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Development


When the Metro first arrived in Shaw and Columbia Heights, they were far different than they are today

During rush hour, northbound Yellow Line trains need to reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there isn't enough capacity for all of them to run to Greenbelt. That's because when Metro designed the Yellow Line, it was hard to imagine neighborhoods like Shaw and U Street developing as rapidly as they did.


This pre-2004 map shows original full-time Yellow Line service. Image from WMATA.

Why can't Yellow Line go farther north full time?

For the Yellow Line to operate north of Mount Vernon Square full-time, there would need to be a pocket track somewhere between that station and Greenbelt, so that Yellow Line trains could turn back towards Virginia without impeding Green Line trains at rush hour. (Right now, a few Rush+ Yellow Line trains do go all the way to Greenbelt, but usually only about four per hour during peak periods).

The tunnel that carries the Green and Yellow Lines under 7th Street and U Street NW opened in two stages: from L'Enfant Plaza to Gallery Place in April 1983, and from Gallery Place to U Street in May 1991. These tracks initially only provided service for the Yellow Line, but the Green Line would soon utilize the tunnel when it began operation from U Street to Anacostia in December 1991. Check out the Evolution of Metrorail graphic below, which we initially ran two years ago to see how service has changed:

The tracks running through the 7th Street tunnel had always been intended to be shared by the Green and Yellow Lines, but only for a short portion. Although it was intended for the Green Line to operate along the entire length of the tunnel - continuing onwards to Petworth, Fort Totten, and northwest Prince George's County - the Yellow Line would short turn at a pocket track somewhere along the route, so as not to overwhelm operations at Greenbelt (as I discussed in my first post on this topic).

Metro's planners opted to build the necessary pocket track at Mount Vernon Square station, which meant that Yellow Line trains would have to end their route and turn back towards Virginia without serving neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Petworth. Except for the brief six-month period between the opening of Mount Vernon Square, Shaw, and U Street stations in June 1991 and the commencement of Green Line service that December, the Yellow Line has always terminated at Mount Vernon Square in regular rush hour service.

Off-peak Yellow Line service all the way to Fort Totten began in 2006. This has certainly been a first step towards meeting the increased demand in DC's Mid-City area (generally thought of as the neighborhoods served by the Green Line from Shaw to Petworth). However, these areas have now grown enough in population that full-time Yellow Line service is warranted, despite the significant obstacles that stand in the way.

The growth of Mid-City has led to a need for increased Metro service

Massive redevelopment in Mid-City began around the turn of the century, and has continued at a frantic pace to the present day. That's meant increased demand for service along the Green/Yellow Lines at all hours.

When the Mid-City section of the Green Line opened in 1991 (between Gallery Place and U Street) and was completed in 1999 (from U Street to Fort Totten), the area was still reeling from the destruction caused by the 1968 riots. Shaw and Columbia Heights were still plagued with empty storefronts, and the landscape was pockmarked with empty lots where incinerated buildings had once stood.


Aftermath of DC's 1968 riots. Image from the Library of Congress.

The corridor has since benefitted from an incredible amount of reinvestment since the opening of the new Green (later Green/Yellow) Line stations in the 1990s. New construction has ranged in scale from projects like Progression Place, a huge mixed-use center that was recently built directly atop Shaw Metro, to smaller infill developments aimed at repairing the urban fabric.


Apartments at the Columbia Heights station. Photo by Alice Crain on Flickr.

A problem inherent in the system's design

Unfortunately, plans for Metro service patterns in Mid-City didn't anticipate the future growth that these neighborhoods would face. The Yellow Line was designed to provide a direct connection from Virginia to downtown for the commuting crowd; it travels express between Pentagon and L'Enfant Plaza, then provides a connection to each of the other Metro lines downtown before turning back at Mount Vernon Square.

The system's planners didn't predict that a significant amount of Yellow Line passengers would desire to travel past downtown, to neighborhoods like Shaw and Columbia Heights. Thus, it was assumed that the Green Line would provide adequate service for this portion of the line. Hence the pocket track going in at Mount Vernon Square, rather than at a more northern station like U Street.

So, could Metro build a new pocket track to account for the development spree?

