Greater Greater Washington

Architecture


Expanding downtown: Infrastructure matters

Washington, DC is a lucky city. Its downtown has been filled up with new construction over the past few decades to such an extent that it has virtually no space for new office buildings.


Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

Some, like Matt Yglesias, have suggested that one way to resolve this problem would be to increase densities by ridding the city of its height limit, which in essence makes it impossible to build structures in the city that are over about 10 stories.

Lydia DePillis has argued that the municipality still has plenty of developable sites which, though they may not be directly downtown, still offer opportunities for more office space.

What would be the manifestations of these different approaches? How can we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of upzoning the center city for more office space? Is our goal to produce vital, walkable, and dense downtown districts, or simply to expand new construction there, no matter the use?

The missing ingredient in this discussion is transportation. When we discuss the demand in downtowns like Washington's for more office space, we sometimes make an assumption that the transport network will be able to handle whatever is thrown at it.

In fact, there is a direct relationship between a downtown's growth and the transportation provided to it. In general, businesses want to locate their offices in places that are accessible and that provide the benefits of agglomeration, and this sometimes means downtown, but not always.

If the trip to and from the centerby whatever modebecomes too arduous, there are significant reasons to locate outside of it. How does this fact apply to a place like Washington?

Once a downtownwhich I will define as a traditional single-use American CBDreaches a certain size, once it provides employment for a certain number of people, it has three basic options:

One, it can do nothing to its transportation network, in which case the downtown has no capacity to absorb increasing growth. In these cases, residential uses become more important since the relative land values demanded for office space decrease (as it is harder for more people to enter into the downtown from elsewhere and there is more interest in walking to and from work).

This is arguably what has happened to places like Chicago's West and South Loop, where almost all recent development there has been in the form of residential towers despite the close proximity to the downtown core.

Two, it can expand or improve transportation through the highway network, in which case parking lots become increasingly valuable and may displace existing buildings. This was the choice cities like Houston took since 1950, sacrificing what had once been walkable neighborhoods for an automobile-dominated core.

Three, it can expand or improve transportation through the transit network (bus and/or rail), in which case higher densities become increasingly valuable, and taller buildings may replace shorter ones or parking lots. This has happened in DC since the construction of Metro, beginning in the 1970s.

The discussion in Washington has hinged around the opposite side of the conversation, focusing on land use instead of transportation. The argument, asserted by people like Stephen Smith, suggests that the problem is that the government is exerting inappropriate control over densities by limiting heights and the result is that rents in the office core are increasing far higher than they would were there to be skyscrapers.

The problem is compounded by the fact that downtown Washington's growth is limited, notes Ryan Avent, by the fact that outlying neighborhoods are stuck to one- or two-story buildings (and there is little push to challenge that condition), so the Paris approach, in which the entire city is made up of 6 to 10 story buildings, is not much of an alternative, either.

These arguments are compelling: mini-downtowns in the suburbs, such as along Arlington's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, can absorb some of the growth, but there is clearly strong demand for continued concentration in the center city.

Whether this is a long-term phenomenon, however, depends on the transportation provided into the downtown. Imagine that the height limits in Washington were liftedor, at least, buildings twice as high could be built. In the short-term, this would surely produce the desired effects, allowing downtown to absorb more of the region's job growth, reduce office rents, and aiding in the continued gentrification of the city as a whole.

In the longer-term, however, as the city's downtown building stock is gradually replaced, the worker density in the center of the city would roughly double. Would this be sustainable?

If the city's transportation network remains as it is, mostly relying on the existing Metro network and a functioning, if not great, bus system, this would cause significant problems.

Here's why: Much of the Metro system is already at capacity during peak hours. In essence, today's transportation network is designed with a capacity roughly equivalent to what is generated under the current height limit.

Moreover, road expansion is simply not an option, not only because there is no room for new highways into downtown but also because, as already stated, a focus on roads-based transportation encourages downtowns to be transformed into automobile-based neighborhoods.

As the transit system becomes more congested, because of job expansion and a lack of transportation improvements, the cost of transportation into the corein terms of time and moneywill increase. This will reduce the appeal of locating offices downtown and encourage new construction to be residential rather than office-based. Is this desirable for Washington? Does the city want a mixed-use core or a office-based one?

The alternative is allowing an increase in zoning along with an improvement in the transportation network. This may seem obvious, but Washington has not yet committed the funds to an expansion of the Metro network or serious improvements to the bus corridors, putting in question the viability of a lifting of the height limits. The downtown's growth must be approached by considering transportation and land use in complement with one another.

Cross-posted on The Transport Politic.

Yonah Freemark writes about transportation issues on his blog, The Transport Politic, and periodically in other publications such as Next American City

Comments

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Although I agree with you in general, I do take issue with a few points:

it has virtually no space for new office buildings.

Penn Quarter and Federal Triangle may be completely filled-in. However, we've got a fairly significant amount of un/under-utilized land in the eastern portions of downtown. We've seen NoMa emerge from a close-in region that had essentially never been developed (it was originally a freight rail depot, and later on warehouses). It stands to reason that the areas to the west along North Capitol St, and near Mount Vernon Square will eventually fill in over the next 15-20 years.

There are other "close-in" areas that could potentially be sites for development. Ivy City, Brentwood, the NY Ave Corridor, the Florida Market, and the RFK site all immediately stick out as being less than 10 minutes away from the downtown core, and ripe for redevelopment without having to displace too many existing businesses, residents, or buildings.

I'd also caution about bulldozing our low-height residential neighborhoods. They're an absolutely fantastic attribute of our city, and if nothing else, we should be encouraging the same sort of medium-density walkable residental development in the suburbs. I'd fully support zoning that keeps the height restrictions intact in these areas. Development along H St, though wonderful, has me fearful for the "historic integrity" of Capitol Hill, especially considering the recent demolition of an entire block of 150-year-old rowhouses on 2nd St NE for a now-failed development project that did nothing but turn the homes into a parking lot.

