones or overlays. Then, OP will work with local areas to better customize them for that community's needs, whether reducing or enlarging the permitted densities, heights and setbacks.

This system gives communities more control, rather than less. Nevertheless, some people have criticized the proposal on grounds that actually argue in favor. One resident of the Dupont Circle neighborhood attacked the plan at a recent forum with Mayor Fenty, for example, claiming that it would undo the hard work of residents in the northeastern part of the neighborhood who recently succeeded in downzoning their blocks from R-5-B to R-4. But the new recommendations wouldn't undo that at all. In fact, had the plan already been in place, they could have actually changed their zoning more quickly than the multiple years it actually took.

From the rhetoric, opposition to this proposal seems to stem from uncertainty. Groups of activists in certain areas fought hard to plant local obstacles to development over the past twenty years. Any change to those hard-won rules may appear more likely to weaken than strengthen them. For those only concerned with protecting their particular exemption, that might be true. But the overall system makes more sense, while striving hard to protect communities' ability to manage change.

The 1980s are over. Not all PUD proposals will enhance neighborhoods. But many will. It's time to focus on the good of our city rather than blind adherence to a set of overlays. For the zoning code, a more flexible system could preserve the overlays' goals while also softening their sharp edges. For the Giant PUD in particular, this is a good project with strong community support. If an overlay prohibits a popular and positive improvement to the neighborhood, it's time to reexamine that overlay.

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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Quote:"Groups of activists in certain areas fought hard to plant local obstacles to development over the past twenty years"

This hostility to anyone who isn't a sycophant for anything any developer wants is getting out of hand. Rubber stamps really don't contribute any ideas and don't get projects improved.

Many of the ideas in the overlays were developed by citizens with national esteem in urban planning and yes, Smart-Growth, as a reaction to the horrible projects put up in the '50's and early '60's when developers also got anything they wanted. If it hadn't been for these activists your own home now would be next to a huge interstate interchange which would have destroyed most of Dupont East and all of U Street. These activists were ridiculed as obstructionists then, just as you do now.

Believe it or not there are actually good ideas that come out of involvement by smart people who are knowledgeable of problems that developers may not have thought out or, often, just don't care about.

You continue to attack me in your posts because I tried to get much needed changes in the proposal for the Whitman-Walker site by JBG and didn't just rubber stamp it. These changes involved making a indention in the 100% lot occupancy so that DPW trash trucks could still pick up trash in the alley instead of having trash cans on the sidewalks, placing the power plant so that it's not under steel grates on 14th Street, and recessing the garage door so that cars don't block the public sidewalk where many accidents have already occurred.

I stayed away from opposing the mass, FAR or design and certainly didn't object to the garage being in my alley instead of preserving the existing curb cut on 14th. I supported the previous developer who had much greater FAR.

You would think that I would be attacked by neighborhood nimby's who thought I had sold out. You would think that limiting opposition to small fine-tuning details wouldn't be controversial.Instead the outrage was that I dared oppose the project as-is by the sycophants.

Developers are not all-knowlegable and the DC agencies do not do the necessary investigations concerning traffic flow or pedestrian safety much less effect on trash collection. Assuming that any project put forward by big developers is perfect is worshiping a false god. Developers do make mistakes.

Sorry for the rant but I just got home from a neccessary car trip which caused me wonder who the f**k got parking meter fees doubled (which I support) BEFORE they put in meters which take bills and plastic.

by Tom on Apr 9, 2009 10:08 pm • linkreport

o rly?

by MPC on Apr 9, 2009 10:28 pm • linkreport

So I had to google "PUD" because I didn't know what it meant and the acronym was never explained in the article. It's not the first time that relatively technical acronyms have been used on this blog without explanation. I might suggest paying more attention to that in the future, as a way to ensuring the blog stays inviting to new readers.

by Gavin Baker on Apr 10, 2009 1:16 am • linkreport

Tom -- if you could send me an email... (rlaymandc@yahoo.com) but yes, nuance is appreciated and necessary and too often ignored.

However, I do agree with David on this particular matter.

But the issue comes down to uncertainty. People who have been involved for years as activists reviewing development matters have many experiences where finished development projects ended up achieving far less than the developers purported or promised.

And the history of the threat of major change through development on Wisconsin Ave. (both the proposal to redevelopment McLean Gardens in the 1970s as well as all the machinations around the development of 4000 Wisconsin Avenue in the 1980s and 1990s -- remember how even though ground space was leased, in use and generating revenue, because the building's roof wasn't installed, the developer fought and won to not be charged property tax on the building because it wasn't "finished"?)

So having worked very hard within the zoning framework to create overlays to provide more protections through overlays, and because of people's negative experiences with specific projects, you can see why people like Phil Mendelson are not ready to give up those protections. Especially because it is hardly guaranteed that the developers will do the right thing.

And David is not likely to know Phil's history in particular wrt 4000 Wisconsin Ave. Didn't he chain himself to a tree wrt bulldozers? That's how he got on Council. And note that the Growth Machine keeps putting opponents up to run against Mendelson (Scott Bolden was the latest example).

E.g., with the Giant, it was damn damn hard to get them to give up their illegally seized "parcel pickup" street lane that they installed in the sidewalk of the supermarket on Park Road at Tivoli Square.

And speaking of sycophants, the then Dep. Mayor overseer of the Office of Planning didn't want to challenge Giant on this because they were negotiating with Giant to build a supermarket in Congress Heights, and they didn't feel they had a strong enough position. (Very similar to how Deputy Mayor Albert got involved in the Apple Store issue in Georgetown more recently.)

-- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2005/06/speaking-of-pedestrians-protest-giant.html

-- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2005/09/urbanity-history-and-giant-supermarket.html

-- http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2006/02/urban-grocery-shopping.html

Eventually Giant caved. Fortunately, DDOT's public space division showed some gumption.

As you point out Tom, most of the time even "good" projects need more input in order to become better, and even more to become great.

I think of this as "good, better, best." And more and more about how compromise, and how willingness to not seek out the best gets us good sometimes (I hate the line "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" because we have to live with these projects for decades, and good may not be good enough), but rarely does it get us better or best.

E.g., my quote "when you ask for nothing that's what you get. When you ask for the world, you don't get it, but you get a lot more than nothing."

E.g., probably everyone "loves" the Senate Square buildings abutting the old Children's Museum. (I think now we allowed the buildings to be a bit too tall, but that's another issue. I justified it at the time because the site abutted the Union Station railyard.)

But I can think of at least four things that happened with that project because of my input via the ANC6C Planning and Zoning Committee (I was on the committee from 2003-2005):

1. Using a more "warehouse" oriented architectural design, paying homage to the kinds of large buildings that were constructed along the railyard historically, and to fit in more contextually;

2. Using dark brick instead of "yellow" brick as "yellow" brick was not typically used in the H Street neighborhood. (Actually, H street brick came from the Washington Brick Machine Company which was based in what is now the Trinidad neighborhood north of Florida Avenue).

3. Using metal casement type windows because such were typically used in "warehouses."

4. As part of transportation demand management planning, getting them to negotiate with Zipcar/Flexcar to offer those then separate companies space in their parking garage. (I can't remember if we asked that the spaces be free.) Although I don't know how this ended up. (This idea was spurred by Zipcar's presence on the site in front of a Paradigm apt. building at 5th and Mass. on the SE corner. But after seeing it I advocated for similar treatment for every new multiunit housing building that came before the committee for review.)

Each of these changes made a decent project much much better.

And it's not like Abdo Development was pushing a bad project. But this one fits in well, but differently, more sensitively to the context of its place, just as the 400 Massachusetts Ave. NW building, also done by the same architect, fits in that location sensitively, maximizing the way it fits into its place.

Anyway, I always say I am not against development, but I am against crappy development. And so often, most development proposals, even the good ones, have many many many many problems that won't get adequately addressed without the means for substantive input by knowledgeable people (of course, many ANCs and civic organizations lack the knowledge to help make these projects better, but that's a topic for another day).

by Richard Layman on Apr 10, 2009 6:12 am • linkreport

One thing that should be added. These gains happened with the Abdo project. But I can point to many other projects where our input failed to make a difference. I call these failures. And the community will be saddled with these projects and their defects "forever."

For the most part, the design process within the current zoning system doesn't necessarily allow for substantive input from citizens. It's still dependent on the goodwill of the Zoning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, Office of Planning, and the developers.

It's only when the developers, companies like Abdo and Donatelli and maybe PNHoffman come to mind--because they care enough about place, value, and livability and their ongoing relationship with the city as a place to live, work, and do business in an ongoing fashion--are willing to engage, not to just "listen," but to look at the approvals process as an iterative one, maybe not fully equal between the stakeholders, but still a process of back and forth that will result in changes, changes that will ultimately improve the project.

Most other developers, and especially their architects, look at what they have designed as completely finished and perfect and not needing of any changes, and of input, especially citizen input, as completely unnecessary. Think of developers as people like Michelle Rhee...

(My experience has made me, generally, disdainful of architects. Maybe they can design buildings. But they tend to not care about or consider place aspects much at all.)

They can be so arrogant and dismissive that the typical citizen who doesn't get deeply involved in these kinds of issues can't really imagine how it works.

