Greater Greater Washington

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A hidden height limit holds back affordable mid-rise construction in DC

In "The Three Little Pigs," one pig builds a house from straw, a second from sticks, and a third from bricks, with very different consequences. Notably absent is any mention of each little pig's construction budget. For humans today, it's not protection from wolves, but out-of-control budgets that determine our choices of building materials.


New residential construction in Takoma. Photo by the author.

The 1899 Height Act set a construction limit of 90 feet in much of DC, effectively 7 or 8 stories. This height poses a particularly vexing cost conundrum for developers seeking to build workforce housing in DC's neighborhoods. It's just beyond one of the key cost thresholds in development, between buildings supported with light frames versus heavy frames.

Fire safety codes require that buildings over 6 stories have heavy frames, but rents in most of the city don't quite justify the considerable added cost. Instead, valuable land near downtown sits empty, outlying areas that could support taller buildings instead get low-rise buildings, and the city gets fewer new housing units. New construction techniques could offer a way out.

The difference between heavy and light frames

Heavy frames rely on fewer but stronger steel or reinforced concrete columns to hold up the building, and are better known as Type I fireproof structures. Light frames rely on many small columns (usually known as studs), and are usually referred to as Type II (if masonry or metal) or if wood, Type III (with fire resistive treatments), Type IV (if made from heavy beams), or Type V (if little fire-proofing has been applied) construction.


Left: Type I: 1100 1st St. NE in NoMa. Right: Type III: Apartments in Fort Totten. Photos by Mr.T in DC on Flickr.

These structural types are rated using the degree of fire protection that these structures offer, with lower numbers denoting more fire-resistant structures. In DC, they're defined in the city's building code, which is based on an international standardthe International Code Council (ICC) and its "I-Codes."

The ICC's Table 503 sets limits on how high different types of buildings can be. Thanks to technological improvements to wood and fire safety improvements to buildings, mid-rise buildings can be built up to five floors high using Type III construction. These five floors can, in turn, be placed atop a one-story concrete podium to build a six-story mixed-use building.

How much cheaper?

Light frame construction cuts costs in two principal ways. Light frames use fewer materials in the first place and thus have smaller ecological footprints, particularly since cement manufacturing is one of the most carbon-intensive industries.

They are also built from standardized parts that are usually finished off-site, rather than on-site, so materials are cheaper, on-site storage and staging (e.g., cement mixers) require less space, and construction is faster. That further reduces overall construction costs, since developers pay steep interest rates on construction loans.

These cost savings really add up throughout the entire building. The ICC's Building Value Data provides a comparison of national average per-square-foot construction costs for different kinds of multi-family building construction.

$104.74Type VLow-rise wood frame
$119.77Type IIIMid-rise wood frame, fire-resistant walls
$139.01Type IIMid-rise, light-gauge steel
$150.25Type IHigh-rise fireproof

Similarly, the RS Means construction cost-estimator database provides 2012 estimates (adjusted for local prices in DC) that show an even steeper premium for high-rise construction:

$136.70Type VLow-rise wood frame, 3 stories
$162.87Type IIMid-rise, light-gauge steel & block, 6 stories
$246.32Type IHigh-rise fireproof, 15 stories

As the ICC figures show, switching from Type III to Type I construction increases the cost of every square foot by 25.4%. Thus going from, say, a six-story building to seven stories only increases the available square footage by 16.7%, but increases construction costs by 46.3%. This results in a difficult choice: go higher for more square feet but at a higher price point, or take the opportunity cost, go lower, and get a cheaper, faster building?

In most other cities, the obvious solution is to go ever higher. Once a building crosses into high-rise construction, the sky's ostensibly the limit. In theory, density can be increased until the additional space brings in enough revenue to more than offset the higher costs. As Linsey Isaacs writes in Multifamily Executive: "Let's say you have a property on an urban infill site that costs $100 per square foot of land. Wood may cost 10 percent less than its counterpart materials, but by doing a high-rise on the site, you get double the density and the land cost is cut in half."

Yet here in DC, the 90-foot height limit on residential areas, and commercial streets outside the core, tightly caps the additional building area that could pay for the substantial cost premium of building a high-rise.

Within the twilight zone

For many areas in DC, land is expensive enough to fall into a Twilight Zone. These areas are expensive enough to require high-rise densities, but the local rents are too cheap to justify high rises' high per-foot construction prices.

These areas are not super-trendy like 1st Street NE in NoMa or 14th Street NW in Logan Circle, which are seeing an explosion of Type I construction (and prices to match, with new apartment buildings selling for $900 per square foot). Nor are they outlying areas, where developers think the opportunity cost of forgoing a future high-rise is acceptable and thus proceed with Type III construction.

The recent apartment boom has given local residents a good, long look at Type III construction: in outlying city neighborhoods like Brookland, Fort Totten, Eckington, Petworth, off Bladensburg Road, and in town centers like Merrifield and White Flint.

In areas that are in-between, a lot of landowners are biding their time, waiting until the moment when land prices will justify a 90-foot high-risea situation which explains many of the vacant lots in what might seem like prime locations.