Unfortunately, because this service pattern is cemented by the chosen location to build a pocket track, any attempt to correct this past oversight will be very laborious and costly.

It would be extremely difficult to add a pocket track to the Green and Yellow Lines anywhere between Mount Vernon Square and the District line because the tracks run almost entirely underground all the way to West Hyattsville. It would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive to excavate along the existing route and construct a pocket track between the mainline tracks—a WMATA study placed the cost of a Fort Totten pocket at $150 million.

Although the lower platform at Fort Totten is mostly built in an open cut (a shallow excavation that puts the tracks slightly below ground level), the tracks emerge directly from tunnels on both sides. The necessary location for a pocket track - the east side of the station, on the far side of the platforms from the city - is also the location of the B&E Connector track, a non-revenue link between the Red and Green Lines. The combination of these factors would make the construction of a pocket at this location very complex.


The track layout at Fort Totten. Light-colored tracks are below ground. Graphic by the author.

The next logical place to build a pocket track beyond Fort Totten is in Prince George's County, at the point where the tracks emerge from underground near West Hyattsville station. However, while construction of a pocket here wouldn't require excavation, it would still be extremely difficult and disruptive because the tracks are side-by-side on an elevated viaduct.

Because a pocket would have to be built between the existing mainline tracks, Metro would have to reconstruct a roughly 600-foot section of this elevated viaduct in order to pull the tracks apart and create space for a third track in between. This would be comparably disruptive and expensive to constructing a pocket track underground near Fort Totten. What's really required is a section of track that is at-grade, e.g. resting at ground level rather than underground or on a viaduct.


The Green Line viaduct and platforms at West Hyattsville. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The next feasible place to build a pocket track would be at the above-ground embankment behind Home Depot on East-West Highway near Prince George's Plaza station (although that, too, might be difficult due to the curve at that location).

Of course, a pocket track gets less and less useful the further it is from downtown. The next possible location for a pocket would be near College Park, at which point Yellow Line trains might as well continue all the way to Greenbelt.

It looks like for now, stations north of Mount Vernon Square will have to make do without full-time Yellow Line service. Until WMATA can procure $150 million to add an expensive new underground pocket track at Fort Totten, as well as $100 million for new rolling stock (plus millions more in annual operating funds), rush hour Yellow Line trains will have to continue to terminate at Mount Vernon Square. But the temporary terminus at U Street offers us a glimpse of what could have been if Metro had built a pocket track there back in 1991.

Transit


AskGGWash: Why are Yellow Line trains terminating at U Street?

During rush hour, Yellow Line trains usually run between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square. But beginning in August, I noticed that many went all the way to U Street, two stops north of their usual ending point. The reason is a mechanical malfunction with a track at Mount Vernon Square that lets trains change direction, and the issue highlights just how important that track is to the entire system.


Photo by the author.

In technical lingo, the problem is called a "bobbing track circuit." The issue is typically considered more of a nuisance than an actual danger, but it's been preventing rush hour Yellow Line trains from accessing their usual turnaround point (the Mount Vernon pocket) for several weeks.

According to WMATA operations guru Stephen Repetski, a track circuit is described as "bobbing" when it erroneously flips back and forth between registering that a train is occupying its block when it might not actually be. This may occur because the circuit is too sensitive, or it may be due to old equipment that needs to be replaced.

A bobbing track circuit can cause trains to lose their speed commands. This forces the operator to stop and wait for permission from the Rail Operations Control Center to proceed to the next signal block, which they must do at a reduced speed. This significantly delays train operations.


WMATA signaling infrastructure. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Usually, rush hour Yellow Line trains reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there's a pocket track there-- a short third track located between the two main tracks, which allows trains to reverse direction without blocking trains on the mainline. In normal rush hour operation, Yellow Line trains use this pocket track to short turn, e.g. to turn around without running all the way to the end of the line at Greenbelt.

Since Yellow Line trains currently have to turn around using the crossover at U Street* (or run all the way out to Greenbelt), fewer trains are operating on the Green/Yellow Lines every rush hour. This is due to the fact that when trains have to short turn without the use of a pocket track, they cause delays by blocking trains in both directions, as Matt Johnson detailed in a 2010 post on the issue.