Perhaps the worst example is Kevin Roche architect of record for Station Place, a Dreyfus project. But on another Dreyfus project, with different architects, the problem remained. (Station Place was greased because of Kevin Roche's relationship with the US Commission of Fine Arts, which had some review authority over that project. Citizen concerns, including some powerful groups, were for the most part brushed off during the process.)

I joked with Leon Krier about the title of one of his books: Architecture: Choice or Fate? -- that the choice of the developer on an architect was the fate of the community.

I really don't think people understand how this works. It's not until you experience it first hand--more than once--before you are able to begin making sense of the process.

Read chapter four of _Dream City_ and then you begin to understand. But when you read it there, you understand how dirty the development process in DC can be (and is still, today).

I am grateful that people like David have come along to take up the work. It burns you out. And except for a few lingering areas of interest, I am not getting involved with this kind of stuff these days. It's just too much.

by Richard Layman on Apr 10, 2009 6:30 am • linkreport

The problem is, activists like those in Cleveland Park who continue to fight this project are not suggesting that this is generally something they want, and are working around the edges for something better. These people simply want no change to the status quo.

Sure, they want a new grocery store, but, they do not want any of the other retail or residential that goes with it.

I appreciate Richard Layman's account and perspective on the Abdo project. It shows real improvement on a decent project. But it is a very different kind of activism from what those in Cleveland Park are about.

Further Mendelson IS one of these activists and indeed won his seat because of this kind of outlook. However, he also supported the fight against sidewalks in Cleveland Park (I cited in another GGW Blog Entry) and has generally been for whatever status quo exists in that community. Then reason he has maintained his seat is simply luck on the part of who his opponents have been, or in most cases because of a split electorate, how many there have been in a general election.

It is a shame because we always need someone to fight for the little guy, but in this case, the outmoded thinking of a community and its pocketed representative on the Council are stuck in a time which has long since passed.

by William on Apr 10, 2009 6:57 am • linkreport

Well, had I written a third response it would have been along the lines of what William wrote.

In effect, how to translate concerns about "preserving" neighborhood livability in an era when the city was shrinking, the quality of municipal services steeply declined, and when we could expect as a rule to not be great, and transition to dealing with concerns about "extending the qualities of livability" in a city that has the opportunity to attract more residents, more business, more amenities--the city can grow. Even though municipal services may still be bad (albeit improving) and developers are still not attuned to the qualities and particulars of urban-ness and urban design. And residents who are still shaped primarily by the automobility-suburban development paradigm of car-centricity, deconcentration, low density, and single use, disconnected places.

In response to my post yesterday about the brokenness of the planning system in DC, I received an interesting private email from a one time high level DC Government employee, who concluded the email with this:

we have a collection of agency heads/Deputy Mayors/civic leaders who have a sense of a “part” and no sense of a “whole”… or perhaps coherence, definitely not a system thinker to be found. Until we can get planning and land use down we likely aren’t going to bridge our other disconnects in demographic and culture realms and vice versa.

(I would add Councilmembers to this list as well.)

So we have a major leadership deficit in the city. Which is why it should be no surprise that we have a leadership deficit at the neighborhood level.

We need to figure out how to move forward, and it is clear that we aren't adding inputs (training infrastructure, workshops, etc.) to our current "system" that would help improve it.

So everything is a separate initiative, input, Council bill, etc.

It's very frustrating.

by Richard Layman on Apr 10, 2009 8:53 am • linkreport

Richard, excellent description of the city's incomplete systems. I would like to add that this state of affairs is actually worse in most of the country. DC is lucky in many ways to have excellent legacy infrastructure and sense of place.

by Cavan on Apr 10, 2009 9:43 am • linkreport

The link to Mendelson's testimony is broken . . . .

by Dave on Apr 10, 2009 12:19 pm • linkreport

William, the point I'm making is that when you always link the fine-tuners to the obstructionists you end up with a situation where the reasonable people cling to the obstructionists as their only hope of getting even the mildest, most reasonable modifications. The District of Corruption is, lets face it, deeply in the pockets of the moneyed interests and even the biggest protests are lucky to end up with a tiny part of what they ask for. ( I realize Ward 3 may be an exception largely because a few of the moneyed interests live there).

by Tom on Apr 10, 2009 12:31 pm • linkreport

But Tom, isn't that part of the sweet irony? The monied interests are foisting both good and bad development projects on the rest of the city, but when a good one comes along in their backyard, the pool together to oppose it. I seem to recall one opponent at a Giant community meeting claim to have been responsible for the Rockville Towne Centre yet opposes this because of its size (eventhough it is considerably smaller yet has the same proximity to the residential areas as his suburban development).

And I would add that it appears to be much more productive to work with a developer to achieve a better end (as Richard Layman appears to have done) than to be obstructionist and take a scorched-earth policy to kill any development proposal that comes along. That seems to be the operations manual for many of the Ward 3 activists in Cleveland Park and Tenleytown.

by William on Apr 10, 2009 2:11 pm • linkreport

William, I understand your point but in our case the developer refused to talk to anyone until the eve of the ANC meeting and even in the month leading to the BZA hearing simply presented to us why there were no problems and why no change could possibly be made at all. That tactic worked.

by Tom on Apr 10, 2009 2:24 pm • linkreport

What case was that? I know for Giant, for example, there have been an endless number of community, ANC and other meetings. Developers should be proactively involved with the ANC and Community groups, but it is a two-way street.

by William on Apr 10, 2009 2:39 pm • linkreport

Former Whitman-Walker site. I think developers have gotten burned working beforehand with residents and now realize BZA will rubber stamp what they want anyway. The new routine seems to be to delay a hearing for a month or so to give residents a little time to get any concessions they can and then rubber stamp.

In our case the BZA seemed appalled that I was successful at getting an indention for trash trucks to turn into the residential alley. With their new 100% lot occupancy gimmick this becomes a problem in many new projects and OP couldn't care less about trash collection or emergency access.

by Tom on Apr 10, 2009 3:29 pm • linkreport

I've fixed the broken testimony link.

Tom: I'm sorry you feel that this post is "attacking" you. You weren't in my mind as I was writing it. The only overlay issue pertaining to the project on your block was about retail density, which wasn't the topic here.

I criticized JBG as well for not giving much advance notice. It's too bad that involving communities has been so unpleasant for many developers so that others are tempted to try to short circuit that. I think that in part the BZA approved the project because it's a good project. I'm glad you got the trash truck indentation. However, I'm also glad the project is moving ahead and that they decided to put the garage in the alley.

by David Alpert on Apr 10, 2009 4:17 pm • linkreport

The point Tom makes about the developer not being willing to engage with citizens is a typical event. This is why I said that access/input occurs for the most part as a result of the goodwill of the various parties, rather than as a structured process, even though a public participation process is required. Even though there is a process (usually through public hearings) triggered by at least 6 events:

1. request for a zoning change; (Zoning Commission)

2. request for a PUD; (Zoning Commission)

3. request for a variance; (Board of Zoning Appeals)

4. request for a special exception (Board of Zoning Appeals)

all require notice and citizen input, but usually that process works through ANCs, if the developer asks for a recommendation, and then a set of meetings ensues. But the developer doesn't have to be agreeable and willing to deal with input. That is not atypical. Generally, if a developer has retained Holland and Knight, you know the process is going to be difficult. Etc.

Two others are:

5. Large tract review of projects of a certain size, by the Office of Planning;

6. public space permits/alley vacations through DDOT.

If the developers are intransigent like how JBG must have been--according to Tom, like how in my experience, the Sang Oh Choi interests represented by former DC Councilmember John Ray were with the Gateway Residences project at the Florida Market--at every instance where the community wanted input, they only listened to their toadies, and used political cover to resist dealing with citizens who had different opinions, and only started to listen once the Zoning Commission very firmly ordered them to do so--or how Kevin Roche and Dreyfus were on Station Place, you have little recourse, little likelihood of success.

WRT the Choi project, having only 3-4 months of input on a project they had been pursuing for 4 years wasn't enough time to rid the project of its most egregious aspects.

However, even though I am not Tom, I would find this comment to be offensive:

It's too bad that involving communities has been so unpleasant for many developers so that others are tempted to try to short circuit that.

Maybe that's how it started decades ago and is where newcomers, and by that I would include anyone who started getting involved in projects after say 1978. It was never how the process worked when I was involved with projects--except from our standpoint, it was how developers act/ed.

In fact, I'd rewrite your sentence to this:

It's too bad that developers appear to be so unwilling to develop projects through a mutually beneficial process involving communities, that developers and their representatives (particularly their legal representatives) are so unpleasant that for for many citizens and community and civic associations, they end up challenging developments and zoning changes as a matter of course.

I guess David, you're fortunate that you seem to deal with projects pushed forward by enlightened developers.

I can count on one hand the number of projects I've been involved in where that is the case, maybe out of 25-30 projects in total.

I've never dealt with a Donatelli project so I can't say anything about them, but I like their work. Abdo Development understands that the time you spent upfront results in a better project, and one that reaps quicker approvals, permits, and shovels in the ground on the back end. There are a couple other projects that at various times, it worked well. But most proposals aren't that great, and so it becomes an involved process to try to get some marginal improvements, improvements that come at great cost, and at times with negative marginal returns in terms of the time expended.

by Richard Layman on Apr 10, 2009 4:44 pm • linkreport

Richard, I have watched projects where the developer chose to involve the community early, and in response, saw enormous political pressure brought to bear to reduce the project's impact on a very small group of nearby, powerful residents while harming the interests of the majority of residents. I've I've also seen projects shut out the community, some of which were terrible projects and some of which were good.

I strongly believe in community involvement. Everyone is entitled to a voice. However, the amount of opposition doesn't necessarily correspond with whether a project is good or bad. City agencies need to weigh the feedback and listen carefully, giving weight to everyone and greater to the elected ANCs, but we also shouldn't let the most politically connected people or neighborhoods veto projects in their areas.

If well-connected areas are able to kill projects more easily with more advance notice, then inevitably developers will avoid giving notice. That's too bad, and shouldn't happen. We need processes that help create better projects with more involvement, not just smaller ones.

by David Alpert on Apr 10, 2009 5:46 pm • linkreport

But David, don't you realize that this current emergency land-rush to the BZA to get approval for projects that won't be started for years is just a charade to get grandfathered out of Inclusionary Zoning?

by Tom on Apr 10, 2009 6:18 pm • linkreport

Tom, I'm not sure I see an incentive for developers to want to get grandfathered out of Inclusionary Zoning. The developers get concessions out of Inclusionary Zoning. For example, they get to add a floor or two. And they still get to sell the same number of "by right" floors for what they would have otherwise ... They're actually probably making out on having Inclusionary Zoning. It's those who ultimately pay market rate for the rest of the building who pay the price for Inclusionary Zoning ... as well as immediate neighbors who also have get increased density out of the deal ... and the extra burdens that brings. Yes, I could understand neighbors pushing for a rush before the Inclusionary Zoning laws take effect ... But I can't see the developers doing so.

by Tom on Apr 10, 2009 8:50 pm • linkreport

Well, I haven't gotten involved in high profile issues in upper NW. I have mostly been interested in projects in NE and SE, and Downtown. I realize that, at least from afar, there appears to be unreasonable opposition to projects in many places in NW. I don't have first hand experience with most of them (i.e., Tenleytown Library, Cleveland Park Giant, Upper Wisconsin).

My own experiences have for the most part found the intransigence that exists to be on the part of the developers, not those people involved from the community.

Not true with Brookland, but I was an employee in my role there, not a resident. In the H Street neighborhood, most people were inclined to favor development, but the specifics of the agenda of individuals varied considerably, from the typical camp of those happy for anything, vs. people who wanted high quality results.

This includes Station Place (Dreyfus), the Dreyfus housing development across the street, 600 H south side, Cohen project 200 K NE, to some extant Doug Jemal (at least his unwillingness to deal with IMP for Uline Arena), Greenebaum & Rose (1000 block of 3rd NE), Choi Interests (Florida Market), H Street CDC at 727 H, BP Amoco (300 H St. NE), and many more.

by Richard Layman on Apr 10, 2009 10:20 pm • linkreport

8:50 pm post was mine. Typo ... :)

by Lance on Apr 10, 2009 10:59 pm • linkreport

Very interesting discussion.

by Dave on Apr 10, 2009 11:26 pm • linkreport

So my morning in bed realization is that yes, this thread proves that the process for citizen involvement in development decision making, and the process by which developers create projects internally, and the process by which the city provides input, reviews and then approves projects is very much flawed.

Sure I write these overarching posts on process all the time such as on community benefits: http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2009/04/community-benefits-agreements.html

and the planning process:

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2009/04/citys-office-of-planning-should-be.html.

(and transit planning, and culture planning, and tourism planning, etc.).

This is harder, about the specifics of "development review," because a number of pieces of the process are "black box" -- processes that I don't know much about -- e.g., all the meetings that a developer will have with the Office of Planning and with the Deputy Mayor's Office/Planning and Economic Development. And with City Councilmembers (for tax abatements too). And of course, all the internal meetings with architects on the part of the developer are private as well.

Plus, there is one "dialectic" between whether citizens are even willing to consider development (David, William), which is different from the position that Tom and I are coming from, that many projects need "a lot o' fixin'" and there aren't good ways within the extant process to address this.

This post focuses on the process, presuming that a project will happen. (I have written plenty elsewhere about fixing how people think about extending the qualities of livability in the city and how that impacts development decision making both at the neighborhood and citywide levels.)

When I was on the 6C planning and zoning committee, I tried to get the committee to regularize how they did things in terms of focusing on design, both for the project specifically and the context (place aspects). I wasn't that successful at it. Even if I was more successful than most...

I suggested we subscribe to _Planning Commissioners Journal_ and _Zoning News_ (the latter from the APA) and I pointed out that citizen members of bodies such as an ANC qualify for a special very discounted membership rate from the Am. Planning Association. I communicated about the various Main Street trainings (the Main Street training session on design is especially relevant to planning and zoning deliberations) but no one not involved in a Main Street program ever went. We never subscribed to the publications. (And note my many posts about why the city should develop an Urban Information Center library section comparable to what Dallas does with the same-named facility.)

And I suggested to various bodies such as the Office of Planning that we needed a series of talks/presentations on these issues (so yes, I am saying that the Coalition for Smarter Growth presentations don't suffice), such as the one by Cy Paumier, author of the book _Creating a Vibrant City Center_ (at the time he consulted for the Downtown DC BID)--I specifically suggested this to the then planning director and the director of the Downtown BIDS and got no response whatsoever.

I probably distributed this item, from the Design Advocacy Group in Philadelphia, at least once: http://www.designadvocacy.org/docs/11_9urbandesigneval.pdf

(Now, I also try to use this one: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/1524450483/ from a Main Street publication on community design assessment.)

And I distributed to my fellow committee members publications such as these:

- http://www.smartgrowth.org/pdf/gettosg.pdf

- http://www.smartgrowth.org/pdf/gettosg2.pdf

But I could never get them to take this issue as seriously as I thought it needed to be taken. We never developed a formal tool by which to evaluate projects, along the lines of the DAG tool.

Plus, as membership of the committee changed, you got even more people who were willing to be stooges of developers (this can be a real problem with ANCs of certain demographics) and/or were car-centric -- the chair of the committee for 2005 (I left at the end of that year) was big on curb cuts and lay bys for office buildings, e.g., for the office building on the north side of the 500 block of Massachusetts Ave., which we got to review as part of the large tract review process, fortunately he lost, but not at the committee level, at the OP level.

And note that many ANCs do not have committees, or do not allow for citizens to be on committees reviewing planning and zoning matters. How much worse is the process in those neighborhoods? (i.e., Ward 5 ANCs)

And then not all the people who did think design was important were willing to be hard ass about it, and stand up to elected ANC commissioners who wanted to bend over on anything and everything because the project was purportedly going to do X, or Y, or Z. (I used to call this graft, but that is slander or libel, now I call it "green love." But green love can be pretty cheap, a donation to a block club and many an ANC commissioner becomes "owned.")

But all this is dependent on whether or not the developer takes the process seriously to begin with. Almost any project that hires John Ray, you can rest assured that the developer is more interested in gaming the process through the ex-Councilmember's access to political elites, than they are with producing a quality project. Etc.

And the Zoning process at the ZC and the BZA is a legal process, very much defined, with very little give and take possibilities for anyone other than the Office of Planning and the developer. These parties can say things (as can City Councilmembers and other executive branch offices) and in most instances, there is no opportunity afforded to citizens to respond. So if John Ray (and people like him) prevaricates, you can't say anything, and if you try to, you get shot down by the Chair of the body.

But because an ANC has "great weight" at these hearings, and automatic party status, this is why the ANC process has ended up to be important. Because it is the only way that citizens have a required and mandated voice in the proceedings. But again, the success of being able to use this lever is very much dependent on how good the ANC process is, and how good the ANC representation is, and whether or not the ANC Commissioners really have any clue to begin with (many, such as in Ward 5, do not).

While an ANC is notified about BZA and ZC (and I think Large Tract Review projects) actions and this is supposed to trigger a formal review and consideration process, there is no guidance and assistance provided to help structure the process.

I am thinking about how I once was involved in a lawsuit, and there was a step in the process that was automatic mediation.

There is no "workshop" part of the process, ever, and there should be. A kind of charrette process (although I think the term and idea of a charrette is overused, there are many other equivalent processes) where everyone is open, people have their say, and the developers and architects are truly engaged.

That is almost what Abdo Dev. did with all the meetings they had in advance of ANC review, which of course, which occurred before the hearings before the Zoning Commission.

But it was still more happenstance than formal. And fortunately, the architects (Phil Esocoff & Associates) were open to input. That for the most part, is exceptional.

(This is what the design method is all about, and it is very different from the "rational planning" process in which planners are trained. The design method is iterative and includes a step for prototyping. The planning method considers a couple scenarios a picks the "best" one. There isn't a feedback loop built into the process the same way there is in the design method, or systems analysis generally. And note architects do use the design and workshop methods with developers, but at an early point in the process, where neither the Office of Planning nor other interested parties have access.)