My own neighborhood of Southwest Waterfront is just one example. Within one block of the Metro station are nine vacant lots, all entitled for high-rise buildings, but their developers are waiting until the land prices jump high enough to make high-rises worthwhile amidst a neighborhood known for its relatively affordable prices.

While the developers wait, the heart of the neighborhood suffers from a lack of customers within walking distance; the resulting middling retail selection, vacant storefronts, and subpar bus service reinforces the perception that Southwest Waterfront is not worthy of investment. Nearby Nationals Park is similarly surrounded by vacant lots, with renderings of eight-story Type I buildings blowing in the breeze.

In NoMa (east of the tracks) and the western end of H Street NE, projects like 360 H and AVA H Street were redesigned after 2008's market crash so that they didn't require Type I construction. The redesigns reduced costs, reduced the developers' need for scarce financing, and made the projects possiblebut also reduced the number of units built. AVA was entitled for almost 170 units, but was built as 138 units: building 20% fewer units cut structural costs by over 40%, according to developer AvalonBay.

Elsewhere, some other development projects have similarly been redesigned with faster Type III construction, even as future phases assume Type I construction. Capitol Quarter, the redevelopment of Capper/Carrollsburg near Navy Yard, might win an award for the shortest time between announcement and groundbreaking for the mixed-income Lofts at Capitol Quarter.

Several blocks west, the first phase to deliver at the Wharf will be the last phase that was designed; in fact, the idea of redeveloping St. Augustine's Church as a new church with a Type III residential building above came years after design began on the high-rises to its west.

New technologies can break the logjam

If it weren't for the Height Act, developers wouldn't just sit and wait on sites like these. They'd probably just build Type III buildings, and if there's still demand, they could build Type I downtown towers with 20+ floors. But due to the Height Act, DC is one of the only cities in America where there's a substantial market for 7-8 story buildings.

To break this logjam without changing the Height Act, DC's building community can embrace new light-frame construction techniques that can cost-effectively build mid-rise buildings without the need for steel beams and reinforced concrete. Local architects, developers, and public officials could convene a working group to bring some of these innovations to market, and thus safely deliver more housing at less cost.

Cross laminated timber (CLT), a "mega-plywood" made of lumber boards laminated together, has sufficient strength and fire resistance for high-rise structures; it's been used to build a 95-foot residential building in London and a 105.5-foot building in Melbourne. The ICC has approved CLT for inclusion in its 2015 code update, but the city has leeway to approve such structures today under a provision that allows "alternate materials and methods."

Cities like Seattle have started to evaluate whether to specifically permit taller CLT buildings. The Bullitt Center, a zero-impact building in Seattle, uses CLT for most of its upper-story structure.


The Bullitt Center. Photo by the author.

Type II buildings, often built with light frames of cold formed (aka light gauge) steel, can achieve high-rise heights but the ICC limits them to the same heights as Type III. (For example, 360 H Street was re-engineered from Type I to Type II, and lost two stories in the process.) Prefabrication, hybrid systems that incorporate other materials, and new fasteners have made mid-rise Type II buildings stronger and most cost-effective.

However, as the RS Means chart above shows, Type II might be cheaper than Type I but remains more expensive than Type I. Similar prefabrication has been applied to Type I mid-rises on the West Coast to reduce their costs.

By embracing these advancements in structural engineering, as well as providing relief from onerous parking requirements, DC could more easily and affordably build the mid-rise buildings that will house much of the city in the future.

Thanks to Brian O'Looney, partner at Torti Gallas and Partners, for sharing his expertise. A version of this post appeared on West North.

Payton Chung, LEED AP ND, CNUa, sees the promises and perils of planning every day as a resident of Southwest Washington. He first addressed a city council about smart growth in 1996, accidentally authored Chicago's inclusionary housing law, blogs at west north, and is editor-at-large for Streetsblog

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The shorter buildings have wooden supporting structure.

by Capt. Hilts on Mar 18, 2014 10:27 am • linkreport

Good post.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 18, 2014 10:42 am • linkreport

These concrete buildings usually have to have large excavations for substructures which always become garages too. The draining of the water table by them causes the ground to compact around them putting cracks and sometimes collapses in close-by houses. And they take 2 years to build, much longer than frame/block buildings.

The destruction to the water level and environment and the 2-year disruption of the area are the reasons I hate that economics in DC usually mean in central neighborhoods that these wasteful 7/8 story buildings are built.

DC was one of the last places to allow plastic pipes so it's not surprising we're behind on building methods.

Evidently the 1st floor has to be concrete in DC even if the rest is frame/block.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 18, 2014 10:43 am • linkreport

@Tom Courmaris; I have to disagree with you and the premise of the post here.

What we want is underground garages and more steel. Yes, there is a cost in terms of excavation and construction time. Rome wasn't built in a day.

