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Posts about Barack Obama

Development


The Obama administration says zoning is at the heart of some huge economic problems

The Obama administration wants to talk zoning. According to a paper it put out this morning, laws that restrict new development and require new buildings to come with new parking, along with slow permitting processes and arbitrary preservation regulations, create barriers to opportunity for working families.


Houses in DC. Photo by nevermindtheend.

The White House's Housing Development Tookit starts with the belief that strict land use regulations are hurting the United States economy:

"Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified… The accumulation of such barriers - including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes - has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers' access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP [editor's note: Pete Rodrigue wrote about this for us last week] growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions."
The report goes on to say that while preventing new housing development can be environmentally beneficial, it can also amount to "laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing."

It also draws a direct link between zoning laws and both inequality and inequity in the US:

"When new housing development is limited region-wide, and particularly precluded in neighborhoods with political capital to implement even stricter local barriers, the new housing that does get built tends to be disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color, causing displacement and concerns of gentrification in those neighborhoods."
Here's what we can do about the problem

The report urges places to modernize their zoning laws, and suggests ten tools to do so. They include:

1. Eliminating off-street parking requirements: All over the country, there are rules that require new buildings to come with a certain amount of parking. Building that parking means not building housing on the land, which developers would often prefer to do. It also means encouraging more people to drive.

Reducing parking minimum requirements can increase the housing supply as well as demand for frequent, reliable bus or rail service, which can make it easier for people to get to jobs.

Cutting parking requirements for developments located near a transit stop can increase the supply of housing units and lower costs. The availability of transit reduces the need for a vehicle and offers more space for development.

Luckily, a lot of cities are catching onto the logic here, including DC, and also New York City.

2. Allowing accessory dwelling units: New housing doesn't have to only be brand new buildings. A lot of people would rent out their basements, attics, or small cottages in their back yards into accessory dwelling units (ADUs) if their zoning simply allowed it. Often, the people renting these units have limited incomes, like someone starting their career or an older adult.

Thanks to its recent zoning code change, it's now easier to rent out ADUs in the District.

3. Using inclusionary zoning:Inclusionary zoning requires a specific amount of new housing units to be "affordable," where the rent or the selling price is lower than the market rate and the units are only available to people whose incomes fall below a certain level. In exchange, developers get something called a density bonus, which allows them to build more market rate units than they otherwise would be.

The White House's toolkit cites DC and Montgomery County as examples of places that have pushed for housing affordability via inclusionary zoning. It also cites inclusionary zoning as a reason for better educational outcomes for low-income children.

This matters in our region. A lot.

No single action will solve the housing affordability issues many cities face, but reducing barriers to development can increase opportunities for working families. As too often happens:

"The long commutes that result from workers seeking out affordable housing far from job centers place a drain on their families, their physical and mental well-being, and negatively impact the environment through increased gas emissions."
The White House's report relates to our region because we are one of the handful of regions in the nation where restrictive zoning has become a significant bottleneck. Detroit and Baltimore have the opposite problem; their vacant housing isn't getting used.

This problem is impacting metro areas to different extents. It's worst in the Bay Area, but New York, Seattle, Boston, and others all have similar problems… and so do we.

Architecture


Seven designers are bidding for Obama's presidential library. Here's what they've done in DC.

Seven teams are bidding to design Barack Obama's presidential library. They're all well-regarded modern architects, and a few have projects in the DC area.


Like all US presidents, a library will be dedicated to Barack Obama. Photo by IIP Photo Archive on Flickr.

Only one of the teams, John Ronan Architects, comes from Chicago, where the library and museum of the 44th president will eventually rise. Most work out of New York, but teams have roots in London, Genoa, Paris, and Oslo as well. Like a lot of high-profile architecture nowadays, all have projects flung across the globe.

Their work is different from the previous generation of designers, who tended to create object-like buildings that feel aloof from street life. The potential architects of the Obama library all have projects that sit carefully in their context and play nice with existing streets, even if they don't disappear into the neighborhood stylistically.