And even the lawyers that a company like Abdo hires, the firm name keeps changing, are different than the ones from H&K -- I call Allison Prince the "velvet fist" because she knows how to present and to come across to the community but still gets everything that the developer wants, while the H&K people play hardball all the time, try to deny party status when the law favors it, try to manipulate toady neighborhood groups with which they have worked before to weigh in favorably on the project, use every law and interpretation that they can to quash input, etc.

For example, I am willing to bet that H&K suggested to Trammel Crow and other developers to use the process of "building alteration permits" to tear off the facades of potentially historic buildings, in order to head off the possibility of a group filing a historic designation application, which would delay a project. This is a raze, and requires a formal process, not an alteration and a major misuse of the building permit process. I will never be able to prove it, but this is the kind of thinking that H&K is known for...

Now, the office of planning. The Development Review division is required to analyze projects and submit reports to the Zoning Commission and the BZA. (Note that the DDOT transportation planning division isn't as direct a part of the proceedings, another criticism that I have made before, which hasn't been fully addressed, but is changing.)

DR has lots of meetings with developers on a project and except in rare circumstances, community representatives are never involved. Even if you may schedule meetings separately with the people in DR assigned to the project, you're not typically going to engage with the developer directly. (This isn't just a problem wrt design and context. It's also a problem wrt "community benefits" negotiations.)

Sometimes DR generates great reports. I still remember fondly the report in 2001 by David McGettigan which said that a gas station was definitely not a preferred use on the 300 block of H Street NE, and this empowered our position immeasurably --and yes I guess this is a project that I opposed from the get go, now that I think about it. But what are you supposed to do, when for all intents and purposes, a project is really really terrible and shouldn't be approved?

Sometimes I get incredibly frustrated with DR. For example, I don't think many of the people in the division are adequately knowledgeable about urban design ( http://www.planning.dc.gov/planning/frames.asp?doc=/planning/lib/planning/2006_revised_comp_plan/9_urbandesign.pdf) even though the Historic Preservation Office is also located within the DR division.

The urban design function of the Office of Planning is in another division.

Without the Office of Planning weighing in more firmly on these considerations, it becomes extremely difficult for lay citizens to significantly influence the process -- except if other organizations weigh in, such as the Historic Preservation Review Board and local historic societies, if the new construction project happens to be located within a historic district.

(In fact, the recent conference in the city, sponsored by the Historic Districts Coalition, which I was unable to attend, on modern design in historic districts came about because of the difficulties of dealing with the architects and developers of a proposed building at the south side 600 block of H Street NE. We had an involved process, but I don't think we achieved very much. But this "event" has also shaped my more rigorous delineation of "community benefits" and how to include the design of a building within that process.)

More and more and more I think urban design -- "place" aspects -- is the most important of all the elements of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan and should be the guiding element, the lens within which land use decisions are made and projects interpreted, and therefore should guide how development projects are considered.

You can't do that if people in the DR division don't know much about urban design... So it is crucial that people working in the DR division of the Office of Planning be foremost experts in urban design.

But what if the Deputy Mayor's Office (Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development) specifically orders the Office of Planning to lay off, to go easy on a project, to not question, etc.? Or a City Councilmember? Or the developer gets a Councilmember to pass special laws, such as for tax abatements.

And tax abatement decisions should be considered within the Zoning process as they are linked. But they are not.

That happens. Not all the time. But enough to have to worry about it. It continues to happen with the Florida Market for example.

Then the process is dirty.

So in "conclusion," there are so many problem points within the process of development review, whether at the community/citizen level, the ANC level, the Office of Planning level, the Zoning level, the Deputy Mayor level, the City Council level, without even considering the three levels of the developer, the architects, and the lawyers representing the developer.

1. A better process needs to be developed.

2. Design and urban design considerations need to be formalized within the process.

3. There needs to be a "workshop" phase created as part of a new process, providing a way for developers, architects, planners, civic groups, ANCs, and other interested citizens to "hash things out."

4. Multiple training opportunities and information resources and tools need to be made available to ANCs/civic organizations so that they can be far more knowledgeable and deliberative in the process.

Alternatively, I have suggested a few times in the past, although this would make the process even more formal and legalistic, which I don't necessarily agree with, that the "Public Service Commission" model could be adopted for these matters, and just like there is an "Office of the People's Counsel" which represents "the citizens" before a Public Service Commission considering rate increases on the part of utility companies, citizens should be given "counsel" or advocates to represent their interests before the Zoning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals.

That is what the Office of Planning role is, in part, representing "the city's interest," but somehow, broader issues are still missed, and so too are neighborhood issues.

The citizens aren't represented, even if the city is.

And after all that, this still doesn't address the issues of what I call "neighborhood parochialism" versus broader concerns about maintaining and extending qualities of the city's livability. That includes adding more population to make local retail, transit, and public safety more successful, not to mention the increases in property, income, and sales tax revenues.

... Which was listed above as the "dialectic" between whether citizens are even willing to consider development.

by Richard Layman on Apr 11, 2009 6:48 am • linkreport

Thanks for the a very thoughtful response, Richard.

It sounds like the biggest objection you are making is when developers and their agents use political connections to bypass the process and push for bad projects. I think we agree that that is a problem. There are also cases where politically connected residents use their connections to push for bad projects.

I'm not sure that the right solution is to add more layers of process to make it more difficult and time-consuming for any projects to get built, however. I think the solution is to better organize other residents, so that one connected individual, whether a developer or resident, has less impact, and when an official seems to do special favors, they get criticized.

That's why we agree that involvement is good, and I disagree with what you say on your site when summarizing my position as "pity the poor developer who has to deal with it." I just said that I understand why developers are choosing to avoid input. I never said I agree with them when they do.

Developers ought to undertake thorough community discussions of every project. However, we also need to be vigilant to ensure that the review process doesn't generally lead to worse projects and empower people who want to kill it altogether. If so, then people are going to try to avoid the process. In other words, if the process is too painful and leads to bad outcomes, people will try to circumvent it and elected officials will assist, since they don't think the process works. We need a good process where there's an incentive for developers to participate.

For example, OP has worked enormously hard to involve the public for the zoning rewrite. Yet leaders of the Committee of 100 and the Federation of Citizens Associations went to the oversight hearings and complained about how bad the process was, when really they were just disappointed in the outcome which they disagreed with. We ought to be praising agencies when they do a good job of getting public involvement, so that the other agencies that do it badly don't say, "See, this is why we don't want to talk to the public. We just get attacks and whining."

I generally agree with your process suggestions. I also agree that when ODMPED meddles with OP's recommendations, that twists the process and we get worse projects. I think we agree on the substance of the issue but you are just objecting to the way I phrased the arguments. Ultimately, we need a process that ensures thorough resident involvement, but then also produces decisions based on good objective criteria rather than just shrinking down projects when residents complain more loudly or are more politically connected.

by David Alpert on Apr 11, 2009 10:44 am • linkreport

An issue that often gets ignored in these discussions is the economic incentives created by the process itself. Process creates transaction costs for the developer. The transaction costs usually burden small projects more than large ones - a hearing is a hearing, and you can't have fewer than one lawyer there.

Thus more complex approval processes create a bias toward large-scale development. Such a bias is already inherent in any system of central control - see Janos Kornai's book The Socialist System.

If we want diversity of ownership - something that writers like Jane Jacobs think important - we need to be sensitive to the economic incentives created by the approval process. Systems where you need to go through a more complicated process to get the full allowable density incentivize small landowners to sell out to large developers. If you want them to hold on to their property and build themselves, you have to make development by right economically attractive.

There's an unavoidable tradeoff here. If we aren't willing to leave landowners free to make mistakes, we are going to get centralization and blandness.

by Ben Ross on Apr 11, 2009 11:14 am • linkreport

I specifically said I was being overly reductive of the two positions, in fun....

but I still don't think you are correctly characterizing my sense of the process.

You write:

It sounds like the biggest objection you are making is when developers and their agents use political connections to bypass the process and push for bad projects.

That's not what I am saying at all.

Note how I reductively explained "my" position (emphasis added):

Developers and their representatives can be just as obstructive and misguided and venal, and even worse -- creators/designers of not very good projects -- and there needs to be a better way to improve the projects.

Using political connections just makes a bad situation worse.

(You can see the fun in that characterization of my position I hope, but I am not joking when I use words like obstructive, misguided, and venal. Those are serious words.)

What I am saying is that for the most part, developers propose bad projects as a matter of course, because their projects are driven by profit maximization objectives and resultant value engineering and maximization of the developable space (mass and height) based on the underlying zoning and any changes they can make (zoning classification, variances, exceptions, PUD). Unless they can monetize quality, they have little interest it.

Furthermore, I am saying that with those developers who do understand that quality and place considerations are monetizable, that they can capture increased value by paying attention to it (i.e., how green architecture allows for higher rents, and lower running costs), for the most part, even their "good" projects have many opportunities within them to become much better, through a structured, iterative process that brings more people into the process.

But that an adequate process to make development projects better doesn't really exist within how the current system is set up.

'nuff said about that.