I also somewhat challenge the notion that lifting the height restriction would necessarily produce usable density. Rosslyn, Silver Spring, and Tyson's Corner do not have height limits, and have attracted a number of taller buildings. However, nothing about these cities is "human scale," and massive parking lots are still the norm. (The Summit Hill apartment complex in Silver Spring really takes the cake -- any of those buildings would fit in wonderfully in an urban setting. Instead, they're randomly plopped down on a huge site with an insane amount of parking, despite being a block from Metro, MARC, and a gazillion bus routes.)

I support raising the height limit in certain targeted areas (ie. Paris's La Defense), with some rather strict restrictions around it, and a corresponding investment in public transportation. I do not support a blanket removal of the limit in any way. Claims that we're in imminent danger of running out of space are severely overexaggerated.

I also hate to give fuel to Fritz, Lance, and Doug Willinger, but we *can* build new roads. Turning K Street or NY Ave into a cut&cover underground freeway would actually probably be feasible (and possibly even a good idea outright), given enough money. I think it's possible for us to be "smart" about improving our road network, without inducing too much additional demand or local traffic.

Like I said... DC's low-rise neighborhoods represent a significant part of our city's human scale and character. It would be a tragedy to lose that for some short-sighted gains.

by andrew on Feb 27, 2011 12:11 pm • linkreport

The analysis of what would happen if height limits are increased and lots more office space is built in the core, with no more residential space, seems right. But I don't think that's an accurate scenario. First, increasing height limits would surely generate some residential towers, which in many ways are even more attractive than office towers, and those help reduce the need for the transportation system to bring people downtown. And, secondly, one can't overlook the fact that development generates funds for improving transportation infrastructure; the latter need not be (and often cannot be) a precursor for the former. Given the high cost of high-rise development, extracting even modest fees or taxes (compared to the cost of the projects), directly or indirectly, can have a significant benefit for transportation improvements, while not significantly affecting their viability.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 12:42 pm • linkreport

@andrew:
This post is really about infrastructure, not places for new development. And the places you mention are all great points. Points for Yonah.

Ivy City and the New York Avenue Corridor don't have decent transit access. So any density there would need to see infrastructure improvements.

Let's take your NoMa example. It was nothing dense for decades. Then WMATA builds an infill station (transportation capacity improvement), and suddenly, it's the new place to build offices.

I don't think Yonah argues for demolishing single-family neighborhoods, either. That would indeed be a bad idea.

And Yonah is right on the freeway front as well. Expanding freeway capacity in the core will only give drivers incentive to drive. And that is precisely the formula that gave us places like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix.

by Matt Johnson on Feb 27, 2011 12:42 pm • linkreport

I'd like to echo Andrew with a "yes." I actually can't find much I disagree with, except that I'd probably be a bit more enthusiastic about building upwards in certain areas, especially if the Blue Line gets separated out onto M Street. M doesn't have the capacity to be a new K Street along most of its length, but I do think that along some of it (to Scott Circle?) it could be targeted as a development possibility. Mount Vernon Square has some fantastic empty spots or plots with little historic value along 6th, 7th, and 9th that could also be built upwards.

I also think that, if St. Elizabeth's actually does everything it could do for EotR, there are a helluva lot of bad projects and parking lots that could get switched out for (relatively) high-rise development.

If we REALLY run out of space, Friendship Heights, Van Ness, Minnesota Avenue, and the SE Freeway all sound like marvelous spots to build. We are not running out of space.

by OctaviusIII on Feb 27, 2011 12:50 pm • linkreport

Again, let's be honest: it isn't the height limit, it is zoning.

But otherwise a very intriguing post.

One thing: more residential towers or condos are great, but fixing the school system is probably the limiting factor there as well. There are only so many singles with no children who are going to move to DC.

I'd also say design matters. You have residential tower in Ballston. It is also a very dead area. Land-use and ABC laws -- and bringing more small bars and restaurants to an area -- allows you have have more residential density as well.

by charlie on Feb 27, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

The most economic and least disturbing residential is 5 story or so frame or block buildings that require no excavation. This construction is quick and therefore not as disturbing to the immediate area. It is much less expensive and usually results in more affordable housing. Finally since it doesn't require excavation the underground parking garage is removed.

Europe depends on this staple to have much higher density than us at affordable prices. This model can be used throughout the city, even in historic districts.

The high rise steel and concrete residential towers look like human file cabinets. They are much more expensive and therefore attract a higher-income owner who very often does not keep legal residency in DC and hence does not pay DC income tax.

And there are plenty of undeveloped areas of DC outside the central core which could be developed for high-rise offices.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 27, 2011 2:11 pm • linkreport

I made a map of the DC zoning code's height restrictions and took some screenshots. A close-up of "downtown" is here and a broader view is here. The District seems to be trying to preserve a lot of relatively low-density areas very close in, and I don't see why that should be the case.

by PeakVT on Feb 27, 2011 2:21 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris: The high rise steel and concrete residential towers look like human file cabinets.

Sound, objective analysis. This must explain why they are so unpopular, in major cities around the world. People hate living in them so much they have to sell for higher prices.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson

Let's take your NoMa example. It was nothing dense for decades. Then WMATA builds an infill station (transportation capacity improvement), and suddenly, it's the new place to build offices.

You're missing the most important part - DC upzoned the area substantially.

I will reiterate my comments on Lydia's blog here:

The downtown-adjacent areas like Capitol Riverfront, NoMA, etc should all be developed, and developed densely.

We should also remove the height limit.

