Greater Greater Washington

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Development


DC sells valuable land, but loses interest in using it to create affordable housing

Since 2000, the District has generally required that when it sells publicly-owned land, part of the deal include new affordable housing for lower-income residents. But more recently, that commitment has waned. A bill in the DC Council could rejuvenate it by requiring affordable housing in city land development deals.


Design for the winning 5th and I building. Image from the developers.

The trend of weakening the city's commitment to affordable housing reached a new level last May, when the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) picked a proposal to develop a city-owned half acre at 5th & I Streets NW.

While the bidders who proposed housing offered some affordable housing in the new building, the winning proposal by Peebles Corp. and the Walker Group put a hotel, condos, and a dog spa in the Mount Vernon Triangle while offering to build affordable housing somewhere elseperhaps at a site it owns in Anacostia, about 3 miles away.

DC needs affordable housing, and there are good reasons to build it inside developments on public land instead of far away. Mixed-income communities are valuable to a city that wants to be diverse and inclusive. Mixed-income neighborhoods give people of different backgrounds better access to jobs, transit, schools, and other amenities. These communities build opportunity for less affluent people.

Mixed-income neighborhoods also ensure that as central city neighborhoods get more valuable, not just the wealthiest people benefit. They encourage people to interact with neighbors with varying income levels, and help transportation like bicycling or streetcars, which run shorter distances, to not be only services for higher-income people.

While most traditional tools for creating affordable housing add new units in higher-poverty areas, DC's land dispositions and inclusionary zoning policies are creating affordable housing in stronger real estate markets such as Columbia Heights, and even Chevy Chase.

When the DC government sells surplus parcels of public land for private development, it traditionally asks that at least some of the new housing built be affordable. Mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty sought and built substantial amounts of affordable housing in city-owned parcels like City Vista at 5th & K Streets NW or the new housing around the Columbia Heights Metro station. Unfortunately, the Gray administration has generally asked for far less affordability in public land deals.

The Peebles/Walker proposal represented yet another step away from the goal of mixed-income communities.

There's still time to revisit this poor decision, and fix the longer-term problem of the city's faltering commitment to affordable housing in public land deals. The DC Council will need to approve the 5th and I deal. Economic Development committee chair Muriel Bowser and her colleagues on the council should reconsider this deal.

And if it approves the pending bill, the council will set a clear policy that future land dispositions need a substantial amount of affordable housing on site. That bill, introduced by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, will require that any deal include 20-30% of its housing at an affordable level for low-income households.

For rental units, that means households earning between 30% and 50% of Area Median Income, or just under $30,000-$50,000 per year for a family of three. Units could be sold to owners earning between 50% and 80% AMI, or just under $50,000-$78,000 per year for a family of three.

The bill, and an action by the council to reject the 5th and I proposal, would restore DC's commitment to affordable housing and not waste the rare opportunities to get a project that promotes mixed-income communities when DC sells off land.

Public Spaces


Here's where you can check out a parklet during tomorrow's Park(ing) Day

DDOT has released a list of locations where you can find a temporary parklet for tomorrow's Park(ing) Day.

Park(ing) Day started out in San Francisco as an unapproved, guerrilla performance art project turning a parking space into a temporary park to show how much public value cities could get from the land devoted to storing even one car.

After trying to impose ridiculous requirements the first time someone tried it in DC, DDOT more recently started explicitly condoning and encouraging the idea by writing simpler guidelines and giving out permits.

BIDs in Georgetown, the Golden Triangle, and NoMa are organizing their own, as are agencies like DC Water, DPR, and OSSE, and businesses including Urbanful, Baked & Wired, Zipcar, and BicycleSPACE. There's also going to be one at the Wilson Building (1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW) run by councilmembers Tommy Wells and David Gross which got left off the map.

Parklets will be open from 9 am to 3 pm (or for a subset of that time, if the organizers don't want to run it all daymidday is often the best time to head over).