I'm not sure where cinder block comes in (type ii) but that seems like a good compromise. These wood frame buildings are not going to do well in 25 to 30 years.

by charlie on Mar 18, 2014 10:49 am • linkreport

This is an interesting analysis. It makes you wonder what is the biggest culprit to the lack of building supply to meet demand. I definatly agree that embracing some of these proposals would be benificial as I see the mid-rise building to be the most humane way of addressing our housing shortage. But any technological and code/zoning changes should be supported with changes in the regulatory sphere. Toronto has already laid some ground work in this field.

http://www.planetizen.com/node/67761

"mid-rise buildings can be built up to five floors high using Type III construction. These five floors can, in turn, be placed atop a one-story concrete podium to build a six-story mixed-use building. "

Why not place the five story wood box on top of a three story concrete podium? Who knows, with set backs and some form based codes, we could come up with building types that could harmoniously fit into the main avenues that anchor many of our low rise neighborhoods. Pair it up with the street car plans and you've got a great formula for growth.

by Thayer-D on Mar 18, 2014 10:54 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D: The ICC fixes the heights as a number of stories and in feet above grade. The idea is that in a fire, people only have X amount of time to run down the stairs and aren't safe until they're outside of the building. I've seen some cases of two-story podiums, but usually there's some kind of grade change involved.

Also, funny you mention Toronto, as they're having this exact same conversation right now (although in their case, it's also because Canada has a large wood industry):
http://urbantoronto.ca/news/2013/12/6-storey-wood-framing-key-unlocking-torontos-avenues

by Payton Chung on Mar 18, 2014 11:03 am • linkreport

"Why not place the five story wood box on top of a three story concrete podium?"

I am not a fire safety expert, but my guess is that fire depts want safer treatments at heights that are harder for them to reach - I guess 3 stories of concrete doesn't help when a fire breaks out on floor 8.

So its either a technical fix to make building to 8 cheaper, or DC could take the logical approach of allowing buildings taller than 90ft. That of course will not happen in the next 4 years (so lets not discuss the economics of it again) - by the time its up for consideration again (I think in 2018) the building technologies discussed in the post may be further advanced.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 11:06 am • linkreport

And one correction: the proposed residential building at Florida Rock, behind Nationals Park, is nine stories. To be clear, much of Near SE/SW has a 130' limit, not a 90' limit, but the principle remains the same.

by Payton Chung on Mar 18, 2014 11:09 am • linkreport

The parking minimums should not apply to affordable units. That one step would give affordable housing a real boost.

by Steve on Mar 18, 2014 11:09 am • linkreport

The minimum parking requirements drive up the cost of housing hugely in urban areas. And, under larger buildings, a lot of it stands empty. I've seen that here in Bethesda and also in Toronto.

by Capt. Hilts on Mar 18, 2014 11:11 am • linkreport

As a response to the height above grade restricting three story podiums, that could be solved by lining the egress stairs with additional drywall or simply building them as concrete block silos. The all timber highrise structures in Seatle and London would have solved this problem somehow.

Anyone who's seen empty storefronts in economically healthy areas will be familiar with the "why the hell isn't someone renting this space?" phenomenon. My quess is that some developers are holding out for short term pain/long term gain ie: better bottom line returns. Same would hold true for vacant lots, especially if they plan on holding on to a property.

by Thayer-D on Mar 18, 2014 11:19 am • linkreport

Stop it with the "we need taller buildings whining." Ain't happening here, ever.

by Orgasmaddict on Mar 18, 2014 11:19 am • linkreport

I'm not sure where cinder block comes in (type ii) but that seems like a good compromise. These wood frame buildings are not going to do well in 25 to 30 years.

cinderblock lacks the strength to build a tall structure without massively thick walls. You can have a steel building that has cinderblock on the outside or you can have a wooden building with exterior of cinderblock or brick. In most cases you want some sort of tiered set up where the top has a lot less cladding than the bottom.

by Richard on Mar 18, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

Some areas in Toronto - the distillery district - are being destroyed by the construction of massive high-rises. This pattern has accelerated in response to Toronto's hosting of the Pan-Am/Commonwealth games. [I can't remember which ]

by Capt. Hilts on Mar 18, 2014 11:26 am • linkreport

This is a double-edged sword. DC is unusual in making these 7/8 story concrete buildings financially worthwhile. Unless and until the code is changed, we need to think of some way to discourage their use in preference to one-story-shorter block/frame buildings. The small increase in density isn't worth the additional environmental destruction.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 18, 2014 11:28 am • linkreport

"Unless and until the code is changed, we need to think of some way to discourage their use in preference to one-story-shorter block/frame buildings."

Hmm.. How about making all six story buildings (in zones where 7-8 is allowed under zoning) exempt from parking minimums?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

No one's mentioned quality of life issues with varying construction types yet. When we first moved to the DC area, my wife and I rented in a mid-rise and you could hear literally every footstep someone took in the unit above us. We currently live in a high-rise by Nats Park, and to this day, have not heard a single one of our neighbors through either wall or ceiling (and yes, the building has sold out, so all the units are occupied). IMO, there's a "you get what you pay for" effect with regard to construction types: yes, concrete-structured units cost more, but they're much more pleasant to live in.

by JES on Mar 18, 2014 11:40 am • linkreport

This is definitely one of the more interesting nuances for me in urban development. I do think it should be taken into account re: zoning and housing affordability. If someone has the time and technical skill it would be intereting to see what areas of the city have inefficient zoning like allowing only 4 or 8 storeys resulting in lower construction ultimately. How do Arlington and Montgomery County do their zoning districts?

by BTA on Mar 18, 2014 12:02 pm • linkreport

Walker- I'm fine with all sorts of deals to make more sense of our alleged "planning". That's usually how things work best- give and take.

