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Posts about Ward 4


Zoning: The hidden trillion dollar tax

Zoning in cities like DC is starting to get expensive. Maybe trillions of dollars too expensive.

Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh find that if we lowered restrictions that keep people from building new housing in just three cities (New York, San Jose, and San Francisco) to the level of the median American city, US GDP would have been 9.7% higher in 2009about $1.4 trillion, or $6,300 for every American worker.

The intuition is straightforward. These cities' strict zoning rules limit their housing supplies. That sends rents soaring and prevents people from moving in. But because these cities are hubs of finance, healthcare, and technology, they are unusually productive places to work and do business. When people have to live elsewhere, they miss out on all this.

As a result, displaced workers, who can't move to New York or San Jose, are less productive and therefore earn lower wages. The country misses out on their untapped potential--fewer discoveries are happening, fewer breakthroughs are being made--and we're all poorer as a result.

Just changing zoning practices in those three cities would lead to some massive shifts, according to the authors. One-third of workers would change cities (although they wouldn't necessarily move to those three metros). Even under a less drastic scenario, in which 20% of US workers were able to move, GDP would be 6.5% higher. Fewer people would live in places like Detroit, Phoenix, or Atlanta, but those who remained would earn higher wages. And, of course, the likely reduction in sprawl would help address local air pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

Zoning rules have clear benefits, but it's a question of balance

Zoning and land-use regulations have benefits. Some ensure basic health and welfare; they keep toxic dumps away from your child's school, for example (though this works better if you're well-off). Others aspects of zoning provide more marginal benefits, and to say these laws safeguard your health would be a stretch, like rules that keep duplexes and other multi-family housing out of your neighborhood.

Large swaths of Wards 2, 3, 4 and 5 have these types of rules: they're zoned "R-1-A" or "R-1-B," which only permit suburban-style detached homes. As the "general provisions" section of the zoning regulations say, "The R-1 District is designed to protect quiet residential areas now developed with one-family detached dwellings."

This, of course, is not an accident: DC's zoning map also shows who has power in the city, and who does not. Parts of Georgetown, for example, have a unique zoning designation called "R-20"; it's basically R-1, but with stricter controls to "protect [Georgetown's] historic character… limit permitted ground coverage of new and expanded buildings… and retain the quiet residential character of these areas and control compatible nonresidential uses."

Meanwhile, equally-historic Barry Farm is zoned RA-1, which allows apartment buildings, like many other parts of Ward 8. And, of course, Barry Farm abuts a "light industry" zone, sits beside a partly abandoned mental hospital, and was carved in two by the Suitland Parkway. While Washington's elite can use zoning with extra care to keep Georgetown the way it is, the same system of rules hasn't exactly led to the same outcomes for Barry Farm.

Barry Farm. Image from Google Maps.

What to do?

Washington is better than San Jose, where the majority of neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes, but our own suburban-style rules still have room for improvement.

This could be Atlanta, but it's actually Ward 4.

Addressing this problem doesn't necessarily require us to put skyscrapers in Bethesda or Friendship Heights, turn the Palisades into Tysons Corner, or Manhattanize Takoma. More human-scale, multi-family housing in these places, currently dominated by single-family detached homes, could be a massive boon to the middle class and poor.

If half of such houses in Chevy Chase rented out their garages, or became duplexes, I'd estimate that could mean 25% more families living near world-class transit, fantastic parks, good jobs, and good people.

As Mark Gimein wrote recently on the New Yorker Currency blog:

The cost of living in New York, San Francisco, and Washington is not just a local problem but a national one. That these cities have grown into centers of opportunity largely for those who already have it is not good for the cities, which need strivers to flourish. It would be a shame if the cities that so resiliently survived the anxieties of the atomic age were quietly suffocated by their own success.

If you're curious for more on Moretti and Hsieh's work, see this short description of their paper and this PBS interview with Moretti. For an in-depth discussion of zoning's effect on the economy (with less math), see this speech by Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.


Tomorrow's special election candidates talk streetcar, bus lanes, and more

The DC chapter of the Sierra Club asked candidates in tomorrow's Ward 4 and Ward 8 special elections about their stances on transportation issues. The Club heard back from Brandon Todd in Ward 4 and from Eugene Kinlow and LaRuby May in Ward 8.

Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The questionnaire, which covered bus lanes, streetcars, parking, and bike trails, was part of the Sierra Club's endorsement process. In total, the Club reached out to one candidate in Ward 4, Todd, and to three in Ward 8—of all the candidates in the mix, that's how many it deemed to be running viable campaigns.

