Greater Greater Washington

Posts about New York

Development


Think the rent's too high? Try your hand at managing a landlord's budget

The rents in the brand-new apartment buildings all around town have caused some serious sticker shock. If you've wondered just how the rent got to be so damn high, you might find a few minutes with a new online game to be instructive.


Image from the author. And yes, he lost on his first try at the game.

"Inside the Rent," created by New York City's Citizens Housing & Planning Council, lets you examine the construction and operating budget for a new-build apartment building—and translates those up-front costs into average monthly rents.

Players get to choose between various factors like location, construction type, and how much to pay construction crews and maintenance staff. Then they watch the costs add up. In the likely scenario that the costs exceed the player's "market price," the player can also apply for various government subsidies, like tax breaks or free land.

Although construction costs and land prices in the Washington region aren't quite at New York City levels, many factors apply nationwide. For instance, federal law requires that subsidized housing pay "prevailing wages" to construction workers, which raises costs.

One quirk that I noticed in the game: the game shows that construction of high-rise buildings costs 25% more than mid-rise buildings. (Here in DC, the same 25% cost differential exists between mid-rise and low-rise buildings.) However, the game doesn't acknowledge that high-rise buildings can fit more units onto the same piece of land, and thus reduce the land cost per unit. Another cost that isn't part of CHPC's game, but which can very substantially raise rents, is the high cost of building parking.

Interestingly, one of the few "costs" that is fixed in all game scenarios is the developer's minimum profit, which is 5% in all cases. That might seem generous at a time of near-zero interest rates, but consider that for investors, a whole lot more can go wrong with a construction project than with with long-term bonds, which are often considered a comparable (but less risky) asset. Indeed, as the prices to buy or build apartments have risen, the profit margins that investors make on operating those apartments have fallen to new lows.

If you're the type of geek who prefers to examine Excel spreadsheets rather than constantly reload your phone's browser, CHPC has also made the spreadsheet underlying the game available.

Public Spaces


Better management can transform downtown parks into gems

It takes more than a tuft of grass to make a good urban park. Some of the best downtown parks in America have non-profit management organizations that produce spectacular results. It's time for DC to join them.


Photo by thisistami on Flickr.

DC is unusual in that the vast majority of the city's parkland is under National Park Service (NPS) control. While this arrangement spreads the cost of local parks across all American taxpayers, it also shackles the parks to restrictive and sometimes uncompromising NPS regulations that have hampered events, food sales, bikesharing, and change in general.

NPS regulations are great for preserving Yellowstone, but not so great for making city squares lively.

Other cities have found that municipal control of parks can be just as disappointing. In the case of New York's Bryant Park, for example, it wasn't until the city turned the park's management over to Bryant Park Corporation, a non-profit, that it went from being a dilapidated den of crime and drug needles to a vibrant space where residents feel welcome.


Bryant Park, New York. Photo by brianac37 on Flickr.

Because BPC isn't part of a municipal government, it's been able to bypass onerous procurement rules. Its full time management staff host events like fashion shows and holiday markets year round. It also cleans the park everyday, works with food vendors, and maintains a temporary ice rink, outdoor ping-pong tables, chess sets, and porch chairs.

Bryant Park's full time staff is something a lot of conventional parks just don't have. At a park panel at the 2010 ASLA conference, Jerome Barth of the Bryant Park Corporation noted that its staff can repair benches the day they break and rearrange movable park furniture as crowds change throughout the day. Imagine DC's parks getting that kind of attention to detail!


Bryant Park, New York. Photo by Mat McDermott on Flickr.

The District could do the same with a lot of the downtown parks that NPS currently controls. The result would be parks that were both more attractive and more useful, and land near these public gems would surely go up in value.

There is already some political support for making the shift. While campaigning, Muriel Bowser told the told the Committee of 100 that if elected, she'd improve downtown parks:

I would work with federal officials to transfer jurisdiction of the many park spaces currently managed by the National Park Service so they have better amenities and programming for residents and visitors to enjoy. Freedom Plaza in particular is an area particularly well suited to the creation of a central park, though I would not limit my focus to this one location.
In its recent environmental assessment for renovating downtown's Franklin park, NPS contemplates a new management system where private partners could explore ways to generate revenue and share responsibility for park maintenance. The private partner would be held to NPS standards for maintenance and preservation, and NPS staff would be free to attend to other nearby land like the National Mall and its surrounding memorial parks.

In DC, good candidates include Franklin Park, Mt. Vernon Square, Farragut Square, Dupont Circle, and Freedom Plaza. Georgetown Waterfront Park, Meridian Hill Park, and the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park are other good candidates outside downtown. Whether the District created a single partner for each park, or one to manage them all, would depend on exactly what each park needs.

Funding sources for parks organizations can vary, from government appropriations, to a special assessment or share of recordation taxes on surrounding property, to vendor fees. Whatever the funding source, the rise in land value would help the District's bottom line.

Other cities have successfully managed parks this way. Aside from Bryant Park, New York uses similar non-profit groups for the High Line (Friends of the High Line) and Madison Square Park (Madison Square Park Conservancy). A local BID-type organization, Union Square Partnership, maintains Union Square.

In Philadelphia, the non-profit Historic Philadelphia Inc. operates Franklin Square, which contains a carousel, a miniature golf course for kids, food concessions, a playground, bathrooms, and a holiday light display.

Non-profits provide the bulk of these parks' operating revenue, and they maintain them as high-quality, attractive public spaces that are open and free to the public.


Union Square, New York. Photo by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr.

Washington deserves top-notch urban parks. We already have an abundance of parkland, and if it were free of so many management constraints, our parks could reach their full potential.

Bicycling


What's the best way to protect a bikeway? How about a bikeshare station?

How's this for a natural idea: Locate bikeshare stations between a street's protected bikeway and car lanes.

That's exactly the arrangement in Crystal City, where the Capital Bikeshare station at 23rd and Eads helps to form part of the bikeway's protective barrier.


23rd and Eads. Photo by Euan Fisk on Flickr.

DC has at least one example, on 6th Street NE next to Union Market. You can also find this arrangement in New York, Paris, and a ton of other cities.

It's just a nifty, straightforward idea that's too sensible not to use.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC