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Plans seek to keep Mid City East affordable

The neighborhoods north of Union Station are one of the last affordable, walkable areas close to downtown DC. Can an area change for the better while keeping prices low? That's what DC's trying to figure out with the Mid City East Small Area Plan and Livability Study.


Typical rowhouses in Bloomingdale. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

As U Street to the west and NoMa to the east have boomed, the Mid City East neighborhoods of LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Truxton Circle, Sursum Corda, and Eckington remain a relatively affordable option. However, as million-dollar houses pop up, neighbors want to secure the diversity and affordability that lend the neighborhoods their character.

Since January, the DC Office of Planning (OP) and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) have been studying these neighborhoods and have released their draft recommendations for comment. The results here may provide lessons for what happens in similarly transitioning DC neighborhoods like Hill East or Anacostia, or Columbia Pike in Arlington.

The planning process kicked off in April. Through public meetings, informal office hours, and a collaboration website, neighbors have asked for a greater variety of housing and retail options, less concentration of social services, better use of vacant land and marginal land. They also want a re-think of the commuter arteries that divide the neighborhoods, Florida, Rhode Island, and New York avenues, and North Capitol Street.


Neighbors' vision as captured by an illustrator during the April 27 kickoff meeting.

Planners recommend reopening streets, preserving single-family homes

OP and DDOT spent the summer developing their respective Small Area Plan and Livability Study around the neighbors' input and released their draft recommendations September 26. OP's Small Area Plan is also based on a detailed survey of the area's built, natural, and human resources and their physical and economic connections to the rest of the District.

Based on these inputs, OP recommends focusing on North Capitol Street to take advantage of its emerging mix of creative, retail, and restaurant businesses and still-vacant lots in key locations. Among the recommendations are increases in density along the street, requirements that planned-unit developments include space for retail, and a deck over a sunken portion of the roadway between T Street and Rhode Island Avenue.

More broadly, OP would also like to open a handful of neighborhood streets to reconnect the street grid and solicit proposals to turn two vacant schools into an innovation campus.

To address neighbors' other concerns, OP recommends organizing local groups to promote preservation, walkability, and the upkeep of local parks. Through these changes, OP would promote affordable housing by giving developers incentives to build more affordable units while maintaining the current stock. But OP also recommends strengthening the zoning code "to preserve the availability of the current supply of single family housing stock" in Mid City East, which by constraining supply would seem to increase prices.


DDOT's analysis of crashes in the Mid City East area. The numbers in the yellow circles represent numbers of victims (injuries and deaths).

DDOT's Livability Study, the other component of the joint effort, further took into account neighborhood travel patterns and the state of the existing streets. DDOT's data show that crashes are no accident along the area's major arterials, with hundreds of people injured and several killed over a three-year period. DDOT proposes to improve safety by removing slip lanes and widening median refuges at major intersections and lowering speed on neighborhood-serving streets through wider sidewalks, curb extensions, and mini-roundabouts at intersections.


DDOT's proposal for stormwater management through pervious pavement in alleys (red) and tree box filters (green).

Both OP and DDOT are stressing sustainability after heavy rains overwhelmed sewers and flooded in recent years. Although a stormwater storage tunnel for the neighborhood is already in the works as part of the Clean Rivers Project, DDOT also proposes to install pervious pavement and other green infrastructure designed to keep water from entering the sewer system in the first place. As part of its most ambitious proposal, DDOT would install permeable paving in about half of Mid City East's alleys and divert stormwater to sidewalk tree boxes on about a dozen streets.

Will the vision be realized?

Are OP's and DDOT's recommendations bold enough to keep the Mid City East neighborhoods on an inclusive, sustainable path that makes the most of nearby development while preserving local character? There are few large projects; instead, OP and DDOT want to make the best use of the area's current assets and encourage neighbors to help themselves through better resident and business collaboration.

The streetscape improvements and the North Capitol Street deck, though welcome, would not change the balance between commuters and residents along the major arterials. Intersection improvements would help bridge the gaps across Florida, New York, and North Capitol, but without a clearer plan for pedestrian and bicycle circulation and connections to other neighborhoods, moving across the area will still be difficult.

What do you think about the draft recommendations? Will they help the area achieve an inclusive, sustainable future? Please leave your ideas in the comments or stop in at OP and DDOT's office hours today between 6-7:30 pm at Big Bear Café at 1700 1st Street NW.