*There are crossovers that allow trains to turn around between every station from Gallery Place to Fort Totten, but Metro seems to have chosen U Street as the temporary turnaround point.


Trains that have to short turn without the use of a pocket impede through trains in both directions. Graphic by the author.

However, a pocket between the mainline tracks allows short-turning trains to be taken off the mainline while reversing direction, thus allowing through trains to proceed unobstructed. Thus, when rush hour Yellow Line trains turn back toward Huntington using the pocket track at Mount Vernon Square, they are allowing through trains (e.g. Green Line trains) to pass unimpeded on the mainline while the reversal procedure is carried out.


A pocket allows trains to reverse direction without blocking the mainline tracks. Graphic by the author.

This temporary "extension" of Yellow Line service did get a few Greater Greater Washington contributors thinking: could Metro ever permanently extend the Yellow Line past Mount Vernon Square during rush hour? Doing so would provide booming stations like Shaw, U Street, and Columbia Heights with increased service and a direct connection to Virginia at all hours.

There are, however, several financial and logistical problems standing in the way.

The obstacles: lack of a pocket track, railcars, and funding

After 15 years of short-turning Yellow Line trains at Mount Vernon Square at all hours, Metro began running off-peak Yellow Line trains all the way to Fort Totten in December 2006. The service started as a pilot program, but was quickly made permanent due to high demand.

However, there are three major obstacles preventing Yellow Line trains from running to Fort Totten during peak hours: there's no a pocket track at Fort Totten, Metro only has so many trains, and Metro doesn't have the money (Matt explored these factors in depth in his 2010 post).


An above-ground pocket track north of Silver Spring. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Turning some trains around at pocket tracks (like the one at Mount Vernon Square) rather than running them all the way to the end of the line allows more trains to run on the given section of the Metro system because it keeps terminal stations like Greenbelt from getting overwhelmed.

For example, 50% of rush hour Red Line trains only run between Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring (rather than all the way from Shady Grove to Glenmont), using the pocket tracks at these stations to reverse and head back in the other direction. This means that Shady Grove and Glenmont only have to handle turning around 13 trains per hour, rather than the maximum of 26.

There is excess rush hour capacity on the Green/Yellow Line tracks north of Mount Vernon Square, as you can see in Matt Johnson's graphic below, and extending the Yellow Line to Fort Totten would take advantage of it (as the four hourly Rush+ Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt already do).


Metro service vs. capacity. Graphic by Matt Johnson.

But without building a pocket track somewhere between Mount Vernon Square and Greenbelt (such as at Fort Totten), it is impossible to take full advantage of this capacity without overwhelming operations at the busy Green Line terminal. Unfortunately, there are significant obstacles standing in the way of this.

In addition to the cost of the pocket track itself, Metro would have to pay for additional rolling stock in order to operate the extended Yellow Line service full time. As Matt explains, the increased service would require 30 additional railcars at a cost of approximately $100 million, plus $3 million per year in operating costs. The new railcars would have to come from Metro's order for the 8000 series, which aren't expected to begin delivery until at least 2023.

Is it possible to build an extra pocket track between Mount Vernon Square and Greenbelt? And how come one didn't go in in the first place? I'll take a look at that in a post next week.

Correction: This post initially said there are crossovers at every station between Gallery Place and Fort Totten. That isn't the case, and given where the crossovers are, U Street makes sense for the current Yellow Line issue.

Bicycling


Upcoming events: Happy hour with Rushern Baker, bike theft, transportation tech, and more!

Our next happy hour is coming up on Tuesday, August 23, featuring special guest Rushern Baker, the Prince George's County Executive. Also, here are some more upcoming ways for you to extend your urbanist learning and activism to the physical world.


Photo by Joe Loong on Flickr.

County Executive Baker has been a champion for smart growth and transit in a county that has been patiently waiting for both. It's also your chance to visit Mount Rainier, an awesome town on the DC/Maryland line home to the burgeoning Gateway Arts District. RSVP here.

We'll be there from 6 to 8 pm at Bird Kitchen + Cocktails, located at 3801 34th Street, Mount Rainier. Our original announcement has a list of Metro rail and bus options for getting there.