And of course I'd like to see parking minimums eliminated for every building- but absolutely only if the new building is RPP-free. It would mean units were worth less and rents would have to lower if they were not RPP-eligible too.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 18, 2014 12:06 pm • linkreport

But if you want it to be inducement to not build 8 stories, you may want to give a stronger inducement - no parking min but no RPP is still an inducement of course (it will make sense for some developers) but no parking min WITH RPPs would be a stronger inducement.

How about - no parking minimum, but the residents of the new building pay more for RPPs - something more like what a market clearing price (assuming a reasonable limit on total number of RPP's) would be. Of course that would have the disadvantage of pointing out how much value is given away in the current RPP pricing, and the inequity of it might be too striking.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 12:16 pm • linkreport

Bias note: I am a concrete contractor
That said, two points to discuss. First, I didn't see any mention of the first floor retail issue. Floor to Floor heights for ground floor retail are typically much higher than residential or office. This drives the building height issue and affects the structural design (seismic, etc.)
Second, there really aren't many viable alternatives for shortening residential floor-to-floor heights to a concrete frame. To simplify the argument for non-builders, this means that a concrete frame can be designed to minimize floor-to-floor heights and accommodate HVAC, sprinkler, etc. Structural steel is restricted by the depth of the structural member.

by Brett McMahon on Mar 18, 2014 12:31 pm • linkreport

Why not just put in place a 5 year escalating tax for any developer sitting on land in the urban core (say, from Brookland to SW waterfront, North to South, and from 14th st to Rhode Island Ave Metro, West to East)? When that mandate is in place, the developers will take it upon themselves to figure this sort of thing out. Proceeds from the tax can be used to improve infrastructure/transportation around these areas. Add in the standard 20% or so affordable housing requirements and you're killing all sorts of birds with one stone.

by 11luke on Mar 18, 2014 12:44 pm • linkreport

Small critique of, "since developers pay steep interest rates on construction loans." Construction loan interest rates for commercial projects are around ~4% and rather inexpensive. It's the high cost of equity (~20% expected IRR returns) that makes any additional time or delays so expensive and which allows you to boost project pro-forma returns with a shorter timeline using quicker construction techniques.

by John on Mar 18, 2014 12:48 pm • linkreport

To clarify- When I speak of the dubious benefit of 7 story vs. 6 story I'm talking about the numerous zones where 70 feet is the limit. In the 90 foot areas concrete makes sense financially.

"""Nearby Nationals Park is similarly surrounded by vacant lots, with renderings of eight-story Type I buildings blowing in the breeze."""- compliments on your writing skills.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 18, 2014 1:05 pm • linkreport

"Why not just put in place a 5 year escalating tax for any developer sitting on land in the urban core (say, from Brookland to SW waterfront, North to South, and from 14th st to Rhode Island Ave Metro, West to East)? "

Only on developers and not on churches, parking lot operators, and ordinary folks who happen to own some empty land? That will only encourage developers to buy the land later in the development process.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 1:10 pm • linkreport

This isn't a Height Act issue. It's a zoning issue. Apartment buildings in R Zones (to be redefined as A zones under the zoning rewrite) are considered residential for the purposes of the Height Act, but local zoning restricts some of the buildings in those zones to less than what is allowed under the Height Act in order to ensure that they fit into lower scale residential neighborhoods.

Apartment buildings in SP or C Zones (to be redefined as Mo Zones) are considered to be in mixed-use areas and are not limited to the 90' height limit in residential areas. Under the Height Act, apartment buildings in mixed-use zones could go up to 130', but local zoning restricts them to less than that in most zones.

by Christine on Mar 18, 2014 1:36 pm • linkreport

Why not just put in place a 5 year escalating tax for any developer sitting on land in the urban core (say, from Brookland to SW waterfront, North to South, and from 14th st to Rhode Island Ave Metro, West to East)? "

Only on developers and not on churches, parking lot operators, and ordinary folks who happen to own some empty land?

DC has a 5% punitive tax rate on vacant properties and a 10% rate on vacant blighted properties. While enforcement of these punitive tax rates seems spotty at best, it would be reasonable to apply the 5% rate to vacant land. Like the vacant structures tax, it would apply whether you're a developer or individual but it wouldn't apply to active parking lots since they're a productive use that generates a lot of tax revenue -- clearly not vacant.

Churches are exempt from taxes whether their property is vacant, blighted or not.

by Falls Church on Mar 18, 2014 1:37 pm • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity

I would make it to applicable to any private entity/person that owns land that is not currently being used. Undeveloped lots, mostly. So churches and non-profits are exempted, as would be parking lots. And it applies to all existing lots, so I'm not sure how future lots are applicable, since those would only come into existence as a result of demolition or fire.