Matt Malinowski is a consultant advising government clients on improving the energy efficiency of consumer electronic products, but is interested in all aspects of sustainable infrastructure and community resilience. He lives with his wife in the Truxton Circle/Bates neighborhood of DC. 

Comments

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What will drive "inclusiveness" as defined in this article is home ownership, both current and future. If a large share of these homes are owned by people of modest means, then that sets the stage for inclusivity - they will not be priced out by rising rents. The second part of this scenario, however, is up the homeowners themselves. As evidenced by changes in other other neighborhoods, many homeowner's families will cash out when elderly residents pass. Their children have established lives in other parts of the region and the sudden boon in their enheritance, driven by gentrification, will help their lives elswhwere. Other, younger residents may also choose to cash out and reinvest the windfall in another neighborhood where the can have leftover cash after purchasing a newer, more refurbished home. Most however, will likely remain, as this is where they grew up or have lived for years. The end result will be moderate turnover in homes that are owned by current residents, but a large turnover eventually in rental units - just as it has played out in many neighborhoods across the city, regardless of city policies.

by G-man on Oct 17, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

The recommendations are filled with a lot of noncontroversial, marginally beneficial ideas. Gentle nudges I would call them, which taken as a whole can do a lot of good. I have three main critiques:

1. The best way to preserve affordability of housing is to increase supply - the proposal seems to dodge that issue, largely because that simple truth is politically controversial. Many existing residents want it both ways- keep supply low and suppress development, but also keep taxes and housing costs low as well. There should be a special expedited task force within the DC government that streamlines the process for developers and homeowners in this area to convert vacant lots and abandoned buildings into housing, and helps developers convert housing stock into condos. Clearly a lot of residents in mid city east disagree, so stuff like that gets left out.

2. There's no big ticket item to catalyze development. The feedback consensus was that decking over N. Capitol in multiple places and putting green space, pop up retail, etc could be that driver of change, but the planners buried it and left it to the neighborhood groups or the private sector to take the lead on. I think this is a mistake and represents a failure to think big. But I'm sympathetic to the planners here- these types of changes are controversial and Mid City East is split along familiar gentrification fault lines and the planners are trying to avoid taking sides.

3. The planners ignore the elephant in the room. Designing North Capitol as a commuter thruway was a disaster and the planners here shouldn't be shy about undoing that mistake. Modest measures aren't enough- again, the entire character of the neighborhood suffers because there is a menacing and ugly thruway running through the core that exists for the convenience of commuters at the expense of neighborhood residents. Decking over North Capitol in multiple places would be a way to turn this blight into an asset, but again, there's little appetite for anything controversial in this proposal.

by jcbhan on Oct 17, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

Co-incidentially a good report out today on how, as income inequality increases, middle class neighborhoods are disappearing. You gotta be rich or poor- no in between.

Original report:
http://www.s4.brown.edu/us2010/Data/Report/report10162013.pdf

HuffPo summary:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/16/middle-class-neighborhoods-dying_n_4109084.html?ref=topbar

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 17, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

Removing section 8 and housing projects and replacing them with something larger (and better) would be the first real start.

by charlie on Oct 17, 2013 3:27 pm • linkreport

The area has one natural advantage. It's relatively farther from metro than surrounding areas. That'w where the SFHs in the city SHOULD be in my book. If the neighborhoods want to keep that affordability one thing they could do is upzone areas (this will surely be controversial) on the edges nearest to the Metro stations to absorb their share of the growth including IZ or affordable units. The the neighborhoods should support densification in places like NOMA and Shaw which can continue to absorb more growth and in the future more near places like Rhode Island where the potential has been less tapped. They should also support things like ADU which give people more flexible options to move to or stay in the neighborhood. There are still way too much surface parking and poorly utilized lots in the area. People in the neighborhoods should advocate better using those spaces for new housing/retail/mixed uses to absorb some of the demand.

by BTA on Oct 17, 2013 4:00 pm • linkreport

How would removing Section 8 improve housing prices?

by Neil Flanagan on Oct 17, 2013 4:04 pm • linkreport

Ooh I forgot to mention it but jcbhan did, decking over 395 should have happend long ago! That's like 2 acres of land right there you could reclaim. Alternatively, if it would be costeffective, rather than burying it, could you build an above ground tunnel enclosure and do an air rights building over it? It wouldnt be suitable for ped or street cross traffic but its not now anyway.