The office market in downtown DC isn't competing with NoMA, it's competing with Midtown Manhattan, London, Paris, Chicago, etc.

The height limit restricts the space available, and thus forces areas like NoMA and Capitol Riverfront to develop to take some of this pressure off. Those areas would still develop without the height restriction, but they'd focus on different submarkets for office and residential.

The end result would be a more healthy economy for DC, one that has lots of affordable opportunities for start-up firms and innovation to take place.

Simply expanding the office core to other locations away from the highest value land isn't a solution, exactly. That kind of policy (i.e. the height limit) has some severe hidden costs.

by Alex B. on Feb 27, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

The height limit in midtown Paris is 6 stories.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 27, 2011 2:37 pm • linkreport

and the ugliest residential tower may have a fantastic view.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 27, 2011 2:41 pm • linkreport

"The office market in downtown DC isn't competing with NoMA, it's competing with Midtown Manhattan, London, Paris, Chicago, etc."

Actually it competing with Ft. Belvoir. The feds are always going to be the 400 pound gorillas around here.

by charlie on Feb 27, 2011 2:48 pm • linkreport

I'm just thankful Mr Coumaris doesn't dislike the appearance of everything except suburban split-levels on four-acre lots. We'd all have to convert our entire planet to suburban sprawl.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 2:57 pm • linkreport

The competition for office buildings is with Crystal City and Bethesda. And the new DC office buildings all look like Crystal City and Bethesda.

There's plenty of ways to get much greater density than surrendering to that unimaginative banality.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 27, 2011 3:00 pm • linkreport

I'd just like to reduce the unimaginative banality of these comments.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 3:03 pm • linkreport

@David- The suburban mindset is residents of DC who insist on living as singles or couples in 3000 sq. ft. houses with private parking. Until we're willing to have the same 500 sq. ft. housing unit that Europe does we'll never have the density Europe does and we'll never conserve our resources.

As for offices, I don't see that mimicking suburban office buildings makes us any more urban.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 27, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

Comments that actually concern land use, rather than the poster's personal preferences about what looks good, are certainly a welcome change.

Economics and market forces are perfectly capable of constraining our resource consumption to that which we can afford. We "just" have to start paying for externalities instead of foisting them onto others, and also start paying for what we consume now instead of borrowing the costs from the future. Not small tasks, but necessary anyway. And a lot more valuable than trying to tell each person how much space we think they should live in. Their personal budget can do that.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris

The competition for office buildings is with Crystal City and Bethesda. And the new DC office buildings all look like Crystal City and Bethesda.

No, it's not. All you need to do to realize that it's not is to look at the asking rents in those areas. Downtown DC rents are substantially higher. Downtown DC does not compete on price with Crystal City and Bethesda, it competes on access, amenity, and location.

The problem with the height limit is that it forces firms that would like to be in Downtown DC to areas that are not downtown DC, and this drives up prices in those outlying areas - areas that would probably host all sorts of other uses - start up companies, dense housing, non profits, arts uses, etc. That's the cost - and it's quite real.

by Alex B. on Feb 27, 2011 3:25 pm • linkreport

Sorry but I think just as with Paris, that preserving the livability of the historic old city means putting high rise offices on the perimeter of downtown where there are plenty of underused metro stations. Raise the height limit drastically in Friendship Heights, Walter Reed, St. E's, or Georgia Avenue and watch the building start in those underdeveloped areas. Plenty of companies would love to build a 75-story office overlooking DC, even if our local developers can only think inside the boring cube box.

And as for residential in the historic old city, base property taxes much more on square footage and encourage building up the the present height limits with bonuses for the number of units. Presently 3000 square foot houses with parking pads go for just a little more than 1000 sq. foot condos next door. That's a real market imbalance that encourages waste. The historic old city can easily accommodate many times the density we have now while preserving it's look and feel.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 27, 2011 4:05 pm • linkreport

Fascinating that the vast majority of people took this article and talked about land use and density. I thought Yonah's point was that if the transportation infrastructure (of whatever preference) does not support the land use/density equation, you're not going to get more people there. I am not talking suburb to city work trips, rather intracity work trips, shopping trips etc. If you can't get there from here in a timely, reliable manner, the land use conversation is moot since the other half of the equation is not up to the task.

...and that opens up another whole set of tough questions about our form of transportation infrastructure and how to fund it...

by Some Ideas on Feb 27, 2011 4:55 pm • linkreport

@Some Ideas: I thought Yonah's point was that if the transportation infrastructure (of whatever preference) does not support the land use/density equation, you're not going to get more people there.

But, conversely, if the land use/density doesn't exceed the capacity of the current transportation infrastructure and also generate surplus revenue to pay for transportation infrastructure, then you aren't going to have the demand or the resources to improve that infrastructure. The article suggests that governments should commit to transportation infrastructure improvements in order to generate capacity that can then support new development. This may sometimes be necessary, when considering projects with very, very long lead times, but, in general, it makes more sense for the two to go hand in hand, and to expand transportation capacity as the demand is generated, rather than as a precondition for allowing that demand to be generated.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 5:06 pm • linkreport

Would it not be fair to argue that the height restriction forces development to be more efficient? We could also say that it has allowed other areas in the District to absorb demand, such as U Street, Dupont, and now places such as Columbia Heights and even Navy Yard. This decentralisation is the key to reducing demand on the core sections of the Metro and Downtown DC in general. It also has a positive economic effect on non-downtown areas which need investment.

by Phil on Feb 27, 2011 6:28 pm • linkreport

Andrew wrote:

"I also hate to give fuel to Fritz, Lance, and Doug Willinger, but we *can* build new roads. Turning K Street or NY Ave into a cut&cover underground freeway would actually probably be feasible (and possibly even a good idea outright), given enough money. I think it's possible for us to be "smart" about improving our road network, without inducing too much additional demand or local traffic."