Park(ing) Day festivities won't be confined to the District. Arlington is participating too, with at least one large location in Court House. There could be others throughout the region, too.

If you stop by a parklet, snap a photo and put it in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool or send it to us at info@ggwash.org. We'll feature images from parklets around the city in a roundup next week.

Public Spaces


Great park, no tables... so bring your own

There are great food trucks around DC's downtown squares, but to eat in the squares you have to sit on the grass or on a bench, which makes socializing difficult. Jacob Mason saw some people at Farragut Square who have an innovative solution: they brought their own table.


Photo by Jacob Mason.

Mason, who tweets for the new pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC, said that this group works in a nearby building. One of them decided to buy it after he ruined three pairs of pants from sitting on wet grass. The group collectively carries the table to the park to eat lunch.

Parks that host a lot of office lunch workers in other cities, like Bryant Park in Midtown New York, have more tables and moveable chairs. Even across the Potomac River in Arlington, tables and chairs are common.

But DC's downtown squares, which the National Park Service manages, don't have them. (Update: The Golden Triangle BID does put them in the park on Fridays.) Franklin Square could get a few under proposed redesigns (the "Edge" is the most likely design), but progress is slow.

Meanwhile, the do-it-yourself version works pretty well, if your office is organized enough. Everyone else can sit on the grass.

Government


Two maps that explain what DC might look like as a state

On Monday, Congress considered DC statehood. But what would DC actually look like if it became a state?


Maps by Geoffrey Hatchard for Neighbors United for Statehood.

The most likely path to statehood for the District would shrink the federal city to a tiny section surrounding the National Mall and other federal properties. That section would remain not part of any state. The rest of the city would then become the 51st state, possibly called New Columbia.

Here's a zoom-in to what would become the remaining federal city.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Events


Events roundup: Park(ing) Day 2014

As the weather cools off, it seems the calendar heats up. But that's great, because cooler weather is perfect for enjoying a park(ing spot). Get outside and enjoy Park(ing) Day, a WABA walking tour, or a family biking workshop. If you prefer the great indoors, or talk about the future of Pennsylvania Avenue on Friday.


Park(ing) Day 2013. Photo by the author.

Park(ing) Day: A 2005 San Francisco idea gone international, the annual Park(ing) Day takes over the DC region on Friday, bringing pop-up parklets to curbside parking spaces across the region. While Park(ing) Day is an all-day event, you're most likely to find a parklet operating between 9 am and 3 pm, so be sure to check it out over your lunch break. DDOT promises to have a map of DC parklets, but Twitter is perhaps the best way to find a site near you.

The future of Pennsylvania Avenue: Friday morning, join NCPC at the Newseum for "Residents to Presidents: Pennsylvania Ave's Role in the 21st Century." A panel (including Gabe Klein and author Zachary Schrag) will discuss the avenue's roles: local and national, daily routines and big events, grand and intimate. Planners, AICP credit is available. RSVP is requested.

Walk the Met Branch Trail with WABA: Join WABA this Saturday for a walking tour of the northern phase of the MBT to learn about the trail's next phase, its history, and WABA's role in it all.

Family bicycling workshop: On Sunday, head to Georgetown to join Kidical Mass and WABA's Women & Bicycles group for an afternoon workshop on biking with children. Workshop leaders will go over the ins and outs of riding confidently and comfortably with children, equipment, packing and preparation, and next steps. Bonus: snacks and beverages will be provided! This is event is for all genders and all ages.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

Roads


The war on Dana Milbank's car

"DC doesn't deserve self-rule until it... lets Dana Milbank break traffic laws." That's the message from the Washington Post's columnist today.

The idea that DC might be entitled to govern its own affairs, but only if it shapes up in some way that happens to appeal to the writer, is a sadly common refrain from political commentators. Though governors of many states have been actually convicted of corruptionmost recently, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for allegedly selling his influence to a dietary supplement maker in exchange for personal giftsmany say the District doesn't deserve autonomy because there's a campaign finance investigation into our mayor. (Or because Ward 8 votes for Marion Barry.)