If you'd like to bike, Ned Russell and Matt Johnson are organizing a bicycle group to go to the happy hour from The Bike Rack, 716 Monroe Street NE by the Brookland Metro station. They'll depart promptly at 5:45 pm. Here's a map of the route.

This happy hour is sponsored by the Anacostia Heritage Trails Association (also known as Maryland Milestones), which promotes local history in the area.

Besides the happy hour, there are some other great events coming up:

Today, August 14: Worried about bike theft? Come discuss your concerns with safety and enforcement at the Bicycle Advisory Council meeting at 6 pm at Busboys and Poets (1025 5th St) with special guest Phil Koopman of BicycleSPACE.

Thursday, August 18: Learn about the latest tech that's helping people share the road at the next Transportation Techies meetup, where individual coders and tech companies from around the region show off their work. This month's theme is "Playing with Traffic," and it's at 6 pm at the WeWork in Crystal City (2221 South Clark Street).

Next Thursday, August 24: Netwalking is an organization that gets people out in the community, walking for fitness, and learning about important issues. The next Netwalk will focus on the U Street neighborhood and will teach people about strategies for effective community engagement. It starts at 6pm; Meet at the corner of Vermont St and 10th Street, NW.

Coming to the happy hour? Let us know here:

Pedestrians


"Bulb-outs" could make crossing the street safer at key trouble spots

People on foot could get a little more space at the corners of 14th and U NW, Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE, and M and Wisconsin in Georgetown. Those are a few of the concepts in a new analysis of how to make DC's most dangerous intersections safer.


Image from NACTO.

Transportation officials, local community and business members, bicycle and pedestrian advocates, and councilmember Mary Cheh toured five of the highest-crash intersections in August and September. A new report from DDOT recommends ways to make each safer.

The intersections were: Columbus Circle in front of Union Station, New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE, 14th and U NW, Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, and Wisconsin and M in Georgetown. Between them, three people died and 12 had "disabling injuries" since 2012, a total DC is committed to reducing to zero.

The report is full of interesting statistics on crashes and small fixes for people walking, biking, and driving. One piece of note is are a few spots where the study team is proposing temporarily or permanently creating some more space for people on foot, such as "bulb-outs" at corners which add to the sidewalk space and shorten crossing distance.

At 14th and U, plans are already underway to rebuild that intersection as part of a 14th Street streetscape project expected to start this fall. That design includes bulb-outs at the corners:

On Benning Road, DDOT will look into adding a pedestrian refuge using flexible posts for the spot where people walking and biking get onto the bridge sidewalk to go over the railroad tracks (and later the river).

The always-thorny corner of M and Wisconsin has large numbers of people waiting on the narrow sidewalks to cross the street (and then short times to cross). The report suggests studying possible bulb-outs for three of the corners to add more space for people to wait.

For New York Avenue and Bladensburg and Columbus Circle, the report doesn't recommend any changes of the same scale, but notes that there are sidewalks and pedestrian islands on New York Avenue that are too narrow and which should be widened, as well as are some missing crosswalks on Columbus Circle.

What else do you notice in the report?

Public Spaces


A new pocket park and safer street layout are coming to Florida Ave NW

Much of the discussion around a new development at 965 Florida Avenue NW has centered on disagreement about its affordable housing component. That aside, the project will add a lot to the neighborhood, including a new pocket park and a better layout for the intersection in front.


The new pocket park is the two green triangles on the left side of the image, with the building at 965 Florida on the right. All images from MRP Realty and Ellis Development Group unless otherwise noted.

Developers MRP Realty and Ellis Development Group will build a new 4,478 square foot pocket park on the west side of the reconfigured Florida Ave and Sherman Ave intersection. This will act as a "buffer" between traffic and the existing town houses, their application says.

To create the pocket park, the developers will reconfigure the intersection of Florida Avenue and Sherman Avenue, eliminating the continuous diagonal on Florida and a disused pedestrian island between the northbound and southbound lanes of Sherman.


The existing Florida Ave and Sherman Ave intersection. Image by Google Maps.

The sidewalk along Florida and Sherman will be widened by six feet to 14 feet and there will be a new "private street"—essentially an extension of Bryant Street that is part of DC's plans to reconnect Georgia Avenue and Sherman Avenue.