That's a big deal because both of the proposed sites in Chicago are landmark parks in socially diverse neighborhoods. And that means a monumental building floating in a parking lot, like the elder Bush and Clinton's libraries, isn't going to happen.

Will it be good? The real test is seeing these architects' buildings in person. Luckily, you might be able to do that at lunch.

Three of the candidates them have projects in DC

Out on New York Avenue NW, John Ronan Architects created the Yale Steam Laundry Condominiums by converting a landmarked commercial laundry facility. The architects highlighted the irregularities of the original building with minimalist alterations in industrial materials like wood and steel.

A different architect designed the larger new building to the east, but Ronan designed both building's rugged amenity spaces in the wing set back from the street.


A Yale Steam Laundry apartment. Photo by Nathan Kirkman, courtesy of John Ronan Architects.

Tucked into the base of a glass office building on 10th Street NW, the First Congregational United Church of Christ could easily be mistaken for another storefront, just set in black, textured brick and a raw bronze column. Really though, what you're seeing is the church's foyer, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien. Through the lobby's massive doors is a softly lit sanctuary that blocks out the noise of downtown.


The aisle of the sanctuary looks onto G Street. Image from TWBTA.

Design writers often pick London-based architect David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates
as the likely choice to do the Obama library. His influence is unusually strong in DC: Only London has as more buildings by his office. So far, the most notable Adjaye building in DC is the National Museum of African American History and Culture near the Washington Monument.


The NMAAHC. Photo by the author.

Farther afield are two libraries Adjaye designed a few years ago east of the Anacostia River. Both use transparency and reflections to create atmosphere. His firm divided up the Bellevue Library into a series of rooms that overlook Atlantic Street in Southwest while still offering seclusion though panes of colored glass.


Bellvue Library. Photo by Edmund Summer, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

The Gregory Library is a more extroverted design, with a façade that alternates transparent or mirrored panels. The effect is that a pedestrian on the street sees the neighborhood overlaid on the interior. At oblique angles, the library disappears into the woods of Fort Davis. The wood-lined interior is more conventional, except for a staircase the plunges into the airy popular collection room.


Francis Gregory Library. Photo by Edmund Summer courtesy of Adjaye Associates

If plans to go through, Adjaye will also design a high-end residential building at Georgetown's West Heating Plant. With the plant needing to go through at least five design review stages, though, the Obama Library might get built first.


One option for the West Heating Plant, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

Two candidates almost have a presence in DC

In addition to that heating plant project, two of the other firms have designed unbuilt projects for DC.

New York-based designers SHoP are designing the new Fannie Mae headquarters on L Street. The U-shaped glass office building at the former Washington Post headquarters will have a slightly unusual facade, with the angle of the glass changing gradually from end to end and top to bottom. This is similar to a lot of their work: boxy forms fitted out in shifting steel and glass facades.


Rendering of 1150 15th Street NW, courtesy of SHoP Architects.

In DC, Diller Scofidio + Renfro are best known for their "bubble:" an inflatable temporary structure that was going to sit inside the Hirshhorn courtyard. That scheme deflated for cost and feasibility reasons under the last director. They also submitted a design for the NMAAHC.


Rendering of the Hirshhorn bubble, courtesy of DS+R.

A couple don't have anything to show

The Norwegian firm Snøhetta has no buildings in DC. They did, however, renovate Times Square, so it's not hard to find their work. Rather than try to tame the iconic space, they covered the ground in rugged concrete pavers embedded with steel disks that echo the billboards that crossroads is famous for.

The last firm, run by Renzo Piano, is the most established choice. His company's recent designs using glass and natural materials have been expertly detailed, austere, and conservative. That sounds like Washington's reputation, so it's sort of odd that he's never had anything even considered in Washington.

As DC's downtown shows, it's tough to make a monumental building that also fits into an urban site nicely. Too often notable architects produce unfriendly places that photograph well. But perhaps this time, the Obama Library Foundation will pick a design that's not a monument, and connects with the public space around it.

Take a look at these buildings. Do you think that could happen?