Today's Milbank column is a new low in this trope, even compared to the one he wrote last year where he objected to budget autonomy because the city was making all taxis switch to a uniform red paint job.

Apparently, Dana Milbank has been breaking a number of traffic laws, such as not fully stopping at a stop sign, or not fully stopping before turning right on red. He admits he's broken these rules, but rather than suggesting they be changed, he calls efforts to enforce them a "startling abuse of power," an "appalling overreach," and "like a banana republic."

The column is also a new low in the tired "war on cars" meme, which keeps popping up for one reason: Representatives of AAA Mid-Atlantic, the region's local branch of the national auto club, repeat it every chance they get. And with good reason: it gets quoted. It revs people who drive aggressively, but think they're being safe, into a frenzy of blaming the government for daring to suggest that their behavior might be dangerous.

Fix problems, don't attack all enforcement

That's not to say DC's camera system is perfect. A recent report from the District's Office of Inspector General exposed some real problems with the program. For example, sometimes officials couldn't tell which of multiple cars was speeding, and sometimes improperly decided which one would get a ticket. This shouldn't happen. Authorities need to be very confident they have the right car, and if they aren't, they shouldn't give a ticket. (According to police, these problems have already been fixed or are in the process of being fixed.)

However, Milbank isn't saying he's been the victim of any of these errors. He's not saying the law should be changed, but rather, not enforced. (He does allege some other instances where a ticket appeal was denied improperlyand if true, that's also wrong.)

The Post editorial board had a much more level-headed response to the IG report, writing, "The widespread and consistent enforcement of traffic laws made possible by photo enforcement has caused drivers to slow down in the District and obey the rules. While it is important to fine-tune the system to make it as fair and accurate as possible, suggestions to limit or curtail the program should be rejected."

Yes, safety is important

I agree with Milbank, AAA, and others that the camera program can target safety even better than it does. The strongest argument for enforcement is where pedestrians or cyclists are at risk. These vulnerable road users have little recourse against aggressive driving. There are many places in the District where people speed, turn right on red without looking, or just plain fail to yield around significant numbers of pedestrians. Residents of those neighborhoods can often tell you just where the bad spots are.

There should be lower fines, but more cameras, so that people know they're going to get caught doing something illegal, but each incident can be more minor. Criminology research has shown that more frequent enforcement with lower severity changes people's behavior more than random, occasional, high-severity punishment.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson alleges that not fully stopping at a stop sign or before turning right on red isn't a real safety issue. WTOP's Ari Ashe tried to research this, and found that crashes involving right turns on red aren't that frequent. However, the crashes that do occur tend to cause injuries.

AAA used to agree. During meetings of 2012 task force on cameras which DC Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells convened, AAA's John Townsend said the organization fully supported stop sign and red light cameras. "Complete cessation of movement" is the legal standard, and Townsend said they agreed with that. Now, that seems to have changed, and maybe slowing down mostly, but not entirely, is OK.

How do you stop unsafe right turns on red?

The problem is that it's hard to draw a line other than "actually stopping" that protects pedestrians. For speeding, our society has generally tolerated driving up to 10 mph over the limit, and now drivers come to expect that they have a 10 mph buffer. But the consequence is that even on residential streets with 30 mph speed limits, people feel justified driving 40. A pedestrian will survive a crash at 30 mph 70 percent of the time; at 40 mph, it's only 20 percent.

So should it be OK to turn right without stopping as long as you're going under 2 mph? 5? 10? When will we get to the point when whipping around the corner at moderate speed is considered acceptable (many already think it is), and if you hit a pedestrian, "I didn't see him" is enough to get off with no consequence?

Behaviors that drivers intuitively think are safe enough aren't necessarily. The challenge of a camera program is to convince a large group of people that something they've been doing for a long time is actually kind of dangerous. There's always going to be a gray zone of what is and isn't dangerous, but people are always going to want to push that envelope to excuse more behavior.