An eastern aerial perspective of the site.

The project, along with others proposed for the block of Florida Ave between V Street and Sherman Avenue, will create a nearly unified streetscape of mid-rise, mixed-use buildings.


Florida Ave street level elevation.

Affordable housing has been at the center of the controversy surrounding the 965 Florida development. While MRP Realty and Ellis Development Group have committed to setting aside 30% of its 428 residential units for households earning up to 30% or up to 50% of area median income, criticism has erupted over the District government's decision to sell the property for just $400,000 when it was reportedly worth $27.6 million.

Some argued DC coud build more affordable housing if it sold the plot outright, while others said the deal guaranteed that affordable housing would go up in DC's core.

Either way, 965 Florida is moving forward and will bring many attractive—and needed—improvements to the Shaw and U Street neighborhoods.

Note: If you read this post when it first published, your eyes aren't deceiving you! We re-ordered it to emphasize the key changes coming to the neighborhood.

Development


A new Florida Ave development is getting more affordable units than originally planned

Plans for the much-discussed development at 965 Florida Avenue NW now include 129 affordable residential units, almost 18% more than earlier plans. The additional housing may alleviate some concerns over whether the DC government made the best deal for the site.


Rendering of 965 Florida Avenue. Image by MRP Realty and Ellis Development Group.

The planned 10-story mixed-use building includes 428 apartments, with 30% set aside for the District's inclusionary housing program, leaving 299 to be rented at market rates. The affordable component includes 32 units for households that make up to 30% of area median income (AMI) and 97 for households making up to 50% of AMI.

DC will auction off the affordable units to households through its inclusionary zoning lottery. Households must register for the lottery by providing documents proving that their size and combined income meet the AMI requirements.

AMI for a household of four in the Washington DC metropolitan area was $107,300 in 2013, according to the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. Using this number, a household making up to $32,190 would qualify for 30% of AMI units and one making up to $53,650 would qualify for 50% of AMI units.

The previous proposal for 965 Florida included 107 affordable units out of 352 planned in the new building.

More units but still just 30%

While there will be more affordable units, the developers, MRP Realty and Ellis Development Group, are also building more apartments overall. That means the percentage of below-market units at 965 Florida isn't going up.

The 30% number follows a bill by Ward 5 councilmember Kenyan McDuffie requiring that 20% to 30% of residential units built as a result of public land deals are included in the District's affordable housing program.

Questions have been raised over whether the District made a poor deal when it agreed to sell the 965 Florida site for just $400,000 and a 30% affordable unit commitment from the developers when the plot was reportedly worth $27.6 million if sold outright.

Some argue that DC could have created more affordable dwelling units by selling the plot and using the proceeds to build below-market units elsewhere in the city.

Others point to the fact that the project guarantees that affordable housing will be built in one of the city's most popular, transit-oriented neighborhoods rather than just on its fringes.

The debate has died down somewhat since the DC Council approved the deal in September.

History


How U Street almost became strip malls and office parks

Planners in the 1950s wanted to replace large swaths of central Washington with freeways. Canceling those plans saved the city not just from the freeways themselves, but also from an equally stunning plan to demolish thousands more blocks alongside said freeways and "renew" them with a suburban landscape of strip malls, office campuses, and apartment towers.

Justement U St 1
The cloverleaf to the right is what the intersection of 16th, U, and New Hampshire nearly became. Aerial perspective rendering by Louis Justement. Photo by author.

Architect Louis Justement was tremendously influential from the 1920s through the 1960s, both locally and nationally; he chaired the American Institute of Architects' national Committee on Urban Planning for a spell. Gravely concerned with the tremendous overcrowding and traffic congestion that characterized wartime Washington, Justement published a short book in 1946 called New Cities For Old.

In it, he proposed not just replacing many major streets within DC with limited-access freeways. He also wanted to replace the neighborhoods that had grown up alongside those routes—or, rather, along the streetcars which traversed said streets—with modern new buildings suited to line those modern new roads.

Justement U St 2
A more detailed look at the proposed Jefferson Boulevard. Plan by Louis Justement, photo by author.

