Posts about DC
When the District government bids out city-owned property for development, it asks for affordable housing to be part of the deal, but how much is enough? Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is proposing that 20-30% of the housing in any such deal be affordable for low-income households.
On properties that DC has offered for development, like Parcel 42 in Shaw or the Hine School on Capitol Hill, the city has a great opportunity to not only create and enrich walkable neighborhoods, but receive additional benefits for residents as part of the deal between the city and the developer.
One of the greatest needs we have right now is to increase the supply of affordable housing. But how do we best maximize affordable housing in public land deals and do so in a way that's the best deal for the city and residents?
One in five DC households spends more than half of their income on housing, a severe housing burden, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Nearly all renters with this severe housing cost burden earn less than half of the area median income (AMI), or less than $48,300 a year for a family of three.
The purpose of McDuffie's bill is to ensure that DC fully leverages the deals involving city-owned land to address the continuing challenge of housing affordability for low- and moderate-income households. Under the bill, when DC sells or leases public land for private multifamily residential development, at least 30% of the units would be affordable if the project is close to a Metro station or major transit line. Developments elsewhere in the city must include 20% affordable units.
Affordable rental units would be available to households earning between 30% and 50% of AMI, or just under $30,000 and $50,000 per year for a family of 3. Owner-occupied affordable units would be priced for households earning between 50% and 80% AMI, or just under $50,000 and $78,000 per year for a family of 3.
McDuffie's bill would allow the city to subsidize the cost of the affordable units by selling or leasing the land at a discount, allowing the developer to pass on the savings to buyers or renters. If the land value is not sufficient to subsidize the required units, the bill provides for the District's Chief Financial Officer to certify that the alternative proposal nonetheless maximizes affordability, taking into account all available subsidies.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth highlighted the unpredictability of the city's commitment to affordable housing in public land deals last year in a report called Public Land for Public Good: Making the Most of City Land to Meet Affordable Housing Needs. It's encouraging that DC leaders are using another tool to create affordable housing, ensuring that households of all means can have a place in the city as it grows.
The last time the sidewalk by the Van Ness Square demolition site was closed to pedestrians, it was a temporary measure. But the latest closure could last much longer.
Photo by Pat Davies.
Developer Saul Centers will tear down the shopping center and replace it with a new apartment building. At a pre-construction meeting last week, representatives from Saul told the community that the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk alongside the construction zone will be closed for two years. DDOT regulations won't allow a covered walkway because of underground construction that was too close to the street.
Instead, pedestrians would have to cross to the west side of Connecticut at Albemarle and Windom. By last Saturday, Saul had already closed off the sidewalk, and it was clear how dangerous this situation was going to be.
I saw a blind man walking north in the street and a man with a toddler on his shoulders coming toward him. Of course, the blind man could not see the large sign announcing the closed sidewalk, but the father definitely could.
ANC commissioner Sally Gresham was also out on Saturday afternoon and spent an hour monitoring "how folks were dealing with" the sidewalk closure. "The results are very scary!" she wrote. Gresham counted 102 people walking on Connecticut Avenue itself, including 6 young teenagers on skate boards, 22 strollers with 1, 2, or 3 adults, 35 people carrying bags of groceries or small children, 26 elderly people, and 13 people using canes, walkers, or leg braces.
Luckily, this was the weekend, and parked cars did provide something of a buffer between traffic and pedestrians. But I wondered about the march of pedestrians on automatic pilot during the Monday morning rush hour.
When asked if there will be a police presence to monitor the situation, Commander Reese of the 2nd Police District said the agency would pay attention to it, but did not have enough officers to have them out on the street.
On Monday morning between 8:30 and 9 a.m., I decided to take a look. Most pedestrians were crossing where they should:
All photos by the author unless noted.
But there were quite a number crossing mid-block and walking in the street.
People crossing mid-block on Connecticut Avenue.
People walking in the street.
And with no police in sight. I forgot they were only monitoring the situation.
I emailed the photos to DDOT, and Director Terry Bellamy replied, "I am alerting our Public Space Team to investigate and make recommendations." According to Saul Centers' Kimberly Miller, construction superintendent "Jason" met with DDOT inspectors, who noted that pedestrians weren't following the posted signs, but that the project still complied with DDOT requirements.
This is not a satisfactory outcome. After pondering the issue, and thinking of the places I have traveled that control pedestrian crossings a lot better than we do, the solution came to me on my afternoon walk. I went home and dashed off another email proposing that pedestrian path be controlled through fencing that allows people to enter stores but prevents pedestrians from crossing the street mid-block.