They'll insist that the program is about money, not safety, as many do. AAA will tell them it's not their fault. They'll craft biting turns of phrase to criticize the government, as Milbank did, or suggest DC doesn't deserve statehood because of it, or even argue that the District is "like the Soviet East" because locally-elected representatives passed laws and want more freedom from an overbearing central governmentwait, what?

What's that about statehood?

But Milbank's statehood point is more apt than he likely realized. Even when Democrats held the White House, House of Representatives, and a supermajority in the Senate in 2009, they didn't pass statehood for DC, or even budget autonomy. Republicans talk about the value of local control, then legislate their values for District residents who have no say in the matter.

For some in the political classes, democracy is a great idea in theory, but when it comes to giving up one's own control, ideology often loses out. Milbank is pointing out a real reason DC will have a hard time winning more autonomy. It's not because the government is behaving badly. Rather, it's that for the people who hobnob with members of Congress, it's more convenient to have their friends calling the shots for the Districtso they don't have to do something as pedestrian as drive carefully enough to protect pedestrians on the road.

Cross-posted at the Washington City Paper.

Education


School quality is the issue, says Catania. But his platform may not improve it.

Mayoral candidate David Catania has laid out his vision for a key issue in the race, education. Building on the education-related legislation he has introduced as a DC Councilmember, Catania calls for strong measures to improve school quality, reduce the achievement gap between black and white students, and strengthen special education services.


Photo from office of David Catania.

Catania identifies the basic issue in DC education as school quality. The unevenness of that quality, he says, results in what he has called a "morning diaspora," with some 60,000 DC students choosing to commute to schools other than the ones they're assigned to.

Catania proposes attacking the quality problem through both vertical and horizontal measures. He calls for "vertical alignment" between the elementary, middle, and high schools in the same feeder pattern, so that programming and expectations are consistent throughout a student's school career.

On the horizontal front, Catania wants to standardize offerings across the District. One middle school, he points out, might have "expansive language and enrichment programs while a middle school across town has far fewer of both."

And when elementary schools with different levels of "quality and preparedness" feed into the same middle school, he says, the entire middle school suffers.

Catania also has other prescriptions, such as directing more funding to at-risk students, something that he's already effected through legislation he introduced. He also wants to guarantee college aid to students who graduate from DC high schools, expand career and technical education, and change the way school improvement is measured to introduce factors other than test scores.

And he discusses, in general terms, the legislation he's introduced that would overhaul many aspects of DC's system for delivering special education services.

Catania has made himself into something of an expert on DC's education system since becoming chair of the Council's education committee at the beginning of last year. He's personally visited almost 150 traditional public and charter schools, and he's introduced a raft of education-related legislation. His energy and ability to retain information are awe-inspiring and have won him ardent supporters among parents and others involved in education.

A variation on "Deal for All"?

But his basic plan for improving school qualityvertical alignment and horizontal standardizationis unlikely to get to the root of the problem. At bottom, it's a more sophisticated version of his opponent Muriel Bowser's simplistic mantra of "Alice Deal for All," a promise to bring the features of Ward 3's highly sought-after Deal Middle School to every sector of the District.

In arguing for the benefits of vertical alignment, Catania points out that "DCPS's highest achieving feeder pattern"the one that includes both Deal and Wilson High School"already employs this practice of vertical integration with great success." But while vertical integration may be a good idea, it's not the reason Deal, Wilson, and the elementary schools that feed into them are high-achieving. That has far more to do with the relative affluence of their student bodies.

Similarly, Catania's plan to standardize programs and offerings throughout the District will only take us so far in improving quality. You can offer the same "expansive language and enrichment programs" that Deal boasts at other middle schools. But if the students at those schools aren't prepared to take advantage of them, they'll be no more than empty promises.