The I-66 K Street Tunnel (1965-1976 unbuilt)

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2007/03/i-66-north-leg-west-k-street-tunnel.html

I say the New York Ave corridor east of Floridoa Avenue has tremdous development potential- I say extend the I-66 tunnel beneath NYA to east of the B&O, then have it swing to parallel the RR, cut into the hill with a parallel WMATA subway line and French Parisian style Beaux Arts apartment buildings along a linear park and a New York Avenue that serves more as a boulevard rather then as a highway.

Don't try to directly connect that tunnel with I-395 as officially planned since 1996 owing to the substandard geometry (the curve behind Bibleway Church is TOO tight); rather extend the I-395 tunnel via a far better curve arcing to beneath the recreation field of Dunbar HS and out beneath and along the north side of O Street as I have proposed:

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2007/11/i-395-extension-superior-option.html

And then have it turn to follow and run within the multimodel Grand Arc Mall Tunnel north to an Eastern Star Tunnel along New Hampshire Avenue, to the PEPCO corridor in Maryland:

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/search/label/Grand%20Arc%20Mall%20Tunnel

by Douglas Willinger on Feb 27, 2011 6:37 pm • linkreport

@Some Ideas

...and that opens up another whole set of tough questions about our form of transportation infrastructure and how to fund it...

No, not really. Adding density means you will generate more tax income. That tax revenue can be directed to transportation improvements. Remember that the vast majority of pre-war privately owned and operated transit systems were not about transportation exactly, but about real estate development and giving access to that real estate.

by Alex B. on Feb 27, 2011 6:54 pm • linkreport

@Phil

Would it not be fair to argue that the height restriction forces development to be more efficient? We could also say that it has allowed other areas in the District to absorb demand, such as U Street, Dupont, and now places such as Columbia Heights and even Navy Yard.

The height limit definitely pushes demand around, but this forcing of demand elsewhere is very inefficient. Offices locate downtown because they want to be downtown. That's why they pay that premium. U St is not downtown. It is not a good substitute for downtown office space, and forcing it to play that role is quite inefficient.

That's the whole argument against the height limit. All of those inefficiencies are hidden costs, and those hidden costs add up. They end up costing the District dearly. They also end up hurting the economic vitality of a lot of places within the District, knock the natural urban agglomeration economies out of whack.

Those outlying areas, downtown-adjacent would and should develop densely even without the height limit, but they would do so under different market conditions and they city would be better off for it.

Ryan Avent explains the phenomenon well:

http://www.ryanavent.com/blog/?p=2346

Washington’s height limit has quickened the development of high-end, up to the legal limits office construction wherever else in the city it’s permitted. Rosslyn and Pentagon and Crystal Cities have also benefitted.

I’d make an additional point, however, which is that the height limit and the associated impact on rents have a direct effect on the composition of the Washington economy. As rents rise, the expense of Washington office space filters for certain types of businesses, namely, a) those who can afford the rents, and b) those who derive the biggest advantage from locating in downtown Washington. And that, in turn, means corporate, rent-extracting firms — law offices, lobbyists, and well-funded industry groups and think tanks. Other industries will be crowded out.

Now, the risk of single-industry dependency is reduced in Washington’s case, because government is very nearly bust-proof. New York and San Jose, on the other hand, are heavily dependent on cyclical industries, which means that every once in a while they suffer fairly substantial downturns. But the bigger cost is in terms of dynamism. Industry towns are dull places, especially when the industry in question is as dull as government. Washington’s height limit means that there is room in the city for little other than the rich corporate interests and the kinds of cultural amenities favored by rich corporate interests. With the height limit in place, there is little risk of Washington becoming as vibrant or as innovative as rival cities to which it so regularly compares itself.

That's why we should change the height limit.

by Alex B. on Feb 27, 2011 7:01 pm • linkreport

I agree with Some Ideas that the point of the article is to consider an increase in transit in tandem with an increase in density.

I don't buy into the "chicken/egg" question of which comes first. Transit comes first, then density follows. There should be enough money to pay for transit if we set our priorities properly.

by Amber on Feb 27, 2011 7:09 pm • linkreport

@Phil: Would it not be fair to argue that the height restriction forces development to be more efficient?

It doesn't seem fair to me. What's your basis for such a claim? Are you asserting that tall buildings are inherently less "efficient" than lower buildings? If that were true, no one would build them.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 7:10 pm • linkreport

@Amber: I don't buy into the "chicken/egg" question of which comes first. Transit comes first, then density follows.

Huh? Says who? Why? Building transit when there's no actual need for it, in contemplation that you might want it in the future, just seems like wasteful spending.

I can't help thinking that "transit first" is just a way for people who dislike density, like Mr Coumaris, to rationalize their desires. Because it makes no sense as a logical argument.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 7:12 pm • linkreport

@ David Desjardins, what do you mean when you say externalities?

I agree that it is the zoning that is the problem. I would love to see the city become an example of free-market urban planning. Historic preservation and unrealistic low zoned densities keep Washington from achieving its potential. Close to many existing Metro stations in DC are acres of land that could be redone to reach its highest and best use.

In my "short" lifetime I have seen DC become more urban and dense, which is great. I have also seen DC maintain its sub-par schools, high crime in neighborhoods, and shaky politicians. The culture of accepting this as the status quo combined with DC's consistent ranking as the worst place to do business keeps the District from reaching greatness.

I advocate DC maintain its height-limits but completely phase out all affordable housing requirements, all public housing and deconcentrate section 8. DC must reduce its regulatory burdens on businesses and make the city a friendly place for vendors, small businesses and entrepreneurs.

by Ian Luria on Feb 27, 2011 7:18 pm • linkreport

@Ian Luria: David Desjardins, what do you mean when you say externalities?