This is punative, I get it, but it sounds like you value the private property rights of the developer to do nothing on a plot of land if he so chooses to maximize his future wealth over the growth and prosperity of the city.

by 11luke on Mar 18, 2014 1:39 pm • linkreport

thanks for the clarification Christine. Is it correct that the limit in the residential zones is based on height (not the height act) and not on floor-area ratio?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 1:40 pm • linkreport

I meant churches that own vacant lots. Which IIUC, some do.

Your argument for my motive is incorrect. I do think that people tend to assume that the only player in development is the developer (and whomever they sell/rent to) and forget that developers generally buy vacant land from non-develor owners of all kinds. Development is a competitive business, and developers bid against each other for parcels of land.

I did want to clarify how your law would work. IMHO it would either harm non-developer land owners (which does not mean its bad as policy, just that it might get political opposition from non-developer landowners) or if on developers only, it would merely encourage developers to leave the land in the hands of those nondeveloper landowners till later in the development process.

As for parking lots, thats problematic. So if Im a parking lot operator, close my lot, and dont sell it yet, Im exempt? what if keep it "open" to long term parkers only and no one actually finds my parking rate reasonable and no one parks there? What if I keep it for the occasional storage of a commercial vehicle, but years go by and I find I havent actually parked usch a vehicle there?

What if I make a community garden? Or hold a truckeroo once a year?

Its really much more complicated than vacant buildings, which require certification of habitability, and so forth.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

"While enforcement of these punitive tax rates seems spotty at best, it would be reasonable to apply the 5% rate to vacant land. Like the vacant structures tax, it would apply whether you're a developer or individual but it wouldn't apply to active parking lots since they're a productive use that generates a lot of tax revenue -- clearly not vacant."

Hmmm. What if I use the lot once a year?

Structures need maintenance to meet code, so its usually not economical to keep them for very occasional use - vacant land is not like that. I've been in places where a vacant dirt lot in a downtown area was opened to parking for once or twice a year special events.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 1:50 pm • linkreport

For many areas in DC, land is expensive enough to fall into a Twilight Zone. These areas are expensive enough to require high-rise densities, but the local rents are too cheap to justify high rises' high per-foot construction prices.

This just doesn't square with basic economics.

What sets the price of land? Supply and demand, driven by the potential for income production. Unless the market believes that the future is going to be fundamentally different from today, land prices should reflect what can be commanded as rent.

by contrarian on Mar 18, 2014 1:51 pm • linkreport

contrarian

You are correct that the "twilight zone" could never cause the land to not be used. I think the argument is made that these are areas where the locational advantage of the land is such that its clear that at SOME POINT IN TIME it will be economical to build to the highest density allowed (the 8 story building) but not currently, so the land is kept in reserve. I do not think a punitive tax on vacant land would address this, as land (unlike structures) can easily be kept in reserve with uses that involve minimal investment while being technically non-vacant (its possible residential zoning could prevent some of those uses.)

A more general tax on land thats higher than the tax on structures, a la Henry George, would probably help a bit, but would not completely solve the problem.

For land owned by tax exempt entities, no tax based approach would help.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

@contrarian: housing isn't a perfect market; indeed, far from it. land speculation, construction times, construction costs, and opportunity costs mean that landowners would rather wait until "the future... fundamentally different from today" and then build something taller & costlier, than build something cheaper & shorter now.

it would be very different if, say, housing were delivered as Lego blocks, and more units could just be stacked on top as demand warrants.

by Payton Chung on Mar 18, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

@Christine & Orgasmaddict: this isn't about the Height Act. it's about the building code.

by Payton Chung on Mar 18, 2014 2:04 pm • linkreport

Payton

This not necessarily about any imperfections in the market. Assume the regulations relative to fire safety are in fact correct (quite possible) and assume as a thought experiment its not possible to build over 8 stories. Holding the land vacant (or as an occasionally used parking lot) while waiting for the right moment to build is in fact the economically optimal use - the market in that case has worked. I believe a full micro analysis would show that the additional units to be gained by waiting for 8 stories, is of more "value" (as defined by buyer willingness to pay) than having a 6 story building earlier (with market interest rate discounting over time.) In that sense coercive techniques (including punitive taxes) to encourage earlier building of a 6 story building are actually bad policy (note well, I assume no negative externalities from a vacant lot - another way vacant lots are quite different from vacant structures.)

Of course if you think the zoning itself is not optimal, thats another issue.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 2:12 pm • linkreport

Or, if we value housing and time differently than the market does.

The market may say that a X+20% more units in 4 years, is worth more than X units in 2 years, even with discounting. We may beleive there is a housing crisis now that needs to be addressed for social reasons.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 2:16 pm • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity

I take your point, but all these are just drafting issues for the legislators. You do a lookback to define whether the land is being "used." So if as of a certain date, the land is being used as a parking lot, then its exempt. If it stops being used as a parking lot, then its no longer exempt. Developers can't "game" it by trying to put in a community garden or open it to parking a few times a year since the lookback period to define use will have already occurred.