by BTA on Oct 17, 2013 4:22 pm • linkreport

Didn't know about this effort, but I don't see how preserving "affordability" is possible, depending on how affordability is defined. I'd like to see the section in the plan on "current conditions." I would have to think that the average property value for SFH in the area is greater than $400,000, with some sections of the area significantly higher. A block by block analysis would make that pretty clear. Probably much of Bloomingdale is already beyond $500,000 and $600,000 per dwelling.

cf. http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost/doc/409152542.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&date=Jun+17%2C+2001&author=Hopkinson%2C+Natalie&desc=I+Won%27t+Let+D.C.+Lose+Its+Flavor

This study should have been done 12 years ago to have some impact.

2. jcbhan's comments on the road network are pretty important. I don't have time to read the plan right now. But if it ignored N. Capitol both for decking opportunities and for righting the "wrong" of N. Capitol St. being a commuter road, plus the Truxton Circle issue, then the plan is close to worthless.

While I am glad the freeway plans were scuttled, I do now think that we should build an underground tunnel roadway ("freeway"? but not wide) to capture the commuter traffic that uses this road, especially from Montgomery County (from Georgia Avenue-Blair Road and New Hampshire Avenue) Riggs Road too, Michigan Avenue, etc.

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2011/11/tunnelized-road-projects-for-dc-and.html

The impact of this being a commuter road has deleterious impact on the adjacent neighborhoods. I would still have N. Capitol as a surface street, but more "locally serving" and the underground tunnel serving commuters.

People say this encourages driving. It might. But for me it's more about interdicting and addressing the deleterious impact of already existing motor vehicle traffic that makes living in those areas not very nice at all.

by Richard Layman on Oct 17, 2013 4:23 pm • linkreport

BTA/jcbhan -- the New York Ave. Transportation Study from 2003-2006 proposed decking 395, undergrounding the through lanes of New York Avenue from around the bridge over Union Station railyard to 395.

https://comp.ddot.dc.gov/Documents/New%20York%20Avenue%20Corridor%20Study.pdf

Personally, I think it'd be best to underground NY Ave. all the way from the DC-MD border to remove the through traffic from the surface streets.

It would be hugely expensive. And we couldn't get special appropriations for it. But it might still pay off in terms of increased development value along the corridor, whereas now the traffic depresses values there.

by Richard Layman on Oct 17, 2013 4:29 pm • linkreport

@ Neil Flanagan; by taking units off the market, section 8 and IZ increase the price for everyondy else.

And the same with public housing, and doubly so since you can't scale it up in size without more crime.

And that is true for both rental and sale levels.

by charlie on Oct 17, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

To clarify, the plan does mention decking it over in one spot, but it's not a prominent part of the proposal, and it bsically says it's on the private sector or neighborhood groups to take the lead. Which sort of begs the question of what's the point of this initiative?

Decks should be put on both sides of the Rhode Island underpass and the NY Ave underpass. that's 4 different segments and they could all have a distinct character and focus (recreation, reflection, retail, fitness, playground, water, etc) or they could just all be cool open green spaces. The city should put in place a design competition and solicit ideas from architects/urban landscape designers/students, etc., pick the best ideas and then actually fund and build them. If one or more of the sites are used for pop-up retail or farmer's markets, it can even generate revenue for the city if cost is an issue. The key is this proposal needs a healthy dose of bold, forward-thinking ideas. Decking over an ugly relic of the unenlightened era when commuter cars and highways were the apex of urban planning has a sort of symmetry that I think would appeal to a lot of people, but maybe there's another big idea out there.

by jcbhan on Oct 17, 2013 5:18 pm • linkreport

Pretty much every block in this area has two or more abandoned rowhouses on it. Very few of those are taxed at the higher rate -- and many even get the homestead deduction or senior citizen advantage. "Landbanking," is it called? Some carry aging permits for work that is never done. Must be a sweet deal for the owners, since they ride the rising tide of prices in spite of blighting the steetscapes with their "investments."

by Sydney on Oct 17, 2013 5:28 pm • linkreport

@Sydney- this is a great point. I know there's been a lot of controversy about taxes, auctions and abandoned buildings, but this area would be ripe for some sort of task force or pilot program to develop best practices which could later be implemented city-wide.

by jcbhan on Oct 17, 2013 6:09 pm • linkreport

jbchan -- 1. it is the height of ridiculousness to expect the private sector or neighborhood associations to take the lead on significant infrastructure improvements like roadway decking. But you know that. That's a DDOT/OP responsibility.