In the Ward 4 race, Brandon Todd's campaign answered "Yes" (but didn't elaborate) to all four of the Club's questions. That means he's in favor of endorsing "parking cash-out" so that employees can choose not to drive to work, creating transit-only travel lanes on key corridors downtown, fully funding DC's 37-mile streetcar plan, and reallocating District resources to complete major off-street trails.

The Kennedy Street Development Association also polled Ward 4 candidates on transportation and smart growth. KSDA's Myles Smith noted:

No candidate supports a Streetcar on Georgia Avenue, though they do support other transit investments: all back $2 billion in funding for the Metro Forward plan. Andrews, Todd, and Toliver support 16th Street bus lanes, adding new bike lanes even at the cost of parking, while Bowser opposed.
Oddly, on the Sierra Club questionnaire, Brandon Todd endorsed the full streetcar network—including… a streetcar on Georgia.

In the Ward 8 race, Eugene Kinlow's campaign answered "Yes" to three of the Club's questions, but "No" regarding the streetcar. "I still have doubts about the benefits of this investment and believe that other transit opportunities such as small area circulators and increased access to affordable biking options may prove more worthwhile for the ward," he said.

LaRuby May's campaign answered "Yes" to the Club's questions about parking cash-out and about bicycle trails. In response to the question about the streetcar, the campaign wrote that May "supports the creation of alternative transportation methods to better address the connectivity issues faced by Ward 8 residents. Whichever method most efficiently gets the people I serve to where they need to go is the one I will support." The campaign also wrote a similar response about bus lanes.

The Club contacted Marion C. Barry's campaign several times but got no response.

Full text of the questionnaire's transportation-related questions:

Subsidies for Parking and Driving: Subsidized employee parking favors commuters from the suburbs who disproportionately drive to work, as compared to DC residents. Employers would retain the authority as to whether, to what degree, and to which employees they provide a parking subsidy, sometimes called parking cash out.

Q: Will you support legislation requiring DC employers that choose to subsidize employee parking to offer an equivalently-valued subsidy to non-driving commuters?

Reallocation of Road Space: The District has limited right-of-way for travel and access. A disproportionate amount of this right-of-way is taken up by lone travelers driving on unrestricted travel lanes and on-street parking, with the result being poorer air quality in the District and less attractive transportation options than if such right-of-way were to be rebalanced.

Q: Will you support DC Department of Transportation creating bus-only travel lanes on 16th, H, and I Streets NW, and placing further streetcar lines in transit-only lanes?

Streetcars: The District has planned for a 37-mile streetcar system, including lines along Georgia Avenue NW and Martin Luther King Avenue SE and Wheeler Road SE, which would put nearly half of DC's population within walking distance of rail transit. Last year, the Council cut funding levels for the streetcar, and the reduced eight-mile network that DDOT has now proposed to put out to bid, as a single construction contract, would serve neither Wards 4 nor 8.

Q: Do you support raising taxes or reallocating funding to restore full funding for the 37-mile streetcar plan?"

Bicycle Trails: The Capital Crescent, mainstream Rock Creek, Oxon Run, and Suitland Parkway bicycle trails are all in need of major repair and maintenance. The Metropolitan Branch and Anacostia Riverwalk are left at various stages of completion.

Q: Will you demand that the DC Department of Transportation allocate the resources and energy to complete the rehabilitation and construction of those trail segments and reallocate resources, even at the expense of other projects, to complete?

The author is a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club.


Muriel Bowser unsure on parking minimums, corner stores

Wednesday is the final ward-based community information session for the zoning update, in Ward 4. This is a particularly important one as Councilmember Muriel Bowser seems undecided on, or leaning against, proposals to reduce parking minimums near transit or to permit corner stores in Petworth, and confused about the specifics of the proposal to let homeowners rent out a basement or garage.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

The meeting starts at 6:30 (doors open at 6) at Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd NW. As with the others, the Office of Planning will present, then there will be time for people to ask OP staff questions individually, followed by a "town hall" where people can speak at a microphone.

Bowser has already asked the Office of Planning to delay forward motion on the zoning update last year. In a December email to the Chevy Chase listserv, she expressed "concern" over many of the very important, fairly timid, yet fiercely opposed provisions of the zoning update:


I'm happy to answer any specific questions you have. My office has convened at least two meetings on the Zoning Update. I'll post to my website the major issues for which we've advocated. Briefly, the chief concerns raised in our meetings: parking requirements near transit zones, by right corner stores and accessory dwelling units, height requirements, non-residential uses in neighborhoods, and community input.

I remain concerned about parking requirements near transit zones and by right, non-residential uses in residential neighborhoods. I believe the issue with by right Accessory Dwelling Units (detached) has been removed from the recommendations.