Government


Democrats grudgingly approve a transportation extension bill with a risky timeline

On Tuesday, during the one-hour debate period over the House proposal to extend transportation funding through May 31, lawmaker after lawmaker stood up to condemn the bill. America needs a long-term transportation bill, they said. A short-term stopgap only creates more uncertainty.


Rep. Earl Blumenauer was one of just 10 Democrats to reject the House extension. Image from C-SPAN.

And then they voted for it.

More Democrats than Republicans voted for it, in fact, despite standing up and declaring that "a short term solution is not enough" or that it's "just another kick-the-can-down-the-road approach" or that it's just "a little shuffling around of money so we can pretend… we're not creating more debt." But in the end, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act passed easily, with only 10 Democrats and 45 Republicans voting against it.

Peter Welch of Vermont was one of those no-voting Democrats. During the floor debate, he called the bill an "abdication of our responsibility."

"Some folks are saying we need time to put together a long term bill," he said. "We've had time. What we need is a decision."

Earl Blumenauer is in favor of an extension, but only through the lame duck period after the election. He voted no as well, criticizing Republicans for failing to have a "deliberate, thoughtful process."

"We have not had a single hearing on transportation finance in the Ways and Means Committee all year," he said. "We didn't have one the year before that. We haven't had a hearing in the 43 months that the Republicans have been in charge."

How long will the extension be?

The Senate Finance Committee has passed a largely similar bill, with the same amount of money coming out of slightly different funding sources.

Wyden's bill also failed to include an expiration date. Senator Barbara Boxer is expected to introduce an amendment putting a December 31 date on it—so that she would still be chair of the EPW Committee when the real bill gets negotiated—but the juggernaut is already in motion toward a longer extension until May. By putting enough money in the bill to get there, Wyden was tacitly acceding to that timeline without overtly ruffling Boxer's feathers.

Even President Obama has given the green light to the House bill, though he also insisted that "Congress shouldn't pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months, kicking the can down the road for a few months, careening from crisis to crisis."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he plans to schedule three floor votes before the August recess: the House bill, the Senate Finance Committee bill, and Boxer's December 31 plan.

Boxer, of course, doesn't refer to her own hold on the committee when lobbying for a shorter extension. She just says the longer one is "a really bad idea because the longer the patch, the longer the indecision, the more jobs lost, the more businesses go under."

Besides, now that presidential election seasons last for two years (at least), punting until May could easily bleed into much longer delays. After all, if it's too hard to pass a major spending bill in the run-up to a mid-term election, imagine the resistance to passing one during a presidential race.

A bill under a Republican Senate could be much worse

If the Republicans really do take control of the Senate in January, that means that the bill sent to President Obama's desk will be one crafted and approved by Republicans in both houses.

Control of the Environment and Public Works Committee would shift to Louisiana Republican David Vitter, who has a track record of rejecting any revenue increase, railing against merit-based transportation financing, and working to cut environmental reviews for road projects.

The current House Transportation Committee chair, Bill Shuster, has a better track record of consulting with Democrats than his predecessor, John Mica, but with a Republican Senate, even Shuster might be less invested in bipartisanship.

A Congress with both chambers controlled by Republicans could revive old, rejected ideas like devolving transportation funding to states, closing the Highway Trust Fund's transit account, or eliminating bike/ped funding. That is the scenario set up by yesterday's extension vote with its May 31 sunset.

Oh, and if you're impressed that Congress is addressing this issue well before the September 30 expiration of the current MAP-21 bill, don't be. That bill's funding fixes—gimmicks in their own right—didn't manage to last all the way until its sunset, and the highway account of the Highway Trust Fund is expected to dip into insolvency by the end of next month. US DOT was preparing to start cutting payments to states by 28 percent on August 1. And Congress has only 10 work days left on the legislative calendar before members retreat to their home districts for the month of August.

A version of this post originally appeared on Streetsblog. Since it ran yesterday, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) announced plans to slow the bill unless he can get a vote on two amendments (to devolve funding to states and repeal the Davis-Bacon rules on contractor pay) that do not have bipartisan support.

Transit


The Purple Line gets a boost from President Obama's budget

Yesterday, the Purple Line took a big step forward when the federal government recommended giving it a $100 million grant for next year and providing additional funding in the coming years. Now, all it needs is approval from Congress.


Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

President Obama included the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in his 2015 budget. It's one of 7 transit projects the Federal Transit Administration recommended for a "New Starts" grant, including the Baltimore Red Line, an extension of LA's Purple Line, Boston's Green Line extension, the Columbia River Crossing in Portland, and commuter rail in Orlando and Fort Worth.

The agency also recommended Congress give the Purple Line a "full funding grant agreement" committing it to help pay for construction. Maryland hopes the federal government will provide $900 million, though it's unclear what the final amount will be.

The state has already agreed to put in up to $900 million for the project. Montgomery and Prince George's counties will give $220 million total, while the state is looking for a private partner to build and operate the line and pitch in additional funds.

The Purple Line has been discussed in some form since 1986. If everything goes right, it could start construction in 2015 and open in 2020. But getting here hasn't been easy.

From the beginning, it faced vehement opposition from the exclusive Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, because the line would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight rail line that bisected its golf course. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland didn't want it passing through the heart of campus, and even hired former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (now running for a fourth term) to oppose it.

Maryland was able to find a workable solution for both parties, and the Purple Line now enjoys the support of both county executives, elected officials in both counties, and hundreds of civic, environmental, business, and advocacy groups.

But there are still a few challenges remaining. One is that Congress actually has to approve President Obama's budget and decide how much the "full funding grant agreement" for the Purple Line would be. The other is the Town of Chevy Chase, which continues to oppose the project because of its impacts on the trail. The town recently hired a lobbyist who happens to be the brother of the House transportation committee chair to make the case against the line.

Meanwhile, other residents may sue the government because they feel not enough research has been done about the Purple Line's impacts on a small, shrimp-like creature that's listed as an endangered species but is found several miles away. These things may add additional delay to the Purple Line, but it's unclear whether they're enough to actually halt the project.

In any case, yesterday was a great day for the Purple Line. When I attended my first Purple Line meeting in 2003, as a junior in high school, I assumed that I'd be riding it by now. Hopefully, 28 years after the project was first announced, we won't have to wait much longer.

Roads


President Obama proposes a "fix-it-first" program for roads

In last night's State of the Union address, President Obama launched a "Fix-It-First" program to repair aging infrastructure and put people to work.


The "enhanced" State of the Union. Image from whitehouse.gov.

The president even took an indirect jab at officials who would rather build new than fix existing infrastructure, saying, "I know you want these job-creating projects in your district; I've seen all those ribbon-cuttings."

So, tonight, I propose a "Fix-It-First" program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.

Obama has proposed infrastructure investment many times before, and always with a heavy tilt toward repair and maintenance, but never such an explicit mandate to "fix it first." By keeping existing transportation infrastructure in good condition, officials can save the public from the expense of unnecessary road expansion projects.

However, he did give a nod to some new infrastructure he'd like to see: notably, high-speed rail.

"Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire," Obama said, "a country with deteriorating roads and bridges or one with high-speed rail and Internet, high-tech schools, self-healing power grids."

The president also proposed a "Partnership to Rebuild America" to attract private capital for infrastructure investment "to make sure taxpayers don't shoulder the whole burden."

In his speech, Obama spent far more time talking about energy and climate change than transportation.

American-produced wind, solar, and natural gas topped his energy platform, but he wasn't above bragging, "We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years." He delighted in the "natural gas boom" and the fact that his administration has been "cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits."

He calls it his "all-of-the-above plan."

He also asked Congress to come up with a "bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change," like the Climate Stewardship Act, a cap-and-trade bill John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced a decade ago.

Then he hedged against Congress's ability to break through gridlock—especially on environmental issues. "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," he said, pledging to take executive actions to reduce pollution, adapt to climate change, and pursue more sustainable sources of energy. He highlighted the urgency:

Now, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it's too late.

His goal: cutting in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years. Not the energy used, just the energy wasted. I'm not sure how he defines and quantifies wasted energy.

Read his entire speech here or watch the enhanced version, with explanatory graphics, here.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

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