I'm going to assume this is a serious question and not a sarcastic one. Externalities are all of the things that your "free market" model ignores. Like the effect that if you build lots of parking as the way to support your downtown then you're generating congestion and pollution which affect everyone else, including those who were already there. Or that if you gentrify a neighborhood then you increase property values but you can make things strictly worse for the people who work nearby and used to rent affordable housing but now have to commute long distances because they can't afford to live near their work any more. Or that the existing tax base has paid for existing transportation infrastructure and so it is reasonable to ask new construction to pay for more of the cost of the marginal transportation improvements that it necessitates. And so on.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 7:31 pm • linkreport

Height limits do require developers to be more space efficient, and fill out the lot, but it doesn't mean that a city without zoning restrictions is inherently wasteful.

In fact, Some of the worst space waste in Manhattan resulted from the 1961 plaza bonus system, where you could build a big, super-efficient slab and declare all of the land around it a plaza to net more floor area to the slab. The 1961 law also capped FAR, further encouraging the plaza system.

Having just been in Hartford, CT, I realize that there are ways that the height limit has helped DC's urban form.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 27, 2011 7:34 pm • linkreport

@David desJardins: You're wrong; I'm not against increased density. Your bizarre, unfounded inference is very impolite.

Development has followed transit in places like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and the following metro stops: Union Station, New York Avenue, U Street, Waterfront, and Navy Yard. And if there are more towers (as you propose in your comment from 12.42pm), more transit certainly will be needed. See the OP for how Metro is maxed-out.

by Amber on Feb 27, 2011 8:07 pm • linkreport

@Amber: You're wrong; I'm not against increased density. Your bizarre, unfounded inference is very impolite.

Then would you like to explain why you insist that excess transportation capacity must somehow be funded and built in advance of any development? It seems a bizarre, unfounded stance, which has the effect of making most development impractical, so if the purpose of this argument is not simply to oppose development, then I have a hard time imagining what other reason could be behind it.

And if there are more towers (as you propose in your comment from 12.42pm), more transit certainly will be needed.

Exactly. And if there are more towers, then more transit will certainly become possible, because we will have fees and taxes from those developments to support those improvements (as I said in my comment from 12:42pm).

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 8:16 pm • linkreport

This panders to the rich and they're usually freeloaders.

These million-dollar units in high rises cater to the wealthy who very very seldom declare DC residency and pay income tax here. They don't register their cars here either. From years of politically canvasing Kalorama I was shocked at how few of the houses and condos there have registered voters. People in this income bracket usually declare residency at a Delaware beach house or if self-employed declare residency in some other no-income-tax state. No one from DC DOR hides in bushes to see where they're really sleeping for 6 months. So all we get is property tax.

DC's bread-and-butter golden goose is the childless single or couple earning $80K-$200K/year. They actually pay income tax and usually register their car here too, if they even have one. They can't afford these luxury units but do renovate Bloomingdale, Rhode Island Avenue, Columbia Heights and far Capitol hill. They also buy small units carved out of converted townhouses in currently trendy areas. This is the crowd I appreciate and want to see DC encourage through
land use.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 27, 2011 8:33 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris: People in this income bracket usually declare residency at a Delaware beach house or if self-employed declare residency in some other no-income-tax state.

I think this is pretty much nonsense. I doubt you have any data to support it being nearly that frequent. E.g., Alpert is a DC resident, right? I'd be surprised if he's evading DC taxes.

But, even in the cases where it's true, being a non-resident still means you pay income taxes on income you generate in the district. All you're "losing" is taxes on income those nonresidents generate elsewhere, which you wouldn't have had if they lived elsewhere, either. And property taxes on a $1M condo are still more than property taxes on a $500k condo.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 9:45 pm • linkreport

"Raise the height limit drastically in Friendship Heights, Walter Reed, St. E's, or Georgia Avenue and watch the building start in those underdeveloped areas." In some ways, this already has happened as in downtown Silver Spring (filled with ghastly buildings and a bsuiness district that's awkward for driving and a little too far from transit) and MoCo just beyond Western Avenue with medical buildings and a little town based on luxury condos. neither is all that encouraging. Building below Western would degrade the residential areas further and make the area something like the Ansley Park area of Atlanta, but w/o the Botanical Garden. I don't see any evidence it would be good for the District.

The Capitol and Union Station create an awkward barrier in terms of downtown transit, along with the routing of the Blue/Orange line. Getting from "inner Northwest" to the eastern inner city is often awkward. It seems to take forever to get from Logan Circle to Eastern Market, although the distance is only a little further than Columbia Heights or Georgetown, and about the same distance as Adams-Morgan, all of which are easy to reach by bus. H Street access will only be partly helped by the streetcar. The 90s which do connect Adams Morgan and U St with capitol Hill are under-utilized and probably not known to middle class residents other than Hill staffers.

by Rich on Feb 27, 2011 10:07 pm • linkreport

If you like the old Silver Spring downtown more than what's happened there in the past 20 years, it's safe to say you're probably going to be against any kind of development. I can't believe many people seriously think that, though.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 10:12 pm • linkreport

@David d.- No, we do not have any tax on income earned in DC. Congress won't allow an earnings tax in DC. The closest we have is a professional tax on certain professions.

Your state income tax goes to the state of your legal residency and if that state has none you pay none.

The lack of an earnings tax as well as the rich not keeping legal residency here is pretty common knowledge.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 27, 2011 10:30 pm • linkreport

No, we do not have any tax on income earned in DC. Congress won't allow an earnings tax in DC.

Oh, I guess I actually knew that once but I forgot because it is so crazy it is hard to fathom. It does create problems that don't exist anywhere else.

Anyway, a high property tax is a big help with the problem of extracting local revenue from million-dollar condos, you don't especially need an income tax to make those a net positive. Raising the property tax with a homestead exemption (so it hits those nonresidents) would be a good idea. Impact fees on developments can help too. Of course, all good ideas can still be thwarted by Congress. I shouldn't forget that in proposing solutions that would work everywhere except in DC.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 10:37 pm • linkreport

@Amber has my point correct about it being done in tandem. Using real property tax/tax increment to fund transportation improvements is fine in concept --- has it been done in DC? Can it be done in DC (with all the associated input from Congress/developers/etc.)? What would have to happend for it to occur in DC?

And @Amber is correct that in many places transportation infrastructure led the way -- locally, the Orange Line corridor was an informed land use/transportation decision by Arlington (and others I am sure know the details better than I). Look at the development of Chicago, you can point to many neighborhoods and suburbs that did not exist before the railroad, steetcar or interurban got there. Towns were plated but not much else (Chicago-Growth of a Metropolis has a great set of maps on this).

Another point is that when a transportation system is at its capacity, relability becomes more important to the trip-making proposition. So...either the service must have predictable reliability or additional capacity needs to be added to absorb the lack of reliability on other network links (example Rosslyn tunnel, Roosevelt bridge). We're at near or at the point right now with downtown DC and we will be past it by the time solutions are being implemented.

by Some Ideas on Feb 27, 2011 11:29 pm • linkreport

I have deleted a comment from "some ideas," which isn't the same person as the "Some Ideas" above (different IP address and email), which used namecalling. Please a) discuss the issues, rather than calling people names, and b) don't use the same name to comment as someone else. Thanks.

by David Alpert on Feb 27, 2011 11:33 pm • linkreport

@Alex B:

I never claimed that U Street or Dupont was a substitute for Downtown, but rather it spreads out residential, retail, et al. Whether or not that's a good thing is debatable.

However, changing the height limit, especially within Downtown, would put an incredible strain on our already packed infrastructure. If Metro can't handle the rush hour volume now, how could increasing the volume of people heading there be any better? The other alternatives which including raising the limit in outlying areas will strain the system as well by inducing demand on single lines, even if they are reverse commuting; any incident would be greatly magnified. Thus, we need to rapidly expand Metro, add streetcars, and increase mixed-use development throughout the District. The height restriction, as antiquated as it may be, does in effect force this to happen. What's especially necessary is an incentive for companies to locate in the District rather than NoVA or Maryland.

by Phil on Feb 27, 2011 11:46 pm • linkreport

And @Amber is correct that in many places transportation infrastructure led the way

Obviously, there are times and places where one can prebuild transportation infrastructure in the reasonable expectation that it will induce development to make use of it. And we should do that wherever possible. But Amber insists this is the only acceptable sequence of growth. And that just doesn't make sense, especially since a lot of development historically doesn't proceed that way, at all.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 11:50 pm • linkreport

@Phil: What's especially necessary is an incentive for companies to locate in the District rather than NoVA or Maryland.

If you're arguing that DC is already at its capacity for handling workers, and that rents are already too high as a result, why would you want even more demand, which can't increase employment (if we're already at the hypothetical transportation cap), but will only increase rents further.

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 11:51 pm • linkreport

@David DesJ 'Huh? Says who? Why? Building transit when there's no actual need for it, in contemplation that you might want it in the future, just seems like wasteful spending.

How do you feel about the approach being taken by the District in regards to the streetcar system ... i.e., Building it first on streets where it's not needed, but may stimulate economic development, and then 20 or 30 years out buidling in on streets that could benenfit from it's congestion reducing effects today?

by Lance on Feb 28, 2011 12:38 am • linkreport

@Lance: How do you feel about the approach being taken by the District in regards to the streetcar system ... i.e., Building it first on streets where it's not needed, but may stimulate economic development

I haven't studied the streetcar plan closely enough to know whether this is a true description. Based on your comment history, I tend to assume the truth is the opposite of what you say it is. But, if the actual plan is what you describe, then I think that's not what I would prefer.

by David desJardins on Feb 28, 2011 12:42 am • linkreport

@Rich, 'The Capitol and Union Station create an awkward barrier in terms of downtown transit, along with the routing of the Blue/Orange line. Getting from "inner Northwest" to the eastern inner city is often awkward. It seems to take forever to get from Logan Circle to Eastern Market, although the distance is only a little further than Columbia Heights or Georgetown, and about the same distance as Adams-Morgan, all of which are easy to reach by bus. H Street access will only be partly helped by the streetcar. The 90s which do connect Adams Morgan and U St with capitol Hill are under-utilized and probably not known to middle class residents other than Hill staffers.

Get a car. You'll find that the 'barriers' you describe are self inflicted barriers created by some mass transit bureaucrat who 'thought' that was what people wanted ... maybe 20 or 30 or more years ago. Fortunately our road system in the District generally is far more flexible.

by Lance on Feb 28, 2011 12:51 am • linkreport

@David desJ, 'Anyway, a high property tax is a big help with the problem of extracting local revenue from million-dollar condos,'

Yes, and cars drive themselves into accidents .... No people involved in either case ....

by Lance on Feb 28, 2011 12:55 am • linkreport

in a quick skimming of the comments above I did not see any mentions of the HUGE wasted open parking areas around both the House & Senate sides of the US Capitol Complex- this INCREDIBLE waste of potential T.O.D. should be a NATIONAL SCANDAL and it should also be grounds for dismissal of the "Architect of the Capitol" and others who are obviously asleep at the wheel . There are amazingly huge surface parking lots all around Capitol South & near Union Station which could be public -private mixed use & residential apartments for Congress- even dorms for them and their staffers. It is absolutely incredible that this amazing and expensive resource is basically allowed to rot. And no one seems to care or to notice- even here on this blog. They do not have to tall buildings- but they COULD have lots of density and provide plenty more taxes to the city for their welfare & dependent & homeless people & other feel good programs plus provide investment and living space. What is the holdup?

by w on Feb 28, 2011 8:44 am • linkreport

I second w's comments. It cracks me up that the building height restriction comes up every now and again. There is sooo much room and redevelopment sites in and around the downtown core. I'll add the whole highway infested Kennedy center site plan. Talk about wasted space.