Justement's startling vision for the U Street corridor would have replaced T Street NW with "Jefferson Boulevard," and the slightly confusing intersection of 16th, U, and New Hampshire would have been radically simplified with a giant cloverleaf. The backs of two-block-long stripmalls, fronted by broad parking areas, would have lined Jefferson.

Between R and S Streets, the rowhouses and small apartments would be replaced by regimented rows of slabby tower-block apartments. Lining the towers up north-south and leaving space in between would, in theory, make sure every unit got an equal chance at sunlight, and would leave room for plentiful surface parking as well.


Development surrounding a freeway that would have run between Decatur and Emerson Streets NW and between 7th and 16th streets NW, north and west of Sherman Circle. Image from the Theodor Horydczak Collection at the Library of Congress.

For the blocks between Buchanan and Gallatin Streets NW, around Sherman Circle in the Petworth area, Justement proposed something even more radical: a ""Lincoln Boulevard" circumferential freeway bound by surface "access roads," with a constant series of loops permitting cars to switch back and forth.

A giant parking garage would fill the two blocks currently bound by Georgia, 13th, Emerson, and Gallatin, serving a monstrous shopping mall (crowned with office towers) stretching from 7th Street over to 16th. The blocks beyond would see yet more towers-in-parking-lots.

Justement plan for NW
Connecticut Avenue NW between Cathedral Avenue NW and Albemarle Street NW. Plan by Louis Justement, photo by author.

Even upper Connecticut Avenue, where developers had been building auto-oriented buildings since 1930, was to be comprehensively renewed. Within 20 years, Justement forecast, Connecticut would become a freeway, with underpasses and "feeder streets" carrying local traffic. The streetcar would be replaced with buses that would pull off the freeway into parking lots.

Cleveland Park's shops, which Justement said caused "traffic hazzards" by being arrayed on both sides of Connecticut and thus inviting pedestrians to cross the road, would be consolidated into a shopping center where Tilden Gardens stands today. The grand apartment houses lining Connecticut would be summarily demolished, replaced with new towers further from the unceasing traffic.

While most of DC was lucky to escape these ideas, there was one DC neighborhood where Louis Justement's vision came to pass: the Southwest Waterfront.

The rest of the country was not as lucky, though. Many of the ideas that Justement sought to impose on DC found their way into other plans all across America. His ideas for Petworth resemble the march of office towers lining the access roads of the Katy Freeway outside Houston; his sketch of Connecticut Avenue looks like the geometric clusters of offices arrayed between Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills, the "feeder streets" paralleling the Dulles Toll Road in Reston; his plan for U Street resemble any number of Edge Cities, like Tysons Corner or Parole outside Annapolis.

Development


Why the right is wrong about affordable housing

On Wednesday, we discussed what's wrong with the notion that supply and demand don't apply to housing. But on the other end of the spectrum, a free-market approach isn't the whole answer to housing affordability, either.


Free market image from Shutterstock.

Some people (on the left) oppose new market-rate housing development. They claim that new development only provides high-end housing, which doesn't do anything to help the supply of more affordable options.

Others with a more libertarian view (a more right-leaning view in our region) claim that if we get rid of all zoning regulations, the free market will take care of it and build housing for everyone.

Both arguments are wrong.

Yes, adding more housing must absolutely be a part of the strategy to make housing more affordable. And zoning changes to allow people to build taller and more usable space near transit, rent out carriage houses, and avoid expensive and often-unnecessary parking are all steps in the right direction. But some proponents go on to say relaxing zoning will solve the problem all on its own. It won't.

The free market will only build housing for higher incomes

Even if cities roll back many land use regulations, squeeze down construction costs, and leverage new financing tools, the cost of building new housing won't fall below a certain point.


Graph from McKinsey.

This report from McKinsey found that even if you take all of these steps together, it will only cut the gap between what housing costs and what people can afford to pay in half (assuming people spend 30% of their income on housing—a generally-recommended level).

A developer finances a new development by offering investors a return. If the return is higher than investing in something else, investors will finance the project. If the return is not high enough, especially given the risk, investors will put their money elsewhere and the housing simply doesn't get built. Regulations add to development costs. The development review process also adds costs when projects get delayed or shrunk down, and it increases the risk.