New legislation may also improve pedestrian safety around construction sites as well. The Bicycle Safety Amendment Act of 2013, which will take effect December 20, requires anyone seeking permits from DDOT to block a sidewalk or bike lane to also provide a "safe accommodation" for pedestrians and bicyclists to use instead.
As of today, the sidewalk is open again, but it's unclear for how long. Will the council's new legislation make a difference for pedestrians on Connecticut Avenue over the next two years? We will keep you posted.
A version of this post appeared on Forest Hills Connection.
The L Street cycletrack has made it easier to bike across downtown DC, but it's wide enough that drivers often park or drive in it, endangering cyclists. But slightly adjusting the buffer between the cycletrack and the travel lanes could keep them out.
A truck and cyclist in the L Street cycletrack. Photo from Who's Blocking the L St. Bike Lane Today?.
Yesterday evening, I witnessed a crash in the cycletrack. A driver drove between the flexposts that separate the cycletrack from the travel lanes, well before the mixing zone where there's a gap to let drivers enter the left-turn lane, and crashed into a cyclist. The cyclist was okay; the driver admitted his responsibility in the crash, and police gave him a ticket.
However, bicyclists remain susceptible to collisions with drivers who willfully cross into the cycletrack between the flexposts. There is, however, an inexpensive and easy solution to prevent this from happening: make it too narrow to accommodate a car or truck.
This would solve both the problem of illegal parking and prevent drivers from using the cycletrack as a cut-through. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) would simply need to paint a slightly wider buffer zone and move the flexposts over a few feet. The cycletrack would remain amply wide for bicycle use, while keeping cars or trucks out.
In the long term, DDOT officials have proposed building a permanent curb between the cycletrack and the the travel lanes. Additionally, they might consider a separate traffic signal phase for bicycles and automobile traffic, and whether "mixing zones" are really in the best interest of cyclists and motorists.
But for now, a narrower cycletrack, even one separated by simple flexposts, would prove a safer space for cyclists.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) may decide not to remove the service lane on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, even as the agency takes public input on it. Could a temporary closure show how it would work for businesses and pedestrians?
The proposal to remove the service lane, which was built in the 1960's, and restore a wider sidewalk has generated much debate in Cleveland Park. Merchants are concerned about losing business if there are fewer parking spaces, but a recent survey shows that many many more people visit Cleveland Park on foot or transit and would enjoy a wider sidewalk.
Yesterday, Fox 5 reporter Beth Parker tweeted that, according to DDOT spokesperson Reggie Sanders, the agency has ruled out changing the service lane. However, in emails, both DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe and staff for Councilmember Mary Cheh say that the agency hasn't actually made a final decision, It seems as though someone at the agency spoke out of turn, but Sanders' comment suggests that they are likely to indeed decide to do nothing.
This would be a perfect place for DDOT to experiment with a temporary pedestrian space. Cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have done this to give new public spaces a test run before making them permanent.
DDOT could simply rope off the service lane at each end, preventing drivers from entering, and make small, reversible changes, like paint or movable potted plants, to make it more welcoming. Businesses along the street could use the space for tables and chairs and sidewalk sales. Merchants, residents, and DC officials would be able to see how closing the service lane could make Cleveland Park more exciting and vibrant without any risks.
It is not too late to ask DDOT to try this out. The public comment period on DDOT's study is open until November 13, and tonight's public meeting is still on. The agency will finish the study at the end of the month.
If you would like to share your opinion about the future of the Cleveland Park service lane, you can write to email@example.com and let them know which of the 4 proposed options for changing the service lane you prefer.
You may also attend the final community meeting tonight from 5 to 8:30 pm at the Cleveland Park Library, located at 3310 Connecticut Avenue NW.
Congress is considering whether or not to change DC's height limit. Here are 9 suggestions that will help the city get the most benefit out of changing (but not eliminating) its height regulations.
Regulations can change in practical and beneficial ways, without destroying Washington's unique layout. If Congress repeals or changes the DC Height Act, the District will be free to regulate height in much more flexible ways.
That in mind, here are some suggestions that Congress and the DC Council should consider as they move forward.
1. Don't eliminate, calibrate
Even though eliminating all height limits completely isn't anyone's proposal and has never been seriously on the table, it's worth saying up front just to be clear. There are good reasons to regulate height, but our existing laws are not necessarily the ideal set. We can make them more ideal with some fine tuning.
2. Target development where we want it
Many assume raising the height limit would result in taller buildings everywhere, or all over downtown, but that need not be the case. It would be smarter to pick specific areas where we want to encourage more development, and only increase the limit there.
The city can raise the limit only on blocks with a Metro station entrance, for example, or only within 1/8 mile of Metro stations with low existing ridership, or only near Farragut Square, or only in Anacostia. Whatever.