With regard to your point about C100, etc. (and note it's the same with the Brookland opposition to the small area plan etc.):

. Yet leaders of the Committee of 100 and the Federation of Citizens Associations went to the oversight hearings and complained about how bad the process was, when really they were just disappointed in the outcome which they disagreed with. We ought to be praising agencies when they do a good job of getting public involvement, so that the other agencies that do it badly don't say, "See, this is why we don't want to talk to the public. We just get attacks and whining."

I think this is an important insight and distinction, and one that the deliberative people must constantly make. But few people, citizens, elected officials, or government employees are all that deliberative or able to make meta-conclusions and generalizations. (In short, they are not systems thinkers and analyzers.)

But as long as we have broken processes or flawed processes (and I would argue the zoning rewrite is too fast, too much going on, or at least there is too much, too fast going on that I am not able to keep tabs on it at all) AND NO TRAINING INFRASTRUCTURE and NO ELUCIDATION OF PRIORITIES AND THE QUALITIES OF URBAN-NESS (URBAN DESIGN PRINCIPLES) at the level of the city and of the neighborhoods, we're going to continue to muddle through.

Sadly, we can guarantee that the results will be unsatisfactory.

I always say that if people are only going to read one book on this topic, they should read Cities: Back from the Edge by Roberta Gratz as it focuses on livability, and how urban qualities matter, and the difference between urban renewal and top down development processes vs. ground up Jane Jacobs kind of approaches.

In fact, in those "everybody in the city, let's read the same book" campaigns, I'd recommend starting with Gratz because we need to be on the same page (if not always on the same sentence, or same paragraph) on what urban-ness is and means, the difference between urban and suburban development paradigms, etc.

We're not there. We're not even close. And this is why we have such seriously broken processes.

The reason that I sometimes take entries in your blog to task, is because there are few high quality resources on the subject in our region.

Face it, there are three primary ones, yours, BeyondDC, and mine, and Washcycle on bicycling, to some extent the Commuter Page blog but it has degraded with its reliance on the writings of Steve Eldridge + some really good neighborhood blogs (e.g., Georgetown Metropolitan) + certain other meta-resources (DC Watch, City Paper City Desk blog, DC Wire and the reporting of the Post, Current Newspapers, etc.).

There is no question that your blog has supplanted mine as the go to local website for such information. (Plus BeyondDC is great, and gets way more hits too.)

Sure I still get lots of visits, but you get way more (plus your ability to absorb talented writers into the repositioning as a group blog allows you to cover much more ground than I, as one person, could ever hope to do--besides the fact that I am interested in more than just our region, and so I write about other stuff anyway).

And it appears, judging by the comments that for the most part (not MPC), they take what appears in your blog as gospel.

So when there are what I would call significant errors or interpretations, "community building" concerns trumping what I call robust practice (I argued with Jaime about this over her recent post last weekend), etc. that makes it much harder to move the discourse forward, at least in an excellent way.

So this puts, to me anyway, a high level of a kind of ethical responsibility to not be glib, to be hard core in your thinking, etc., because people are not going to come to my blog and read the equivalent of academic treatises on these subjects. (My positions tend to involve more application of theory, best practices, comparisons to other places, and a focus on systems. As a result, I think they are more likely to stand the test of time. But maybe I am just arrogant...)

But also it is important to be nuanced, and I think there is a way to go yet for you, e.g., performance parking is not the solution to every mobility issue, and you favor incrementalism (good) more than the better/best philosophy I stake out (there is reason I stake out the ideal position, to drive more movement ultimately to that position, even though I know that politically the ideal cannot get adopted, and the earlier one compromise's the greater the reduction in the span of what possible excellence is achievable), or even this thread, which I think you have been overly reductive on, which is why I have written so much in this thread.

In some ways what I have written here summarizes 9+ years of experience in dealing with these issues, but also 9+ years of thinking about these issues in a way that few people in the region do.

I know you work on stuff. I know some of the other people who write in GGW do. But I wonder about a lot of the others. I don't know. And I think that makes a difference in perspective and in really beginning to understand how things work. And that is irrespective of people's capacity as systems thinkers--I find most practitioners aren't that great at elucidating structure and systems from practice, which makes achieving improvements, let alone transformation, that much harder.

by Richard Layman on Apr 11, 2009 11:46 am • linkreport

(This post is only to stop the italicizing.)

by Richard Layman on Apr 11, 2009 11:51 am • linkreport

The Committee of 100 and the Federation are hardly special moneyed interests groups. The Committee has many of the most renown urban planners and the Federation represents thousands of active citizens. I put their thought process over the incompetent and pro-moneyed-interest OP anytime with it's pro-forma dog and pony shows.

One example:The Committee of 100 fought for years to get the new convention center, the Verizon center, a transportation hub, and possibly a new stadium over the tracks north of Union Station on air rights that were practically free. Instead the city went with buying private land at high prices from owners with deep political connections and taking that land off the property tax rolls. Instead of a world class development the city went with a business-as-usual approach that cost much more in initial costs, lost property tax revenue and left out a mass transit hub.

by Tom on Apr 11, 2009 11:53 am • linkreport

Richard, I think your ideas are interesting, but there are several key issues you seem to skirt.

One, zoning is a legal construct. It is law. You can't ignore that fact, at at some point in time, you need to apply the law. The BZA is essentially a judicial body in that respect. It's not so simple to say that everyone gets an equal say. Given our legal structure for land ownership, this basic fact will not change.

Two, as Mr. Ross notes, adding more layers to the process isn't necessarily the answer, as it adds a great deal of transactional costs for developers. More importantly, it adds those costs to anyone seeking to change their property. Ryan Avent has written extensively about the challenges he's faced simply trying to rent a unit in his house. You keep adding those transactional costs, you'll end up where only deeply pocketed developers can even afford to navigate the process.

The overall solution ought to be to streamline the process and make it clear. I don't think that's mutually exclusive with including all the subject matter areas you discuss.

The other consideration is that just because community concerns are voiced does not mean that they will automatically be met. In this Wisconsin Giant case, I think the community's concerns are horribly overstated. To be blunt, not all positions are created equal.

by Alex B. on Apr 11, 2009 12:11 pm • linkreport

Actually the purpose of the BZA is to give exceptions to the law, which it does to large developers too routinely. In surrounding jurisdictions where true Smart Growth advocates rule it is much harder for them to get any exceptions to the community's well-thought-out planning.

Yes developers love the District's laissez-faire attitude, but it doesn't mean the projects we have to live with for a long time contribute to a better urban environment.

by Tom on Apr 11, 2009 1:21 pm • linkreport

Alex, so often you seem to miss the points I make. What I have spent 9+ years figuring out are gaps in processes. Maybe I am a s***** writer, or poor at explaining or bad at analyzing, but I don't think that is the case.

If the zoning-development approval processes work the way they are supposed to, and the results are still bad (or "leave a lot to be desired"), wouldn't you argue that there then is a problem with the process, regardless? That's the basic point. I don't know how much experience you have working with specific projects in DC, projects that have since been built... I just don't understand the disconnect in the discussion.

Granted I spend 1000s of words where I could be more succinct, but the point is that there needs to be a place in the process where the stakeholders meet in a constructive manner, what the people at GE would call a "workout" (look it up) that is far more flexible than within the legal proceeding of a zoning hearing.

It could be mandated as part of the Zoning or Zoning Appeals process, in a kind of mediation step as I point out as another example, but as a workshop or charrette process, not a "mediation".

But this would require that all the parties, all of them, act in good faith. And it would require a recognition on the part of the developers and their representatives, that the project could be improved.

There is a really good comment about this in my blog, look at the 4th comment in this stream:

http://www.haloscan.com/comments/rllayman/8497950545681579958/

by Richard Layman on Apr 11, 2009 1:49 pm • linkreport

Richard, I think you raise a tremendous number of issues, and I really appreciate your views on this matter (as well as others), but I think you've also self-diagnosed my problem with your writing - it's confusing as hell. You obviously have a wealth of knowledge and experience, both personal and professional, but I find your writing on it both here and in your blog to be long winded and rambling, often with a lack of focus. In short, I find it hard to read.

The larger issue, however, is your proposed solution. I think you've done an admirable job at identifying the problem, and you know what you want the final product to be like - but I find your recommendations for improving the process to be weak. Simply saying 'it should be better' isn't a solution. My point with the legalities of zoning is that you have to codify this into law if you want it to stick, and by doing so you may actually be making the problem worse, or at the very least engendering some serious unintended consequences. Part of the problem with the current process is that it's very cumbersome and time consuming. It's no mystery that developers want to save time and money by circumventing things. What I'm saying is that by streamlining the process and changing key elements of the zoning code, I think you can both give property developers more predictability and also get better outcomes for the city and the specific communities involved.

Your proposed 'workout' is an interesting idea, but the bottom line is that you still need to translate that process into the law. You can't circumvent it and also expect to have the force of law.

Tom,

Yes, the BZA grants variances, etc. That's why it's a board of appeals. Still, the primary purpose of an appeal is to interpret the law in cases where the law conflicts. The BZA is in the business of interpreting the law. It does not just give exceptions, it hears the cases and decides if an exception is required (again, as the laws often conflict) and what exception would be suitable.

by Alex B. on Apr 11, 2009 2:09 pm • linkreport

Richard - Who are the "parties" who participate in mediation? Negotiating development approvals has dangers:

1) Not all parties are represented, only those whose interest is most direct. Negotiations can lead to deals between developers and project neighbors to the detriment of the broader community - too much parking, expensive condos rather than needed rental housing, insufficient pedestrian and vehicle access.