The city's baseline costs for But even without these costs a newly-constructed one-bedroom apartment in DC are over $2,000 a month to meet the level of return the market demands.

A person's income has to be about $38 per hour, or $80,000, for this kind of rent to only take up 30%. If someone earns $15 an hour, or $32,000 a year, he or she can only afford an $800 apartment—or less than half of this level.

More density does not change the basic math

Even if land is free (which it's not) and regulations offer unlimited density, buildings still cost money to build. And taller buildings cost more money per unit than short ones.

In the DC Office of Planning's study on DC building heights, Anita Morrison, a principal with Partners for Economic Solutions, found that while regulations might reduce potential development, unlimited height and density is not the simple solution to affordability.

"Unlimited FAR [density measure Floor Area Ratio] is not the magic cure, because the cost of building with concrete and steel is much more per square foot than low-rise stick-built [wood frame] construction up to five or six stories," Morrison explained.

To prove this point, Morrison offered an analysis of varying scenarios for a new apartment building. Assume a new building on a half-acre lot where the land price is set at zero (such as a deal to build on public land). Rent would be $1,127 for a one bedroom apartment, which is affordable to households making 60% of AMI ($51,600 per year). Is this building economical to build?

To find out, Morrison tested different heights ranging from 65 feet (six stories) to 250 feet (23 stories). The rent didn't cover the cost of construction or meet the minimum return on investment in any of these cases.

The 65-foot building costs $168,000 per unit, while the costs for high-rise steel and concrete buildings of 130 to 250 feet are higher. The 200-foot building costs $241,000 per unit. Even if the building's parking is above-ground (cheaper) rather than below-ground, the return only improves to 4.6 percent, "still nowhere close" the 7 percent required return on investment, according to Morrison.

Of course, most development projects include paying for land. The higher the zoning, the more valuable the land, so some of the gain also turns into higher land costs rather than lower housing costs.

What about "filtering"?

In response, free market advocates claim that "filtering" helps supply housing at rents below new construction. Instead of living in new buildings, poorer people can live in unrenovated older ones.

Like the argument about new market-rate housing, this is true, but only to a degree. It is true that increasing supply eases upward pressure on all prices. But the reservoir of naturally cheaper, older buildings runs out after a while.

When many people moved out of urban areas, a lot of buildings started decaying and so prices went down. Now that urban areas are popular again, in growing cities like DC, older buildings are a dwindling resource. New buildings won't get old fast enough, and they won't offer cheap-but-only-adequate places to live, to actually offer housing for the lower end of the income spectrum.

Old buildings need renovation. Even if they're low-income housing, they still need repairs and rehabilitation—they may not need granite countertops, but the plumbing has to work well. Once a market-rate building in a growing neighborhood needs renovation, there's enormous incentive just to go further and make the building higher-end to capture the higher rents or sell it as more expensive condos.

Take the 1400 block of W Street NW, just north of the booming epicenter of 14th & U Streets. Six nearly-identical apartment buildings line the southern side of the street. In 2000, all started out as unsubsidized market-rate, affordable rental apartment buildings, except 1424 W Street. The one exception was converted to a limited equity mixed-income cooperative in the early 1990s by the tenants. Today, two of the buildings are high-end market rate, while four are part of two affordable cooperatives.


Image from Bing.

During the early 2000s, all of these buildings changed hands and filtered up to a higher rent market. The three westernmost buildings, totaling 100 units, formed an affordable cooperative with financial help from the District government through the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which lets a tenant group match a buyer's offer. The buildings were renovated for $11 million, and many of the existing tenants were able to become owners.

Without direct intervention via TOPA the program and funding from the city, all of these old apartment buildings would be high-priced market rate housing today—despite the hundreds of new units being constructed on vacant lots adjacent to this block.

While there were some regulatory limits on construction, there was a lot of vacant land nearby at the time. Supply was not constrained by zoning, but rather by financing and property owners' readiness to build. It's hard to speculate that any amount of nearby new construction would have prevented these buildings from being renovated into high-end housing.