To say that a blog comment idea is not thought out or more complicated than a few lines is pedantic. For arguments sake, assume the law will be drafted by professional legislators and their staff and reviewed by legal counsel.

by 11luke on Mar 18, 2014 2:30 pm • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity: wasn't meant for you. just pointing out directly to "contrarian" that the market for land isn't classically "perfect," and therefore no, "basic economics" doesn't quite apply.

as you point out, yes, sometimes the economics of development result in neither a 6-story building nor a 10-story building, but a vacant lot instead. that's not what "basic economics" would say, but the basic point of my 7-page article was to say that construction & development have a lot of nuances that obviate "basic economics."

by Payton Chung on Mar 18, 2014 2:33 pm • linkreport

"If it stops being used as a parking lot, then its no longer exempt."

What if someone owns a parking lot and closes it briefly for good business reasons, and then reopens it. I fully realize a blog post is not the same as drafting a law - but I also think that punitive taxes on vacant land are highly problematic in ways taxes on vacant buildings are not.

And I also question the public policy value of them. Do we really want to encourage immediate construction of 6 story buildings when an 8 story building might come in a few years, adding more to the housing supply (but later)? Is there a negative externality to a vacant lot (or community garden) equivalent to that presented by an empty structure?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 2:40 pm • linkreport

@Peyton, I get that this is primarily a building code issue, but I felt like you were framing it also as a Height Act issue in your second paragraph.

@AWalkerInTheCity, the allowable heights under zoning are influenced by a variety of things including FAR, building use, and Inclusionary Zoning.

by Christine on Mar 18, 2014 2:59 pm • linkreport

@Christine: the article focuses primarily on the building code, but notes that the building code interacts with the Height Act to create a particularly perverse outcome.

by Payton Chung on Mar 18, 2014 3:08 pm • linkreport

AWITC,

Here's how I'd work the vacant land tax. State that the owner needs to pay total taxes equal to something like 3% of the lands value. They can pay that 3% entirely as a property tax or it can be a combo of taxes paid for other uses (such as parking) plus property taxes. So, if on a $1M lot you generate $20K in parking taxes (or sales tax from your truckeroo events) you then need to pay an additional $10K in property taxes so it adds up to 3%.

If you put a community benefit such as a community garden on your lot, you can negotiate a break from the 3% tax.

A 5% vacant lot tax equal to the rate for vacant structures is probably too high since vacant structures are worse than vacant land. Hence I suggest 3% for vacant land and keep the 5% rate for vacant structures.

by Falls Church on Mar 18, 2014 3:50 pm • linkreport

so a back door henry george tax - tax land and structures equally but rebate the "other taxes" on commercial activities. That would of course, shift the burden between commercial and residential structures significantly (unless there are other taxes on residential structures I am not aware of, or we credit the residential structure with the income taxes paid by inhabitants (which raises some huge issues from confideniality of income tax, to equity among income groups). I think perhaps you are thinking that this tax rebate would only apply to uses that are close to vacant, like parking, and not all commercial property. I think drawing the line in that instance will be difficult. If I own a parking lot I pay a higher tax than for a retail store? Does a retail store with a small parking lot pay the vacant land tax on the lot (net of parking taxes? But a retailer may not charge for parking)? If not how de we stop someone from putting a small shop on a large parking lot to avoid the tax?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 4:03 pm • linkreport

AWITC,

The 3% vacant land tax wouldn't apply to any lots that have a structure on them. If they have a structure of any sort, then existing tax regime would apply -- 5% for vacant structures, 10% for blighted structures, and normal tax rates for everything else that's occupied.

I think perhaps you are thinking that this tax rebate would only apply to uses that are close to vacant, like parking, and not all commercial property.

Basically. It would only apply to land without a structure.

If I own a parking lot I pay a higher tax than for a retail store?

I see nothing wrong with incentivizing retail stores over parking lots.

Does a retail store with a small parking lot pay the vacant land tax on the lot (net of parking taxes?...If not how do we stop someone from putting a small shop on a large parking lot to avoid the tax?

Retail stores would have parking MAXimums (not a minimum). Status quo taxes apply for parking under the max and the vacant land tax kicks in for any parking over the max. Basically, retailers are fine as long as they don't exceed the max and some retailers could be grandfathered in.

But a retailer may not charge for parking)?

I don't believe it violates any law for the retailer to charge for parking. What I'm proposing would incent a retailer who was over the parking max to charge for parking.

by Falls Church on Mar 18, 2014 4:18 pm • linkreport

"Retail stores would have parking MAXimums (not a minimum)."

Thats a big change in the law right there. Good luck.

"But a retailer may not charge for parking)?

I don't believe it violates any law for the retailer to charge for parking. "

i was using may not in the sense of "might choose to not charge" rather than "is forbidden from charging" - sorry

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 18, 2014 4:34 pm • linkreport

"The parking minimums should not apply to affordable units. That one step would give affordable housing a real boost."