Again, I'll alert you when a full summary of the issues is posted on my website. I've been invited to present to Citizens Association in January and will plan to spend some time discussing there as well.

Muriel Bowser
Ward 4 Councilmember

Explanations of accessory dwellings are confusing

Bowser appears to be, or to have been, confused about the accessory dwelling proposal. It's not surprising, since OP has been explaining it in a very opaque way.

At the Ward 3 meeting last week, OP's Jennifer Steingasser explained that the current, old regulations require a variance for an accessory dwelling inside a main house, but allow a unit by-right for a "domestic employee" above a garage. Steingasser said that OP's goal was to "flip" the two, allowing accessory units as of right inside main buildings but requiring a special exception for a new carriage house.

However, this wording confused many people, including some of our commenters who were at the meeting, as well as a vocal opponent who spent about 10 minutes arguing with Steingasser. I didn't agree with that opponent's views on the issue, but sympathized with her confusion as she received one complex answer after another that didn't elucidate the issue very well.

Accessory dwellings are an important policy. They are the easiest way to add housing choices without changing the built form of neighborhoods, help house people at stages of life where they want an English basement or small garage, and give homeowners a way to earn more income and help pay the mortgage or supplement a fixed retirement income.

The Office of Planning need not "spin" the issue as not really much of a change. Instead, they should proudly explain why this is the right policy and stand up for it.

Map shows more about corner store proposal

They are standing up for, and more clearly explaining, the corner store proposals. OP made this map of corner stores in Ward 4, and says they are working on comparable maps for other wards. (At the Ward 3 meeting, a few residents asked for Ward 3 specific maps; it wasn't clear to me why they couldn't just focus on the upper-left portion of a citywide map, but whatever.)

Image from the Office of Planning. Click for full version (PDF).

In the map above, the dark purple is the mixed-use or commercially zoned areas, and the light purple the "buffer zone" in which it will be illegal to create a corner store. The red dots are examples of the type of store that the new zoning will allow (though most of them are in the buffers).

Yellow is the area where corner stores will be legal under the zoning update; in Ward 4, it's pretty much just Petworth and a few other very small areas. With corner stores limited to actual corners or buildings originally built as commercial, there will be very few eligible sites, since most of the buildings already have residents in them.

Can you attend?

Thanks in part to Greater Greater Washington readers, people supporting the zoning code or asking for it to go further equaled the number of people opposing the changes at last week's Ward 3 meeting. One person asked OP to restore their proposal for parking maximums (which require just a transportation analysis to exceed), and another spoke up for lighter restrictions on corner stores.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Councilmember Mary Cheh, Zoning Commissioner Rob Miller, reporters Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis, and many others heard a wide range of views from residents, ranging from wanting more change to none at all. It's important to have a similar diversity of views at tomorrow's Ward 4 meeting, the last one of this series.

Please stop by Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd NW, at 6:30 (doors open at 6) and try to stay until about 8, when they'll let people speak in the town hall. The balance of views during that open mic session will likely have a lot of sway over whether Councilmember Bowser stands in the way of the zoning update or not.

Update: The original version of this post suggested that Bowser was leaning against or "unsure" on the accessory dwelling proposal. However, the email shows she is leaning against the other proposals. She does not appear to be undecided on, but apparently is confused about, the accessory dwelling proposal. The post has been corrected.


For Ward 4 Council: Max Skolnik

In Ward 4, Councilmember Muriel Bowser is facing five challengers in the April 3 Democratic primary. For his strong leadership on ethics and positive vision for the ward, we support Max Skolnik.

Photo by gisellebill on Flickr.

The DC Council is currently at a standstill, mired by scandal. Earlier this month, we learned of federal investigations into the prolific campaign money man Jeff Thompson. 12 out of 13 members of the Council took contributions from Thompson, including Bowser. In order to restore trust and effectiveness to the council, strong reforms are vitally important.

Skolnik, a former ANC commissioner, has shaped his campaign around ethics and campaign finance reform. He has a strong background in education and brings concrete and proven proposals for education in Ward 4. Skolnik would also bring a positive voice on development and smart growth to the council.

Skolnik is a strong advocate for real, meaningful campaign finance reform. He fully supports Initiative 70, the ballot measure that would ban direct corporate contributions to candidates. Skolnik has signed on to Independent at-large candidate David Grosso's transparency challenge, agreeing to fully disclose the sources of any and all campaign contributions. Additionally, Skolnik supports ending all outside employment for councilmembers and abolishing constituent services funds.