As Catania is no doubt aware, low-income students generally start school far less prepared than their middle-class counterparts, and the gap between the two groups only widens as the grades progress. If you want to truly improve the quality of neighborhood schools beyond the few that are now seen as desirableand which, not coincidentally, have a high proportion of affluent studentsyou need to figure out a way to improve the performance of low-income students.

Prescriptions for closing the achievement gap

Catania does have some prescriptions for doing that, but they're either vague or somewhat mechanical. For example, it's great that, largely thanks to his efforts, more money will be directed to at-risk students, but there's still the question of what that money will be used for.

He mentions that directing funds to at-risk students recognizes "the fact that students from more challenged backgrounds often require additional resources for academic and social-emotional interventions." But he doesn't specify what those interventions should consist of, or how the government can ensure that poor children get the services they need to counteract the effects of poverty that often interfere with their ability to learn.

Catania also points to legislation he authored that essentially ends the practice of social promotion. True, promoting students who haven't mastered material year after year is a recipe for disaster.

But merely requiring those students to repeat a grade doesn't ensure they'll learn what they didn't absorb the first time around, especially if teachers use the same methods. And the stigma of being held back can have lasting effects.

School quality and school boundaries

The question of improving school quality has taken on added urgency because of the recent controversy over school boundaries. Catania has said he's opposed to any plan that would switch students to lower-performing schools.

He's also said that he would delay implementation of the current plan for at least a year, but the measures he outlinesor any measures, for that matterare unlikely to improve school quality anywhere near that fast.

Catania doesn't mention school boundaries anywhere in the 15 pages his platform devotes to education. Nor does he mention another hot-button issue: whether to place limits on the growth and location of charter schools.

And yet both of these issues have major implications for school quality. When more middle-class families attend a school, its quality generally goes up, benefiting the school's low-income students as well. If boundaries are redrawn so that a group of middle-class parents know their children will be attending a particular lower-performing school in, say, five years, they can strengthen each other's resolve to send their kids there and improve it.

On the other hand, if charter schools that attract middle-class families continue their current rapid growth, they could undermine that possibility by draining those families out of the traditional system. Catania's failure to address this controversial question is understandable, but it's nonetheless disappointing.

For all its flaws, Catania's education platform is far more detailed and has many more solid ideas than anything that his rival Bowser has put forward so far. There are still many uncertainties, not least of which who Catania would install to replace DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who is likely to depart if he wins. But right now, he's the only candidate who has both articulated a vision for improving education in DC and who stands at least a chance of winning.

Government


Anacostia residents feel "meeting fatigue"

In my half-decade as a reporter covering the Anacostia neighborhood I have attended nearly 400 meetings. On many occasions I've left one to run to another on the same evening. Some residents who've trundled through these meetings say there have been too many, with not enough results. Is there a better way, or is this necessary to get community input?


William Alston-El and Denise Rolark Barnes at a community meeting in 2013. All photos by the author.

"All these meetings are pseudo-participation at their finest," says Rev. Oliver "OJ" Johnson, a former ANC Commissioner who's lived in Anacostia for 55 years. "Generally, the community never gets the feedback or follow-up reports from these meetings that we are promised."

Meetings come from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A, Anacostia Coordinating Council, Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, ARCH Development Corporation, Anacostia Branch of the DC Public Library, DC Housing Authority, Historic Anacostia Block Association, Councilmember Marion Barry, Office of Planning,

United Planning Organization, Metropolitan Police Department, DC Commission on Arts & Humanities, Cultural Tourism DC, Union Temple Baptist Church, Urban Land Institute, DC Department of Transportation, WMATA, Chief Financial Officer, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, DC Public Schools, and more.

Meeting fatigue is not a condition unique to Anacostia. Residents of Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods have been inundated with meetings for decades. Washington, for all that it lacks in local sovereignty makes up for the near endless opportunity to participate.

Most meetings happen in the immediate neighborhood or surrounding ones. But important meetings, which can determine the future of Anacostia, like with the Zoning Commission or the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, frequently occur outside of the neighborhood. Anacostia's status as a Historic District adds an extra layer of regulation over building and renovations. There are more than 30 other Historic Districts in the city, with residents enduring a similar litany of meetings.