Why not just start with enforcement of the affordable housing requirements? I've seen project developers/consultants engage in shady legal tactics to do everything they can to evade requirements. Streetworks is a good example of this.

by Jasper2 on Mar 18, 2014 4:48 pm • linkreport

A Georgist anti-speculation tax certainly has its merits, but in this particular case it doesn't remove the peculiar interaction at play. Pushing developers to shoot first, without fixing the underlying building code problem, would result in a lot more six-story Type III buildings -- further diminishing the city's possible build-out population. In a worst case scenario, you could end up with more properties like Frontiers West, those weird low-rise townhouses smack-dab in the middle of 14th.

Plus, it doesn't accept that sometimes life happens. A bunch of the vacant lots around Nationals Park were owned by Monument Realty with Lehman Brothers as a partner. What happened to Lehman was rather unprecedented.

by Payton Chung on Mar 18, 2014 6:10 pm • linkreport

I'd like to know more about how the various types of construction affect soundproofing and noise levels. Like JES, I've experienced living in buildings where you could hear every footstep -- only I was the one upstairs. It sucked to worry that every time you took a step or turned on the TV you might be disturbing your neighbors. In my current highrise, noise is never a problem. I don't hear my neighbors, and more importantly for me -- they don't appear to hear me.

by Mary on Mar 18, 2014 9:13 pm • linkreport

I'd lower the 70' limit in DC to 60'. Besides all the other problems concrete 70 footers cause, they are very permanent. 60 footers are basically 20 year buildings that can be razed easily for future needs.

I noticed on Rhode Island Row all the first floor commercial was concrete with stick built above. They still managed to save enough to have about 50% affordable housing I think.

In DC first floor retail drives the economics of buildings. A big concession developers would leap at would be allowing 2 floors of retail/commercial. Of course this would diminish housing.

Liquor licenses also skyrocket the value of retail so in an area where licenses are limited they can be used as incentives.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 18, 2014 9:38 pm • linkreport

Below, I copy/paste provisions of sections 1 through 4 of the Height Act of 1910, as amended, that, among other things, that set height limits as a function of the nature of construction ("fireproof" for example). I sense these provisions are not currently considered, but the height limits remain "on the books."

From what I can see, modern codes provide ample protections so these are lingering restrictions of the past, but could rear up in a dispute at some point. The cure is to repeal the outmoded provisions, something that DC can do itself (the limitations on DC amendments apply to section 5 of the Act, which is not among the provisions below.

As Codified (September 19, 2013)
§ 6-601.01. Nonfireproof dwellings

No combustible or nonfireproof building in the District of Columbia used or occupied or intended to be used or occupied as a dwelling, flat, apartment house, tenement, lodging or boarding house, hospital, dormitory, or for any similar purpose shall be erected, altered, or raised to a height of more than 4 stories, or more than 55 feet in height above the sidewalk, and no combustible or nonfireproof building shall be converted to any of the uses aforesaid if it exceeds either of said limits of height.

HISTORY: June 1, 1910, 36 Stat. 452, ch. 263, § 1;
May 20, 1912, 37 Stat. 114, ch. 124.
§ 6-601.02. Nonfireproof business buildings

No combustible or nonfireproof building in the District of Columbia used or occupied or intended to be used or occupied for business purposes only shall be erected, altered, or raised to a height of more than 60 feet above the sidewalk, and no combustible or nonfireproof building shall be converted to such use if it exceeds said height.

HISTORY: June 1, 1910, 36 Stat. 452, ch. 263, § 2
§ 6-601.03. Buildings exceeding 60 feet in height; hotels, apartments, and tenements of 3 or more stories; halls with seating capacity of 300 or more; churches

(a) All buildings of every kind, class, and description whatsoever, excepting churches only, erected, altered, or raised in any manner after June 1, 1910, as to exceed 60 feet in height shall be fireproof or noncombustible and of such fire-resisting materials, from the foundation up, as are now or at the time of the erecting, altering, or raising may be required by the building regulations of the District of Columbia.

HISTORY: June 1, 1910, 36 Stat. 452, ch. 263, § 3.
(b) Hotels, apartment houses, and tenement houses erected, altered or raised in any manner after June 1, 1910, so as to be 3 stories in height or over and buildings converted after June 1, 1910, to such uses shall be of fireproof construction up to and including the main floor, and there shall be no space on any floor of such structure of an area greater than 2,500 square feet that is not completely inclosed by fireproof walls, and all doors through such walls shall be of noncombustible materials.

HISTORY: June 1, 1910, 36 Stat. 452, ch. 263, § 3.
(c) Every building erected after June 1, 1910, with a hall or altered so as to have a hall with a seating capacity of more than 300 persons when completed, as provided by the building regulations, and every church thereafter erected or building converted after June 1, 1910, for use as a church, with such seating capacity, shall be of fireproof construction up to and including the floor of such hall or the auditorium of such church as the case may be.