2) The most anti-urban segment of the population is disproportionately empowered. The developer's main goal is to placate opponents so that the project will be approved. The pro-urban segment of the population, which already supports the project, is ignored and the anti-urban segment dictates project design. You get empty plazas in front of buildings that mimic suburban lawns, streets built for cars rather than pedestrians, etc.

It seems to me that economics, urbanism, and democratic theory all argue for a system in which democratic participation occurs in plan preparation. When the plan is approved, the zoning is changed to conform to it and to require whatever design elements the community -- the whole community -- feels necessary. Most development then occurs by right, with discretionary building-by-building approvals needed only for projects that are exceptional, either by their nature or because they don't conform to the intent of the plan.

This is the direction toward which Montgomery County has been moving with the zoning amendment that allowed the Federal Realty Arlington Road project and with the new TMX zone. The existing system of top-down control in which nearly all mixed-use buildings must be approved under the discretionary "alternate method" has not produced good urbanism.

by Ben Ross on Apr 11, 2009 2:20 pm • linkreport

Ben: Good points. I've also heard people say that the more discretionary process works well in Arlington. Do you agree? I am less familiar with the processes in MoCo and Arlington.

Richard: I wasn't trying to rephrase your entire argument, but rather to point to a particular component. You seem most upset by the cases when political muscle spoils a project, though that's not your only point. I agree, and hope that organizing on this blog will change that. For example, we have beaten up on Thomas and Mendelson recently for some things they've done. Any Councilmember should get the same treatment if they intervene to make a project worse.

I'ev been saying recently that we need to separate process from outcomes. We can get good outcomes with a bad process or bad outcomes with a good process. It depends on the people, for instance. A good development review person at OP can push for really good changes, but without a good person, OP can end up supporting something really bad.

Maybe it would help to talk more specifically about outcomes. For example, it appears to me that you feel that most of the time the current process leads to bad outcomes, from your work with Florida Market. The projects you are most familiar with involve neighbors pushing to make a project better, and OP and BZA not doing all they could to help.

On 14th Street, I've mostly seen opposition pushing in the opposite direction. On both projects, neighbors pushed to place the garage entrance in front (on 14th) instead of in the alley. That's bad for pedestrians. For the Utopia project, I reluctantly supported this because of the overworked alley system, but I'm not convinced that we couldn't have worked out a way to make it work back there. On the Whitman-Walker project near Tom's house, he was pushing for the same thing, but didn't get it, since his alley is more conventional.

This is a good example of what Ben's talking about when he says that local interests hashing things out together might yield changes that benefit immediate neighbors at the expense of the community. Everyone would like to get traffic out of their alley, but if we put all the traffic on the street, then it's really bad for pedestrians. But the pedestrians aren't all people who live right next to the building, though they are far more numerous. We need a process that respects the rights of both. In the case of the Whitman-Walker project, I'm pleased with the BZA's approval of the project and glad that they didn't accommodate that particular request of Tom's. I also like the truck turning cutout he asked for, and the way they moved the garage over a bit to try to mitigate the impact on Tom's house. But Tom successfully won those changes even in the current process.

If we change the process, we need to find a way to fix the problems you (Richard) ran into with projects in Ward 5, without making something that would have blocked or made significantly more expensive the Whitman-Walker project, or led to a 14th Street curb cut. I don't think the current process is perfect or even mostly perfect, but I don't yet feel like I have a good handle on what specifically would make it better as opposed to just slower.

by David Alpert on Apr 11, 2009 2:39 pm • linkreport

I've heard the same thing about Arlington, but I'm not personally familiar with the process there. My understanding, though, is that the negotiations are between the county and the developer, not (or in addition to) between the immediate neighbors and the developer.

I suspect it may make a big difference that Arlington is simply a lot smaller than the District or Montgomery and therefore has fewer development projects. Elected officials, who are responsible to the whole community, have time to get involved routinely with individual projects, not just with those that excite major local opposition.

by Ben Ross on Apr 11, 2009 2:52 pm • linkreport

Actually Alex, I write long and detailed, and I am willing to concede overdetailed, which is because I don't want to have to deal with "yes, but..." responses, but it's not disorganized or hard to understand.

I'd argue it's you... and given the responses I get publicly and privately, the people I know who read the blog, etc., I get cues about length, but not negative ones about the quality of the writing, the analysis, or the organization of the argument, I feel confident about that statement.

2. And David what bugs me the most about development isn't the dirtyness of politicos getting involved, it's bad, ugly design and narrowly cast projects. It's just that the two usually go hand in hand.

3. So Ben, what the workout is, isn't negotiation the way you are thinking, it's like a charrette, _about the design, context, and community benefits_ for specific developments. That would get worked into the process, and is still part of the legal process of a zoning matter, but not in the kind of adversarial, lawyers represent the developers manner that the rest of the process already is. (see the mention of the design method.)

If developers were smart, they'd do it anyway, on their own, during the earliest period when they are developing the project, in what you might think of as the initial design and consultation phases. Before the official, legal process is even triggered. (In some respects, Abdo does a form of this, with big projects.)

And it would make for faster approvals and processes overall.

4. Ben, I think this is necessary because clearly what the plan (or the current zoning code) allows doesn't work in practice, if livability is the primary concern. (Livability isn't the primary objective but I argue that it should be.) Maybe a "smart code" combining design and mass and height issues (bulk) + planning would miraculously make everything right. I am not convinced, at least not yet. But I don't have detailed experience with smart code-based systems.

5. David, ahh, our fundamental disagreement. I argue that outcomes are dependent variables, and the independent variable is the process. (This is the latest and increasing consensus within the field of management.) Bad processes, in virtually all cases, will yield bad outcomes, unless key actors (e.g., an Abdo Development) are particularly willing and inclined to do what in the context of the process is extraordinary work. Robust processes might not yield exceptional results, but the day-in, day-out mediocrity of the current method likely would be surpassed as a matter of course.

6. But yes, Brookland (and frankly a myriad of other examples, including Takoma and Tenley) makes me aware of places where I think resident intrasigence is high.

And it is true that even though everyone doesn't agree on specifics (and this ranges from "anything is better than a parking lot" to desiring high quality), people in the H Street neighborhood for the most part are accepting of development in order to improve the neighborhood. And that's different from places such as Cathedral Heights, where things are pretty stable, even if the retail is weak.

7. Relating to both yours and Ben's point, it's why there needs to be room and a place for citywide concerns at the table, not just neighborhood primacy. Somehow balancing urban-ness, and urban design and city priorities (income, residents, amenities, safety, etc.) with what is almost always extreme neighborhood parochialism.

Groups that could play this role (if they were better) include C100, would include the Citizens Planning Coalition were it back up and running, DC Preservation League on preservation matters, DC Fiscal Policy Institute (but they are primarily concerned with social services and equity issues, which gives them a hyper-limited perspective), the Sierra Club Metro Sprawl campaign, maybe CSG but they are too much ready to sign off on "good" rather than "great" projects, which gives me serious pause, WABA on bicycling issues, Washington Parks and People, etc.

And there would have to be a great training and support infrastructure. If I can get CPC relaunched, such would be a big focus of the organization.

8. WRT Arlington, I too am not as familiar with the processes there. HOWEVER, there is a substantive commitment to both civic engagement and planning and the level of their commitment is almost unparalleled throughout the region. (E.g., the County Manager spends time at the Arlington County Fair in the booth representing his office...)

So there are neighborhood plans for every neighborhood. Sector plans. A Comp Plan of course. And a transportation plan. And these plans are congruent and designed to be congruent. And county or county-funded agencies like WalkArlington, BikeArlington, Arlington Transportation Partners, to translate plans and developments into realization. Etc.

That doesn't mean I think they are perfect. I did a presentation in Clarendon a couple years ago about urban design issues and others, in the context of retail development and the maintenance of independents...

But ArCo's commitment to design, the design methodology, social marketing, civic engagement and an outward, forward looking, and future looking perspective puts them in the position to have robustly performing processes and therefore better outcomes than are typical of other jurisdictions in the region.

by Richard Layman on Apr 11, 2009 3:30 pm • linkreport

David- There you go again: Quote:"On both projects, neighbors pushed to place the garage entrance in front (on 14th) instead of in the alley. That's bad for pedestrians. For the Utopia project, I reluctantly supported this because of the overworked alley system, but I'm not convinced that we couldn't have worked out a way to make it work back there. On the Whitman-Walker project near Tom's house, he was pushing for the same thing, but didn't get it, since his alley is more conventional."

I never asked for the garage entrance to be kept on 14th Street. I never took any position on where it should be among the present cut and the 200-foot long alley. Even though that curb cut has never bothered anyone for it's 100 years because the sidewalk is so wide, I realize that it would take valuable retail frontage from the developer and I also acknowledge that the city has a firm policy of commercial garage doors being in residential alleys. I never asked for any special favors on that and wouldn't.

My objection was that the entrance door to the garage would be on the alley line instead of recessed causing cars to block the sidewalk.