No doubt where to allow them would be a contentious question, but the city already has many regulations encouraging or discouraging development in certain areas. There's no reason the height limit can't be used in the same way. We can be selective.
3. Grant a residential bonus for downtown
Downtown DC has no trouble attracting development, but office is usually more profitable than residential, so downtown is often packed during work hours but pretty empty in the evenings. More residential would help downtown stay active on evenings and weekends, not to mention reduce the capacity stress on our transportation network by allowing more people to live close to their work.
But under current rules, developers often can't justify using floor space under the height limit for residential when office is more lucrative. If they got a bonus for residential, allowing them to build taller only if some or all of the added height were used for apartments, that would benefit everyone.
4. More offices can go downtown, but also other places
We want a lot of office buildings downtown because that's where our regional transportation system converges. But we also want office buildings outside downtown so residential areas don't empty out during work hours, and to encourage a healthy economy throughout the city.
Uptown nodes like Bethesda and Clarendon are good for the region and would be good for the city, and would happen in DC if we allowed them to. So while it may be desirable to allow taller buildings in some parts of downtown sometimes, it's also desirable to encourage office development elsewhere as an anchor for uptown commercial districts.
5. Be inclusive of affordable housing
Height limit opponents say taller buildings will make DC more affordable, because it will increase the supply of housing, thus helping to address rising demand. Supporters of keeping it say tall buildings will make DC more expensive, because new development is almost always expensive. They're both right, but those points aren't mutually exclusive.
New buildings are indeed almost always expensive, because it costs a lot to build a skyscraper, and developers need to turn a profit within a few years.
But new buildings eventually become old ones, and this isn't a short-term decision. Buildings that are expensive at first often become the next generation's affordable housing. Part of the reason DC has an affordable housing problem now is that we didn't build enough new buildings a generation ago. If we don't build enough new units now, the next generation will be out of luck too.
In the mean time, we can solve the short-term affordability problem with inclusive zoning; in exchange for allowing taller buildings, the city should require some of their units to be affordable. Win-win.
6. Require good architecture
Some who want to change the height limit say regulations hurt DC's architecture, resulting in boring-looking buildings. Meanwhile, many others hate tall buildings because so many skyscrapers are ugly. Both arguments are equally bad, because the world is full of both great and ugly buildings of every height.
But there's no denying that tall buildings stand out, and thus become landmarks whether beautiful or ugly. To ensure we get the former rather than the latter, DC (or even NCPC) could require aesthetic review & approval for the design of any building above a certain height.
A city the size of DC wouldn't want to insist on aesthetic review for every building, but there's no good reason DC can't do it for tall ones.
Of course the devil is in the details. To use this sort of oversight, DC would have to establish design guidelines that tell architects what the city will approve or deny. That could be contentious, and might not be the same everywhere in the city.
7. Preserve historic facades and encourage entrances
Frequent, unique-looking entrances are incredibly important for quality walkable urbanism. One problem with tall buildings is many are so wide that they're boring to walk next to at the ground level. The minimalist facades of modern architecture compound the problem.
This is why the urbanism in Georgetown is better than Rosslyn. It's not that Rosslyn has buildings that are too tall, it's that Rosslyn's buildings are too wide, and too bare at the ground level.
While it's not practical for tall buildings to change completely every 25' the way rowhouses in Georgetown do, their ground floors can be designed to look and function as smaller buildings, and historic buildings can be integrated into larger developments above.
This may not strictly be a height limit issue, but it's a good way to ensure that taller buildings improve the streetscape. It can be accomplished using the design guidelines and architectural review process outlined above.
8. Outlaw surface parking lots
Surface parking lots are the bane of walkable urbanism, but they're common in almost every skyscraper-heavy downtown in America, because one large building can sap up years worth of demand, leaving developers of other properties waiting in limbo for reason to build.
Many developers in downtowns around the US opt to leave land nearly empty rather than fill it with short buildings, on the chance that they may strike it big with the next big once-a-generation mega skyscraper. Surface parking lots provide a convenient way to use that land in the mean time.
This is a big problem, and DC is not immune. In 2008 the developer of what's now the shiny office building on the northwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street wanted to use that land as a parking lot.
Outlawing surface parking lots in areas where tall buildings are permitted would go a long way towards ensuring downtown DC never looks anything like this.
9. Protect the iconic monuments
Development economics are important, but they're not the only thing. The most valuable land in DC is probably the White House Ellipse, but we're not going to put skyscrapers there. DC's skyline view of the Capitol and Washington Monument is one of the world's most iconic, and should of course be preserved.