2. wrt the other point about landbanking and getting a handle on problem properties within a neighborhood, see

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2007/05/systematic-neighborhood-engagement.html

note that the links probably have to be updated.

by Richard Layman on Oct 17, 2013 8:27 pm • linkreport

The main way to preserve affordability is to move economically irrelevant people from the area. The second way is to reduce the number of large apartment buildings.

It's seems counter intuitive, but removing economically irrelevant people reduces the population of people trying to live in the area and increases the limited amount of housing that will come on line. Instead of everyone bidding on 1-2 houses, everyone will be bidding on 5-6 houses.

Perversely, stopping large apartment complexes also will keep the prices low. Lower density housing reduces the network effect of the area reducing the likelihood that 1st tier businesses will try to co-locate. Lack of neighborhood amenities due to lack of critical mass will produce negative feedback.

While the two aproaches seem incongruous, the first is the effect of multiple owners and sellers balancing a market in a way that increases supply and maintains lower prices. The second reduces network demand on the neighborhood. Having large apartment complexes doesn't have the same effect on the market as multiple sellers because all the units and their prices are controlled by a single seller with a long enough time horizon that they can artificially maintain high prices. If you allow them to put in ground floor 1st tier retail, you just justify the high prices people are paying and you've lost the war.

by name on Oct 18, 2013 9:07 am • linkreport

@name "economically irrelevant people"? [Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Eponymous on Oct 18, 2013 9:30 am • linkreport

It would be interesting to see some actual studies of the impact or commercial amenities (specifically high end retail) on housing prices and rents - and to statistically seperate that out from the impact of proximity to employment, to transit, the impact of crime rates, public amenities, etc. I suspect the impact of commercial amenities, though not zero, is far lower than many people think.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 18, 2013 9:44 am • linkreport

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

by Eponymous on Oct 18, 2013 9:47 am • linkreport

I took name's post as satire. They were saying that if you want to make the area affordable, you have to make it undesirable by doing all the things this site normally advocates against. You could also improve affordability by creating open pools of sewage in the area, for example.

by David C on Oct 18, 2013 10:02 am • linkreport

I took it as serious advice (maybe I'm a victim of Poes law) but didn't really want to argue if that's an outcome the city should want.

by Drumz on Oct 18, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

So can we say what is considered affordable ?

What is so walkable about these areas, any area is walkable aslong as there is nothing physically blocking you from doing so suchas highways, rivers, creeks, parks etc ?

When we speak of affordable are we talking about $500 , $800, $1000, $1500, $2000, $2500, $3000 or $4000 + per month rents

If we are talking about purchasing prices that are affordable you should look somewhere else towards the Benning or Congress Heights neighborhoods of DC

by kk on Oct 18, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

I suppose baseline for affordable would be under 40% of the median household income for an average sized family of (3?).

Walkable I agree is more subjective but it would require some mix of uses so you can reasonably and safely walk to a variety of destinations within ~1 mile or so.

I would assume a focus of affordability would be on renters rather than new purchasers from outside of the area, but I suppose it could also relate to say people growing up and being able to stay in the neighborhood which is probably a stretch most places these days...

by BTA on Oct 18, 2013 4:52 pm • linkreport

@ BTA

How is this median household income determined is it the zipcode, neighborhood, quadrant or city each of those has the ability to skew the income higher than what it truly is in an area because of one or two new buildings.

I'm willing to bet the amount has become skewed with buildings at 3rd and H Street NE, 4th and K Street NE and 1st & M Street NE.

If you include those I would bet the income is more than thrice as high as it use to be therefore proving no way for anyone that was living in affordable housing before those developments to ever live nearby again without winning the lottery or a 300 % raise.

The walk-ability aspect also is cultural one to; when you look at many sites on what makes a place walkable stores, but also nightlife and bars which would automatically take out a large percentage of people that do not drink or go to clubs. Including stuff that would be useful to all would be better grocery stores, parks, daycares, hospital/doctor/clinics, transit and resturants that are not just bars.

Then that also does not include people who are not of certain ages under 18, under 21, over 40, over 60 all have different thoughts of walk ability and what they would prioritize more.

by kk on Oct 18, 2013 5:32 pm • linkreport

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