As far as the Utopia project, there is 1 carriage house there surrounded by 2 30-foot alleys and one 20-foot alley, two of which are virtually unused. In my alley there is my carriage house on a 20-foot alley which is already busier than most streets in DC and it connects to a 10 foot rear alley which is the main means of vehicle entrance for 70 residences plus the trash truck and emergency vehicles. Additionally everyone who has moved here has assumed that the 15-foot setback required by DC law would always be there for any new project and had no reason to foresee this new trick to get 100% lot occupancy.That's hardly a less compelling situation than the Utopia one.

Additionally, the Utopia application was the perfect time to close the unnecessary and extremely dangerous alley entrance which pops cars onto pedestrians in the middle of the 1400 block of U. That tunnel would be perfect for ZipCars, bicycles, or both.

In spite of all this I didn't take any position on where the garage entrance should be, didn't seek any special favors, and ultimately realized that for their financial purposes it's location was best where it was. I persuaded all my neighbors who were adamant that the existing curb cut should be preserved to back down as it certainly affects me most directly. All I asked was that the door itself be recessed enough so that cars entering it not block the sidewalk where we have had two fatalities already and have an auto accident a week. (The pedestrian entrance to all 150 units will also be 40 feet from this location).

Besides being furious that OP and DOT took no consideration of obvious safety concerns which could be easily remedied at no expense to the developer, I was also furious that they blindly accepted the applicant's paid study saying that a 30-foot truck could safely back into the narrow loading/trash dock for the units since I'm very aware of the nightmare the 25-foot trash truck already has getting into the rear service alley.

It was only after it became obvious that the applicant and BZA was adamant that houses on S and Swann would have to put their trash on the sidewalks in the future that I called out the "big guns" , friendships, favors and whatever else I could muster to get the indention so the trash truck could turn and to get the loading door a slight bit wider. You have no idea how much background arm twisting was involved to get this tiny concession or how furious OP and the BZA were since they are routinely blocking trash truck access in other cases. Take note that my own trash is picked up in the side alley but I don't want my neighbors to have to keep trash cans on our sidewalks.

I understand the developer's rush to get this grandfathering from IZ for perceived financial reasons, but that's no reason to support a project (that's not to start anytime in the near future) before it's been fine-tuned for very critical safety factors as you did.

by Tom on Apr 11, 2009 7:55 pm • linkreport

Tom: OK, I apologize. I know some people were advocating for the front garage entrance. I'm glad to hear you were not.

I agreed with you about the trash truck turning from the first time I heard that as an issue. I never would have supported forcing trash to be picked up from the front, nor do I think OP would have agreed. Buildings need to be designed to avoid blocking trash trucks from the rear alleys. Period.

My testimony at the BZA focused on the size of the overall project, the garage entrance, the parking minimum variance, and the ARTS overlay. I felt that the number of units proposed was appropriate, the entrance should be in the back (in the place on the back that most alleviated impacts to neighbors while being feasible for the design), and that the project should be allowed to build only 2 levels of underground parking. The tiny setback exception seemed unoffensive and permission to include a restaurant was a good idea. I am glad the BZA allowed those things.

I am also glad that JBG moved the garage a bit and ensured that trash trucks can properly turn. I agree with you that more community notification would have been appropriate and I believe I criticized them at the time for waiting until the last minute. It looks like we ended up with a good outcome here, but future projects ought to have more time for community involvement to ensure that nothing gets missed.

by David Alpert on Apr 11, 2009 8:37 pm • linkreport

Thanks David, you're a fine man and I really appreciate your interest in urban planning and the tremendous amount of work you put into your blog.

by Tom on Apr 11, 2009 8:47 pm • linkreport

David, I watched the hearing that you mentioned here, including your testimony. Based on the OP presentation, the comments made by the Commissioners, your testimony and the testimony of others, it is obvious that you do not understand the OP proposal. While you smirked and mocked the people who actually read and understood what is being proposed, you clearly misunderstood OP’s 17 recommendations for low and moderate density zones.

Alex, BZA is the Board of Zoning Adjustment, not appeals.

by Andy on Apr 12, 2009 9:09 am • linkreport

Gosh, Andy, you're so persuasive. Despite having read the document multiple times across its many versions, emailed OP staff to ask clarifying questions at many points, and attended the working groups in person, I'm convinced that I have no idea what I'm talking about just because you say so.

by David Alpert on Apr 12, 2009 9:37 am • linkreport

Unfortunately, the Office of Zoning does not have on-line archives of the hearings, but I suggest that when the transcript is released you read it carefully, and you can apologize then. If your testimony was actually the result of the efforts you describe, I find that quite sad indeed. And, if you listened to the entire hearing, I cannot imagine how you might have walked away thinking that your testimony accurately reflected OP’s 17 recommendations. I hope in future testimony before District agencies, you will put more effort into understanding the proposals and the issues.

by Andy on Apr 12, 2009 10:25 am • linkreport

Andy, you're right, in DC it is the board of adjustment, not appeals. But it's the board of appeals in many other jurisdictions, and what it's called doesn't change what it does - which is interpret the zoning code.

by Alex B. on Apr 12, 2009 12:08 pm • linkreport

I think it's up to OP, Zoning and the District's attorneys to interpret zoning and it's only when there's a decision that something doesn't meet zoning law and regs or the applicant acknowledges that it doesn't do so, that the BZA has to give a variance or special exception.

If something meets zoning it's allowed "by right" without any BZA action and applicants are allowed in DC to "self-certify" that they do meet zoning.

Appeals in DC is just the DC Court of Appeals where many cases do end up, especially if they're done sloppily or are controversial. (There is a Court requirement that you first ask BZA for a reconsideration within 10 days of the written order before you file with the Court but that's usually a pro-forma rejection of re-consideration).

Not taking sides just my humble 2 cents.

by Tom on Apr 12, 2009 1:05 pm • linkreport

Andy, Can you cite some particular aspects where David didn't accurately reflect OP's 17 recommendations. I'm asking because it might be helpful to David. I doubt he'd intentionally be wasting his time. And I know how easy it can be to "run with something" based on a misunderstanding of language or terminology ... or even of context. And when you're running with something you sometimes are too busy looking forward to look back ... even when someone is telling you "but wait! ... you're running in the wrong direction!"

that said. In all fairness to David, it's one thing to mention that someone is basing their actions on misunderstanding ... but another to constructively show them where they are mistaken. The first leads to nothing but anger and frustration on both sides ... while the second may actually lead to reconcilliation ... and progress on issues.

by Lance on Apr 12, 2009 1:23 pm • linkreport

Thank you, Lance. You reinforce why, despite our disagreements, you have always been our best contrarian commenter. I've given up hoping for something better from Andy, aka JR, aka Another Economist.

by David Alpert on Apr 12, 2009 4:07 pm • linkreport

Lance, Perhaps David might post his testimony here, along with a link to the hearing notice and OP’s March 18 Report to the Zoning Commission. Then you and others can independently evaluate his efforts. Unfortunately, the hearing transcript, which would clarify many problems with OP’s recommendations, problems that David ignored, will not be available for some time. But anyone who understands the District’s low and moderate density zones and basic zoning terminology can easily see how David’s testimony is lacking.

Past efforts to explain errors or omissions in David’s analysis have only been ignored, generated name-calling or resulted in requests that I do the research for David that he failed to do himself. So I am not willing to spend my time writing a treatise here.

by Andy on Apr 12, 2009 4:37 pm • linkreport

To partially change the subject on a beautiful sunny day in DC when the flowers are starting to bloom and the trees are turning green, let's sit back and remember what it is about our city that is so appealing in the first place and caused many people to migrate here from dense vertical cities.

Like Haussman's Paris and Berlin our city is a horizontal city, not a vertical one, with wide avenues, wide sidewalks, and many trees, greenery, sunshine and fresh air (on weekends) that make it much more "walkable" and livable. This isn't nostalgia for suburbanism like many protest but appreciation of a green urban environment. By all means let's keep more auto traffic out of here so weekends can be more like our weekends.

But remember that this push toward a more vertical more dense Washington has it's costs on our environment. Every floor that height limits go up mean less sunshine at sidewalk level, more dead trees and less greenery. When increased density becomes severe in a neighborhood before a sane Expanded RPP program, homeowners rapidly cut down trees in their rear yards and replace them with concrete parking pads. The water table sinks and more trees die.

The argument I heard above that one side of a street already has 90-foot buildings so why can't the other too is counter-intuitive. If half the sunshine at street level has already been blocked is that an argument for blocking more? Do we learn nothing from the mistakes that were made in the '50's and '60's that allowed those buildings to be built as they were? Doesn't it beg for more caution instead to protect what's left?

My neighborhood is basically 2 story but now we're told that we'll have to digest going to 8 stories (just as we were headed in the '50's). Okay, we'll try to digest that and fine tune it. The 45 degree setback contained in the overlay helps a lot with that for side streets and David, you've shown admiration for the 360 planning that results in.

But these new proposals intend to jeopardize the overlay protections and we're also told that for compelling social reasons we may have to digest 9 or 10 stories in the future. Not to sound like a Cassandra here but are we absolutely sure that this time we really have throughly thought this out with all it's consequences?