Having to confront obstacles is the mother's milk of true architectural innovation. Just as a blank architectural canvas promotes extravagant sculptures, tight urban fabric leads to immaginative solutions.

Manhattan has two skyscraper areas, not one CBD. Furthermore residential development is making inroads into both these areas. Cities are like organisms, they usually thrive with a little adversity.

by Thayer-D on Feb 28, 2011 10:03 am • linkreport

@w

Those parcels are essentially being held for future development by the AOC. The House already needs a number of new buildings, given the cramped quarters that congressmen are forced to deal with, not to mention the extensive amount of office space leased around town by the House.

On the senate side, offices are less cramped, but a great amount of office space is still leased around Union Station for various administrative functions.

If you built another Russell Building (as per the sadly-neglected McMillan plan), you'd be able to fill it immediately, simply by relocating all the folks away from rented spaces elsewhere in the city.

Congress has yet to construct such buildings, because it hasn't been politically expedient to do so ever since the days of Regan. However, the AOC's smartly held onto that possibility. (Although I do agree that some of those parcels should be given up or converted to parkland)

by andrew on Feb 28, 2011 10:10 am • linkreport

andrew
yes-
I will certainly grant that the AOC has been saving/banking these sites for future development ..but they could also be more up to date about how they are to be developed- as per my suggestion of a public private partnership to create mixed- use which would be more economical for the government- which was EXACTLY what Reagan was after in the first place- make use of the private sector vitality. Reagan's ideas were not all that bad in this regard either.

Not all of this land is government owned- and there were private buildings knocked down over the years to make way for these huge unused spaces- apartment houses and munincipal buildings were both demolished in the past 30 years to create a sea of surface parking around the Capitol Complex. No doubt- some of this treasure is in private hands and the city should be trying to incentivize these people- AND the AOC to do something with this land.
As for park land- DC already has a HUGE amount of parkland- and it is not used properly as it is- neglected and not kept up. I am not really in favor of usinf this super valuable inner city land for more "open space". We already have plenty of "open space" in the form of surface parking- this land is a break and a disconitinuity in the urban fabric and there needs to be infill .

by w on Feb 28, 2011 10:50 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D

It cracks me up that the building height restriction comes up every now and again. There is sooo much room and redevelopment sites in and around the downtown core.

Yes, there is. But the key thing to remember is that space around the core is not the same as space in the core. Rents reflect that. The old three rules of real estate: location, location, location. Capitol Riverfront is great, but it is not the 1500 block of K Street. The riverfront can and should develop, and develop densely. It is not a true substitute for downtown space, and the height limit forces it into that role.

When you force that development out to the outlying areas, you're imposing a steep cost on the city as a whole and restricting its ability to function like the true agglomeration it wants to be.

I'm sure some have aesthetic concerns about eliminating the height act, I do too. I think the can be addressed through zoning codes, setback requirements, etc. The larger point remains, however. The city wants to be dense, and stopping it from being dense has costs. Large costs. Those who like the height limit either seem to ignore these costs or fail to understand them.

by Alex B. on Feb 28, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

The kinds of transportation infrastructure improvements that would be needed to support significant additional employment density in downtown DC -- such as a separate Blue Line -- are massive, disruptive, expensive, and politically sensitive undertakings that would take literally decades to fund, plan, and construct. Assuming that these things will magically materialize in tandem with development is the worst kind of wishful thinking.

by jimble on Feb 28, 2011 1:04 pm • linkreport

The kinds of transportation infrastructure improvements that would be needed to support significant additional employment density in downtown DC -- such as a separate Blue Line -- are massive, disruptive, expensive, and politically sensitive undertakings that would take literally decades to fund, plan, and construct.

The kinds of development downtown that would require huge transportation improvements are also massive, disruptive, expensive, and politically sensitive undertakings that will take literally decades to fund, plan, and construct. So it seems very natural to expect them to proceed in tandem.

You're saying that we need to put downtown development on hold for the next three decades until we build a separate Blue Line? Really??

by David desJardins on Feb 28, 2011 1:16 pm • linkreport

jimble
I have to take issue with this view.
For the past 60-odd years there has been little if any real investment in the downtown cores of our large cities- including DC- which has the 3rd largest downtown in the USA[ and this does NOT include the federal office areas] as such- being such a large and huge employment engine- more investment in transportation needs to be done as opposed to the MASSIVE amounts of highway monies spent already- even in the DC core. The amounts spent on rail transit are a TINY FRACTION of the monies spent on subsidizing highways and airports. If we are really serious- there would be triple and quadruple-tracked heavy rail lines all thru the core of DC- serving the city and not just the suburbs. The areas inside the Beltway should get priority in spending and should be the focus of all spending - as all core areas should be in the USA. We need to stop spending on suburban sprawl.
And I also believe that the height limits should be lifted outside of Florida Avenue and the Old City limits [ the LenFant plan area plus Georgetown] Outside of these areas is still hugely desireable- especially when you see corporations using "Washington DC" way out in Reston, etc.
There should be no devaluation at all for extending the core beyond the present downtown. The is a bit more to "location location location"- there is also the cachet of the NAME of Washington DC that sits in people's minds around the world.

by w on Feb 28, 2011 1:21 pm • linkreport

@David: We don't need to put development "on hold." But if we want major new development downtown we need to start working now on the infrastructure that will support it. Building an office building doesn't take nearly as long as building a Metro line.

@w: I don't see where you and I disagree. I didn't say anywhere in my post that transit infrastructure should not be built. In fact I think major investments like the separate Blue Line are absolutely necessary, even without major increases in density downtown.

by jimble on Feb 28, 2011 1:39 pm • linkreport

Building an office building doesn't take nearly as long as building a Metro line.

But building one office building also doesn't require an entire Metro line. Building hundreds of office buildings, redeveloping large areas, does take decades.

If you aren't arguing for putting development on hold until we have this hypothetical Metro line, then what on earth are you arguing for? "Amber" argued earlier that transit must come first, and only then can increased density follow. That is the proposition we were debating.

by David desJardins on Feb 28, 2011 1:51 pm • linkreport

So we should allow many DC metro stations to remain virtually unused while we add more riders at stations that are already bursting at their seams?

This is smart planning???

Sounds much more like no planning but rather an excuse to let developers build whatever they what wherever they want.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 28, 2011 4:13 pm • linkreport

@ Alex,

Your right about location's importance in real estate, that's why I referenced two cbd's in Manhattan. At some point (Post WWI), Downtown Manhattan had reached it's limit in it's northern expansion, due to geological conditions and how they intersected with the engineering limits of the time. Developers and builders hopped over Grenwich Village etc. and established mid-town. I'm not sure one can argue that NYC suffered the large costs you ominously portend would befal our fair city.

There's a de facto height limit to any downtown, although looking at Hong Kong, some might argue otherwise. By increasing the height restriction, you are simply ratcheting the final limit that will one day be reached anyhow. I'll put my money on human ingenuity before I throw ought one of the features that make DC eminantly livable, and thus an economic asset that ought not be thrown out for the expediency of a whining developer.

by Thayer-D on Feb 28, 2011 4:41 pm • linkreport

@David: I'm arguing that you can't rely on incremental improvements in transportation capacity to come along in tandem with incremental increases in density. We are at a point where we need to make a massive commitment to Metro. Not streetcars, which may serve lower-density neighborhoods well enough, but high capacity rapid transit. There's a possibility we'll add capacity that will never be needed, but I doubt it. I'm not arguing that development should cease until it has all been built. I'm arguing that if you start working on it now it might be ready when it's needed. Without new transit capacity in the pipeline for the CBD we'll either end up with hopeless congestion downtown or new development will go elsewhere, probably to places with very poor transit access.

by jimble on Feb 28, 2011 5:44 pm • linkreport

@Tom 'So we should allow many DC metro stations to remain virtually unused while we add more riders at stations that are already bursting at their seams?
This is smart planning???

That is so well said.

And the developers wouldn't want to be building more in places already filled out if it weren't that people wanted to move to these already developed places. And while it sounds reasonable at first that we should try to accomodate this, further thought makes you realize that if we built enough new housing stock in that area that everyone who wanted to move there could, that that area would no longer be what attracted those folks in the first place to that area. Imagine, for example, if we let them tear down all the row houses in Dupont Circle to put up high rises (as had been proposed back in the 60s), would people still really want to live there for the same reason they do now? Of course not.

by Lance on Feb 28, 2011 8:17 pm • linkreport

@jimble: I'm arguing that you can't rely on incremental improvements in transportation capacity to come along in tandem with incremental increases in density.

Why not? I can't think of a single example of a major US city where development so outstretched the transportation capacity that some fundamental breakdown of quality of life occurred. It's an elastic band. The more development there is, congestion gets generated, and that generates the demand and resources to deal with the congestion.

To argue that you can't do this, you should certainly have some examples of where it worked out badly (there was a large amount of dense development, without what you consider adequate transportation planning, and some meltdown occurred as a result). What are your examples?

We are at a point where we need to make a massive commitment to Metro.

Well, duh. We're probably past that point. But what do you suggest if the resources don't exist for that right now? You're suggesting, if someone doesn't come up with ten billion dollars tomorrow for a Metro line, then we block additional density downtown? Really? You seriously think that makes sense? And that's not even going to get you the improvements you want. It's going to *reduce* the likelihood and delay the schedule for any such improvements, since you're opposing the development that would help make it happen.

by David desJardins on Feb 28, 2011 10:59 pm • linkreport

@David des- I wonder if you also would propose the same for Paris? High rises in the center there too.

DC is built on the Paris model and we can learn mountains from how they achieved much greater density than us. My sincere proposal for much greater density is the Paris model.

There's no prospect of break-even Metro funding, much less vast expansion. So why is it so outlandish to propose making use of the virtually unused stations we already have?

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 1, 2011 12:48 pm • linkreport

@Thayer

You're discounting several major reasons for Midtown's eclipse of downtown - namely, transportation infrastructure. Midtown just so happens to be just as central to the subway network as downtown is, but with the added bonus of having direct connections to Penn Station and Grand Central and the massive networks of commuters they serve. Penn Station's infrastructure across both the Hudson and East Rivers was largely complete in 1910. Grand Central was massively expanded in the same time period, though a station had been on that site since the 1870s.

Point being, Midtown is just as 'downtown' as downtown is. That's a very different model than, say, La Defense, which doesn't have nearly that kind of transportation infrastructure.

There's no comparable place in DC that has the same kind of transportation infrastructure the way Midtown mirrored and even bested lower Manhattan.

by Alex B. on Mar 1, 2011 1:02 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris: So why is it so outlandish to propose making use of the virtually unused stations we already have?

I never opposed development around Metro stations.

by David desJardins on Mar 1, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

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