HISTORY: June 1, 1910, 36 Stat. 452, ch. 263, § 3.
§ 6-601.04. Additions; towers, spires, and domes; theaters

(a) Additions to existing combustible or nonfireproof structures after June 1, 1910, erected, altered, or raised to exceed the height limited by §§ 6-601.01 to 6-601.08 for such structures shall be of fireproof construction from the foundation up, and no part of any combustible or nonfireproof building shall be raised above such limit or height unless that part be fireproof from the foundations up.

HISTORY: June 1, 1910, 36 Stat. 453, ch. 263, § 4.

(b) Towers, spires, or domes, thereafter constructed more than 60 feet above the sidewalk, must be of fireproof material from the foundation up, and must be separated from the roof space, choir loft, or balcony by brick walls without openings, unless such openings are protected by fireproof or metal-covered doors on each face of the wall. Full power and authority is hereby granted to and conferred upon every person, whose application was filed in the Office of the Mayor of the District of Columbia prior to the adoption of the present building regulations of said District, to construct a steel fireproof dome on any buildings owned by such person, in square 345 of said District, as set forth in the plans and specifications annexed to or forming a part of such applications so filed, any other provision in §§ 6-601.01 to 6-601.08 contained to the contrary notwithstanding. And the Inspector of Buildings of said District shall make no changes in said plans and specifications unless for the structural safety of the building it is necessary to do so.

HISTORY: June 1, 1910, 36 Stat. 453, ch. 263, § 4.

(c) Every theater erected after June 1, 1910, and every building converted thereafter to use as a theater, and any building or the part or parts thereof under or over the theater so erected or the buildings so converted, shall be of fireproof construction from the foundation up and have fireproof walls between it and other buildings connected therewith, and any theater damaged to one-half its value shall not be rebuilt except with fireproof materials throughout and otherwise in accordance with the building regulations of the District of Columbia.
HISTORY: June 1, 1910, 36 Stat. 453, ch. 263, § 4.

by Lindsley Williams on Mar 19, 2014 10:53 am • linkreport

That makes it sound very cut and dry, when the actual history is a lot more nuanced. At the time there where many concerns about loosing light on the street both in DC and elswhere. While other cities stipulated light as the main issue, DC seems to have taken on a rather legalistic tack. All the more strange since other American cities already had many skyscrapers in excess of the 110' limit without having structural or fireproofing issues.

by Thayer-D on Mar 19, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

"I'd lower the 70' limit in DC to 60'. Besides all the other problems concrete 70 footers cause, they are very permanent. 60 footers are basically 20 year buildings that can be razed easily for future needs. "

Like the 130 foot buildings that will be allowed in 2034 ;)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 19, 2014 1:51 pm • linkreport

Developers have been lobbying for taller wood buildings all across the USA and Canada for years now, claiming that new fireproofing methods can render such structures as fire-resistant as concrete. This may be true, or at least close to the truth, when sufficient fire barriers like intumescent paint, mineral wool and gypsum board are used in the assembly. But when sprinklers are mandatory, developers love to forgo all but the minimal passive fire proofing, claiming that the sprinklers alone render the building nearly fireproof. Don't buy it! Fires that start in dead space, or even on balconies often get around the sprinkler system, rendering the otherwise shoddy building (with glued assemblies that collapse much faster than the wood construction of the 1950s) a bonfire. Also, with a building life expectancy of 100 years, how can one guarantee that a sprinkler system won't be neglected and turned off long before the building is demolished? Inspectors have enough to do already; they often miss more obvious faults as it is. A concrete building retains its fire resistance for the life of the building; fireproofing materials will at least stay intact until the building is damaged or deliberately altered. But sprinkler systems are guaranteed to fail in some way before the life expectancy of the building has been reached, and should only be used to protect building contents, they should not be the only defense against the spread of fire.

by PCL on Mar 19, 2014 10:23 pm • linkreport

@PCL: good point about sprinklers. However, Type II/III construction does require passive fireproofing in the form of fire-rated wall assemblies, typically with drywall panels. Type IV buildings' massive timbers char slowly and offer some passive fire protection. All of these should certainly be considered by code officials, engineers, architects, and fire officials before offering additional height.

by Payton Chung on Mar 20, 2014 12:55 pm • linkreport

Most of what I see non-concrete in DC is block and/or aluminum studs usually with a steel frame. I assume the fire hazard for these is as low as concrete?

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 20, 2014 1:41 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris: block usually has some structural studs behind it. Light gauge steel isn't as fireproof as structural ("red") steel, since it can melt in a fire and usually doesn't have fireproofing applied. Thus, structural steel is Type I, masonry or metal studs are Type II.

by Payton Chung on Mar 21, 2014 10:42 am • linkreport

Question-- sounds like structural metal studs is a great way to go and less expensive than concrete. Mehta is the expected life of a wood frame building versus a structural stud building? Does what is the "slab height" of each, ie does it mean that for wood frame you need 18" of joists height and ducting so you need real height and in a height limited area maybe structural studs make more sense? What would you say is the cost of a structural stud building in DC versus a wood frame bldg (infill district versus averages shown above?). Thanks!

by Curious on Jul 28, 2014 9:38 pm • linkreport

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