On a larger scale, the increased supply of housing in the area helps absorb demand for more housing, but it's not enough to stem the demand for such a sought-after location. Between 2005 and 2011, the rental housing market's growth added more than 12,500 units. But at the same time, $800/month apartments fell by half, while $1000/month rentals nearly doubled. Strong market demand will shrink the availability of low-priced units. That's what has happened over the last decade as DC transformed from a declining city into a rapidly growing one.

Supply matters, but it's not the whole story

Building more housing is important. But simply relaxing constraints on density and height isn't enough to build and sustain a housing stock that's affordable to the working class, which makes up a large share of our overall population and workforce.

We should roll back some of the regulatory delay and restrictions that do a lot more harm than good. We can reduce parking requirements, allow accessory apartments, increase height limits in a few parts of town, and fight for projects that will add housing, especially near existing transit.

At the same time, the District needs to find ways to create new affordable housing for people of making under 50-80% of AMI (a household of two earning up to $70,000) and preserve the affordable housing that already exists. The market will not meet those needs on its own.

Transit


Communication problems leave residents in the cold amid bus and electricity failures

Every snowfall brings its inconveniences and problems. Most of us depend on critical infrastructure that can't keep running for everyone in bad weather. But communication problems compounded some already-frustrating service disruptions for Metrobus riders and Pepco electric customers yesterday.


Photo by Dustin Renwick on Twitter.

Cold residents can't get the bus in Glover Park

In Glover Park, the neighborhood streets pose a challenge when snow falls, because the streets are hilly and narrow. Side streets often take time to get plowed and become impassable to buses and cars.

The D2 bus, which runs through Glover Park, stopped venturing into the neighborhood during the day. By late afternoon, WMATA officials told Glover Park residents that the bus was running on a snow detour. But the information coming from the agency didn't match what drivers were actually doing.

Instead of taking the planned snow detour, buses were stopping their routes at 35th Street and Whitehaven Parkway.

Ann Chisholm, Government Relations Officer for WMATA, told Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Jackie Blumenthal that drivers do not decide where to go; instead, they follow the prescribed route. On Twitter, @MetroBusInfo communicated the same detour. But the bus drivers found ice on 39th Street and told one another to turn back at 35th.


The D2 snow detour map. Image from WMATA.

It is understandable that there are times when bus routes are blocked, but when the actual routes don't match the information available, it leads residents to wait outside in the cold and snow for a bus that will never come.

Last year, after a very minor snowfall, buses stopped running on some major routes including Wisconsin Avenue. Crowds of riders lined up at the corner of Wisconsin and Calvert St. with no hope of getting on a bus. These types of stories are a constant for riders throughout the region.

Cold, power-free residents don't know when they'll have heat again

Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and U Street usually don't suffer from power outages because their lines are underground, but something happened at 18th and New Hampshire yesterday at 6:45 am, which resulted in smoke coming out of manhole covers and no power all the way to 13th and U or beyond.

These things happen, and Pepco quickly dispatched crews to the scene. However, the utility gave constantly-shifting time estimates for a fix: 11:00 am, 2:00 pm, 5:00, 7:00, 10:00, and finally 11:30. The power came back at 11:15 pm for all but a few blocks.

During the evening, many residents were tweeting with great apprehension about whether they would have enough heat to make it through the bitterly cold winter night.

DC operated a warming center at Raymond Recreation Center, near Petworth Metro. But as several pointed out on Twitter, that's over two miles from much of the affected area. This area has a lot of car-free households, and transit doesn't operate all night.

Pepco's official statement said, "Pepco recommends that customers monitor the estimated time of restoration and make their own decision whether to vacate their home based on their individual needs and circumstances." But monitoring the estimated time wasn't helpful when it had become fairly clear earlier in the day that the estimated time meant little.

Local resident Noah Bopp wrote in an email, "My family has options, but I think about older neighbors who may have depended on Pepco's predictions and then were effectively trapped in freezing weather with no real means to get out. Anyone walking down [our] street last night knows how pitch-black-icy-treacherous it was. Expecting an aging resident to walk through that to hail a cab on Connecticut to go to the warming center is just crazy."

There's still scant information about what exactly happened in that manhole yesterday. But things do happen, and these neighborhoods are lucky not to have had many other power outages. Better estimates and fuller communication could have enabled everyone to make sound judgments and alternate plans. Without it, people are left cold, scared, and confused.

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