But taller buildings in Farragut Square or Brookland or Anacostia wouldn't impede that view any more than they do in Rosslyn, and La Defense did not destroy Paris.
We can, and should, allow taller buildings where they're most appropriate, while protecting the views that define our city.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
The neighborhoods north of Union Station are one of the last affordable, walkable areas close to downtown DC. Can an area change for the better while keeping prices low? That's what DC's trying to figure out with the Mid City East Small Area Plan and Livability Study.
As U Street to the west and NoMa to the east have boomed, the Mid City East neighborhoods of LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Truxton Circle, Sursum Corda, and Eckington remain a relatively affordable option. However, as million-dollar houses pop up, neighbors want to secure the diversity and affordability that lend the neighborhoods their character.
Since January, the DC Office of Planning (OP) and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) have been studying these neighborhoods and have released their draft recommendations for comment. The results here may provide lessons for what happens in similarly transitioning DC neighborhoods like Hill East or Anacostia, or Columbia Pike in Arlington.
The planning process kicked off in April. Through public meetings, informal office hours, and a collaboration website, neighbors have asked for a greater variety of housing and retail options, less concentration of social services, better use of vacant land and marginal land. They also want a re-think of the commuter arteries that divide the neighborhoods, Florida, Rhode Island, and New York avenues, and North Capitol Street.
Planners recommend reopening streets, preserving single-family homes
OP and DDOT spent the summer developing their respective Small Area Plan and Livability Study around the neighbors' input and released their draft recommendations September 26. OP's Small Area Plan is also based on a detailed survey of the area's built, natural, and human resources and their physical and economic connections to the rest of the District.
Based on these inputs, OP recommends focusing on North Capitol Street to take advantage of its emerging mix of creative, retail, and restaurant businesses and still-vacant lots in key locations. Among the recommendations are increases in density along the street, requirements that planned-unit developments include space for retail, and a deck over a sunken portion of the roadway between T Street and Rhode Island Avenue.
More broadly, OP would also like to open a handful of neighborhood streets to reconnect the street grid and solicit proposals to turn two vacant schools into an innovation campus.
To address neighbors' other concerns, OP recommends organizing local groups to promote preservation, walkability, and the upkeep of local parks. Through these changes, OP would promote affordable housing by giving developers incentives to build more affordable units while maintaining the current stock. But OP also recommends strengthening the zoning code "to preserve the availability of the current supply of single family housing stock" in Mid City East, which by constraining supply would seem to increase prices.
DDOT's analysis of crashes in the Mid City East area. The numbers in the yellow circles represent numbers of victims (injuries and deaths).
DDOT's Livability Study, the other component of the joint effort, further took into account neighborhood travel patterns and the state of the existing streets. DDOT's data show that crashes are no accident along the area's major arterials, with hundreds of people injured and several killed over a three-year period. DDOT proposes to improve safety by removing slip lanes and widening median refuges at major intersections and lowering speed on neighborhood-serving streets through wider sidewalks, curb extensions, and mini-roundabouts at intersections.
DDOT's proposal for stormwater management through pervious pavement in alleys (red) and tree box filters (green).
Both OP and DDOT are stressing sustainability after heavy rains overwhelmed sewers and flooded in recent years. Although a stormwater storage tunnel for the neighborhood is already in the works as part of the Clean Rivers Project, DDOT also proposes to install pervious pavement and other green infrastructure designed to keep water from entering the sewer system in the first place. As part of its most ambitious proposal, DDOT would install permeable paving in about half of Mid City East's alleys and divert stormwater to sidewalk tree boxes on about a dozen streets.
Will the vision be realized?
Are OP's and DDOT's recommendations bold enough to keep the Mid City East neighborhoods on an inclusive, sustainable path that makes the most of nearby development while preserving local character? There are few large projects; instead, OP and DDOT want to make the best use of the area's current assets and encourage neighbors to help themselves through better resident and business collaboration.
The streetscape improvements and the North Capitol Street deck, though welcome, would not change the balance between commuters and residents along the major arterials. Intersection improvements would help bridge the gaps across Florida, New York, and North Capitol, but without a clearer plan for pedestrian and bicycle circulation and connections to other neighborhoods, moving across the area will still be difficult.
What do you think about the draft recommendations? Will they help the area achieve an inclusive, sustainable future? Please leave your ideas in the comments or stop in at OP and DDOT's office hours today between 6-7:30 pm at Big Bear Caf้ at 1700 1st Street NW.
- Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington
- It's fine to not build parking at Tysons Metro stations
- Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes
- Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights
- Arlington considers using fees to reduce parking
- DC sports spaces give short shrift to girls
- Sexist Metro ad asks "Can't we just talk about shoes?"