Johnson adds, "The meetings have slowly evolved over the decades. These meetings used to be about holding the city accountable and now they've become events on the social calendar. For people who've lived in the neighborhood for more than 15 years or longer, these meetings serve as reunions. I've seen people at meetings now in their mid-30s I first met attending meetings before they were in grade school because their parents initiated them decades ago. There's a lot we may not have in Anacostia, but it's not for a lack of meetings."


A Mayor's Agent hearing on the Big K development earlier this year.

New leaders restart the meeting process, frustrating longtime residents

While the cliche of Washington being a "transient city" holds true in certain sections of town, Anacostia and areas east of the river have a core of activists that have outlasted changes in local leadership.

"The community has had the same issues for decade," says Angela Copeland, a resident of old Anacostia for more than two decades. "But, we get a fresh crew of bureaucrats every election cycle and start again from scratch. 'What does Anacostia want/need?' You can go crazy after a number of years having this same darn conversation."

At many meetings, community members express their dismay at how the meeting was organized and presented. They offer statements, not questions. Some offer respectful critiques, while other residents lash out. Older residents often citicize the city for duplicating efforts; in reaction, newer people offer a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help the neighborhood revitalize.

Some people ask questions but are told it is not the correct meeting in which to ask that particular question. For example, at a Big K meeting, a resident will ask about the Anacostia streetcar. At an affordable housing meeting, a resident will ask about the CBE process for local businesses applying for government contracts. Confusion and disorientation often reigns.


A young professional speaks out at a community meeting.

On top of administrative turnover, in my 5 years covering Anacostia I've noticed an exodus of upstart activists, regenerated by a new wave of enthusiastic young professionals. In September 2009, I attended a meeting of the River East Emerging Leaders (or REEL). At least eight people I spoke to either no longer live East of the Anacostia River or have left the area entirely.

REEL continues to hold meetings. "Every time I go to one of their meetings they have a new Vice President or someone with a leadership title who I've never met before," said one local business leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They interrogate me, asking who I am. I kindly tell them I helped support the formation of the organization."

Can technology provide more ways to participate?

"Before I had a family, I used to go to meetings," said Copeland. "It's just harder for me to make the time, now. And, people get an attitude if you ask for an agenda in advance or minutes after or live social media interaction during or anything that attempts to break old molds. The old guard appears to enjoy keeping newer voices (I'm not a newer voice) out of the process by hanging on to old ways and dysfunctionnamely lack of transparency."

I've intermittently live tweeted public meetings on Big K, Barry Farm, and pending development. As a result I receive messages from residents who are unable to attend but share their thanks for documenting what is being discussed.

Although agencies maintain strict control over Anacostia meetings, leaving many to feel their participation is not valued, accessibility has improved over the years, Copeland said. "The joke for me is that the city used to hold meetings during business hours like the community didn't work. The only people getting paid for their effort at the meetings were those who worked for the city."


Kaya Henderson speaks to a community gathering including Councilmembers Anita Bonds and Marion Barry as well as clergy and commander of the 7th District Police Station.

Meetings play an important role

"Meetings are important," Copeland, who is also the administrator of the Great Ward 8 Facebook page, wrote. "The most dedicated make the time and commitment and shoulder most of the burden. There are tools available (all kinds of meeting facilitation tools online, via phone) that could help spread the responsibilities. But, people have to want to let go of the control."

One of the co-founders of REEL, Historic Anacostia Block Association, and current 8A ANC Commissioner Charles Wilson said that regular gatherings are invaluable to build a physical sense of community that trumps a digital community. "Monthly community meetings are important because it is an easy way to keep residents thoroughly informed of the issues and it allows them to communicate in person with each other. Email communication is great, but nothing beats the effectiveness of face-to-face conversations."

When revitalization and development begin to arrive in Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods is uncertain, but one thing is for sure; the meetings will continue.

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