I understand that in the few locations in town where we have Metro stations more height and density may be warranted. But there is a set amount of development that is going to come into the city regardless and hasn't our "spread the wealth" policy worked better than other less-planned cities where a few areas are developed while others look like Dresden '45? Don't we still have a few areas ourselves that didn't get in on this last round of prosperity and still need help getting to the level of development and job opportunity the rest of us enjoyed?

A famous 90-year-old neighborhood wag is found of saying " If all these New Yorkers moving to town have so much nostaglia for New York, let 'em hang a g** d*** picture of it on their wall, but leave our beautiful city alone." (She's otherwise very sweet and was instrumental in stopping the interstate and exchange from demolishing U Street and our neighborhood).

One effect of the current deep recession is that no development is going to happen for at least another year and it gives us time to really think out this current fashion to the vertical. Not that it's neccessarily bad but let's just really think it out well and plan it well with all the fine-tuning that entails if we decide we do want to take that leap.

by Tom on Apr 12, 2009 7:25 pm • linkreport

Tom, you have to look at how many residents those new 5-9 story buildings will house and ask, if not there, then where? Do we continue paving over agricultural green fields for more tract and low-density housing or do we center density along metro and other transit corridors, as well as where the commercial and recreational opportunities exist?

Isn't it possible to preserve the best of what you describe while also shaping our build environment to be socially and ecologically responsible?

by William on Apr 12, 2009 9:23 pm • linkreport

I'm okay with the 5 - 9 story buildings being proposed for the U Street area .... since, after all, they were there some 50 years ago before redevelopment and the riots razed them.

But that's not to say that what Tom says about there being plenty of places left in DC "to spread the wealth", should be ignored. If we want a better and stronger city we need to sow the seeds of redevelopment in all 4 quadrants and in every neighborhood. The local NBC affiliate has a poll running asking us "Which is better ... Georgetown or Dupont". I can't help but chuckle whenever I come across it ... since a short 10 years ago, when Dupont still hosted boarded up windows and a Connecticut Avenue strip club only a stone's throw from the Circle itself, this question never would have been asked. But look what's happened not by 'developing' Dupont but rather by 'preserving' it ...

I hope 10 years from now that the NBC affiliate will give us more than two choices for their poll ... I hope each and every one of our neighborhoods gets included in the poll. And I know that while some development is needed and welcome, re-development of existing buildings and houses, and most especially the preservation of the desirable defining characteristics of these neighborhoods --- including their human scale, is a key to success we shouldn't dismiss or make second to our desires for development.

by Lance on Apr 12, 2009 10:49 pm • linkreport

William, unfortunately those were same arguments the proponents of the unfortunate buildings of the '50's and '60's made: that the desperate need is for higher and higher density in the central core. Today the underuse and even decline is in the outer core including declining parts of our own city. The terrible consequence of the metro was the encouragement of the exurbs. Folks who use to commute from inner suburbs can now commute from exurbs to the furthest out metro stations. It's no coincidence that those exurbs exploded when metro opened and the inner suburbs declined.

Paris, which is most like Washington, and most major European cities with much higher populations and greater density manage very well indeed with uniformity of 4 stories. Past the city is preserved green. It may be too late to preserve the green belts but there's still time to encourage development toward our outer core. Places like Anacostia and Hyattsville with superb metro access should be given preference to develop. In fact there are a lot of encouraging developments in Hyattsville now but the lack of use in Anacostia amazes me.

The fact is developers don't want to risk the outer core and insist on dictating ever higher limits in the inner cores that have already been successful so I guess in our system we have to accept the developers' dictates and limit logical planning to trying to preserve as much as we can of the green city. But it puts an increased responsibility on us to fine-tune each of these projects and minimize their damage as much as possible.

by Tom on Apr 12, 2009 10:57 pm • linkreport

Tom, almost all of Paris is 6 stories.

by David Alpert on Apr 12, 2009 11:02 pm • linkreport

sorry, Paris is 6 stories.

by Tom on Apr 12, 2009 11:52 pm • linkreport

In the District our major problem is that many of our neighborhoods are still in decline. People abandon those neighbors and move to the suburbs or even exurbs while the more affluent insist on their right to sufficient housing in what are preceived as the more trendy neighborhoods. The developers demand increased height and density in those neighborhoods while the declining close-in neighborhoods empty out.

Policy shouldn't be to placate this destructive cycle of where the more affluent want to live at any time but to make all neighborhoods and especially those well-served by mass transit desirable places to live and to have a uniform rational plan of development.

Of course as much affordable housing as practical should be available in all neighborhoods.

Lance-14th Street from U to downtown remains pretty much intact from the the 1890's except for a few buildings razed by one notorious developer in the 1980's and the old Washington Orphanage/ State Department Building razed by Urban Renewal in 1960. U Street did have higher buildings but also had a wide sidewalk and front yards. That interstate legacy widening of U Street needs to be reversed and wide sidewalks and healthy trees restored.

by Tom on Apr 13, 2009 10:18 am • linkreport

"U Street did have higher buildings but also had a wide sidewalk and front yards. That interstate legacy widening of U Street needs to be reversed and wide sidewalks and healthy trees restored."

I'm 100% with you on this. The same thing happened to 15th Street south of U Street as part of the widening of feeder streets for the Interstate system that got stopped by the Committee of 100. For a while there I thought we were going to have the opportunity to revert 15th to its former "big front yards, shady trees, residential state" when DDOT called community meetings on the subject. I was quickly disappointed though when it became clear that the part of DDOT calling the meetings where the guys in charge of installing bike lanes in the city. As has since been acknowledged by DDOT itself, 15th Street is being used as a guinea pig to test DDOT's various ideas on different kinds of bike lane (including cycle tracks) and the stuff that goes with them. Maybe when they're through using our neighborhood as a test track we can get 15th Street put back to its historical residential use.

by Lance on Apr 13, 2009 10:37 am • linkreport

15th is a strange case. I was run over on the sidewalk at 15th and S (the dent is still in the fence) by a car that had collided with another car. Both very going very fast and one was drunk.

While I was ANC I assumed people would support making 15th 2 way again to slow it down. As was my habit I went to every residence from S to V and spoke with everyone I could by phone or in person. I was shocked that almost to a person the residents actually liked 15th the way it is because it provided rapid auto access to their homes so I dropped the idea. This was 10 years ago so hopefully attitudes have changed.

15th does have front yards and trees though with the glaring exception being the gas station's excessive curb cuts (4) but even there we've managed to get some trees planted. (I fought the original station going in there and it's enlargement later when I tried to negotiate for them to abandon the one totally uneccessary extra cut on 15th which should be a tree box).

The U Street sidewalks are such a much more obvious deficiency and I do not understand how there is no strong movement to restore sidewalks there. But I've usually deferred to others on U Street as I live on S and have learned the proper position of my nose as regards others' business.

by Tom on Apr 13, 2009 12:09 pm • linkreport

That last line in my comment was definitely not a slight at anyone else just an acknowledgement that I'm more effective at doing very through work on a smaller aspect than mediocre work on something bigger.

by Tom on Apr 13, 2009 12:22 pm • linkreport

A few points. It's important to recognize that the city has to change, somehow, in response to fortunate changes in circumstances. The city is a growing city, or at least has the opportunity to add population, and residents with choice and income. That's good. Center cities shouldn't only be cesspools of poverty.

How we do it in a place that has only about 2/3 of the city as developable land (40 square miles) is tough.

It can only be done by selective redevelopment:

- on open land given up by certain entities like St. Pauls College;

- by going higher--mostly in commercial districts; by adding dwellings on block interiors (alleys and remnant space);

- by rezoning industrial land for residential and other development (for the most part I am against this as production-distribution-repair type businesses need to be located in the city too, even if they aren't pretty, but churches and schools not having to make the same economic choices as industrial businesses, can outbid them and convert property as it is right now...).

That presumes not tearing down blocks and redeveloping them which for the most part is extremely unlikely, at least in our lifetimes.

These are tough issues, and there will be "losses" on the part of some people, especially those immediately abutting commercial districts, in favor of a stronger whole.

It can't be done without some compromise.

But the point about U Street having had taller buildings before the riots isn't really correct (although oddly enough, the riots tended to destroy the tallest buildings on the corridors, which tended to be about 3 stories tall).

DC, except for downtown, has always been particularly low scale. Most commercial districts didn't have buildings over 3 stories, with a couple exceptions. And most rowhouses, compared to cities like Boston or Manhattan or Brooklyn or Philadelphia, are pretty small, not functioning as apartments, etc.

(I am always amazed to go to other cities and see their old commercial districts and how these districts typically had much taller buildings when compared to neighborhood commercial districts in DC.)

So it makes it tough to grow when the opportunity exists.

That's a fundamentally different question from the one of what me might call "broken" or "significantly underfunctioning" processes.

I agree with the importance of selectively adding density, mostly to commercial districts, especially to keep the extant historic (designated or eligible for designation) building stock "safe" from demolition. Even though there will be selective losses (i.e., between 2nd and 3rd Streets NE along the Union Station railyard, 13th Street between M and N NW, etc.) in favor of more intense development.

And if we are going to do it, it needs to be done well.

by Richard Layman on Apr 14, 2009 9:44 am • linkreport

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