Skolnik also brings to the table a long record of experience in education and working with youth. Since 2002, Skolnik has run the non-profit Kid Power, which provides a full array of service-learning opportunities District youth. Skolnik understands that education involves far more than simply what happens in the classroom. This experience gives him a broad view on education that is presently lacking on the Council.

Specifically, Skolnik outlines detailed action items on education, including expanding the Promise Neighborhood initiative to Ward 4 and beyond. This program, which has seen huge success in Ward 7, understands that education is a "cradle to career" issue. Skolnik understands that the best way to lower unemployment, decrease crime, and increase achievement is to reform all areas of youth services.

Skolnik also importance of building communities that work for all residents, that foster small and local business, rather than relying on big-box retailers. Skolnik would be a strong and effective advocate for smart transportation and growth policies.

Bowser has not set herself apart as a strong leader with a vision for DC While she has talked about ethics and reform, her piecemeal approach to reform has been uninspiring. She is more reactive than proactive, with her ethics reform package being a prime example of this. Bowser missed a huge opportunity to distinguish herself as a champion for good government and transparency. She has also failed to provide effective oversight or strong leadership on the WMATA board.

We believe that Max Skolnik is the best choice in this race and encourage Ward 4 voters to give him their vote on April 3.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington, written by one or more contributors. Active contributors and editors voted on endorsements, and any endorsement reflects a strong majority or greater in favor of endorsing the candidate.


New residents and arts spaces could spark Ward 4's 14th St.

Can 14th Street north of Columbia Heights become a lively and successful commercial area once again? A new plan suggests finding spots to catalyze development, possibly including the WMATA bus barn or surrounding properties, and making a piece of the corridor into a place for artists to live and work more cheaply.

The 14th Street bus barn. Photo by the author.

This part of DC boomed in the mid-20th century, spurred by population growth and easy access to transit via the 14th Street streetcar line. The corridor began to decline after 1970, as the District's population decreased. As a result, the commercial nodes of central 14th Street have struggled for several decades.

Now, as the city's population begins to grow once again, DC's Office of Planning studied ways to make the area more attractive for residents and businesses, both old and new. After a series of community workshops in 2010 and 2011 with residents and stakeholders of the central 14th Street corridor, OP has released its draft plan and is looking for public comment until February 3.

The plan covers the 20-block stretch of 14th Street NW from Spring Road to Longfellow Street. It includes three distinct commercial nodes: Spring Road to Shepherd Street, Webster to Decatur Street, and Jefferson to Longfellow Street. (This portion of 14th Street has been referred to as "upper" 14th Street for as long as I can remember, but the Office of Planning is now referring to it as "central" 14th Street.)

The 2010 population of the study area was 14,370, showing an increase of about 300 people since the 2000 census. The population growth is encouraging, but the plan notes that because the population hasn't reached the level of the mid-20th century (the high population was 16,736 in 1960), the corridor has too much commercial space for the number of people that the spaces are meant to serve. That means greater density is necessary to make new businesses viable.

The plan points to Longfellow Flats, a newly renovated 14 unit condominium at 14th and Longfellow Streets, as one of a few projects that will help to attract more residents to the corridor. The site of the CK Motel, and 14th and Quincy Streets, is also slated for residential redevelopment.

Can the bus barn move?

The site with the largest potential for both commercial and residential redevelopment is the WMATA bus barn, along the eastern side of 14th Street from Buchanan to Decatur Street. Redeveloping the bus barn as a mixed-use project would likely catalyze the rest of that node and perhaps the rest of the corridor, but to redevelop the barn, WMATA has to find another location for the 175 buses that are currently housed there.

One idea, to construct a new bus barn on the site of the old Walter Reed hospital, has been an issue of much contention between residents of Ward 4's 14th Street and Georgia Avenue corridors. Both Mayor Gray and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser have voiced opposition to that idea. As an alternative, the plan recommends excavating a level beneath the existing bus barn to house the buses, allowing for the above-ground structure to be redeveloped.

Another complication is that the bus barn is quite an attractive structure. Constructed in 1907 and designed by the prominent Washington architect Waddy Wood, the building is likely eligible for historic designation. Between this and the dilemma of finding an alternative for WMATA, the bus barn is likely to stay for at least the next decade.

In lieu of redeveloping the bus barn, the plan identifies 3 sites in the Webster-Decatur node that could serve as catalysts.

  • The WMATA bus barn parking structure on the northern end of the bus barn property. This is not eligible for historic designation and therefore could be redeveloped for mixed-use within the next 5 years.
  • DSK Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which owns the entire 4500 block of 14th Street with the exception of the Exxon gas station, has plans to construct a new sanctuary that will face 14th Street. It will include an Ethiopian cultural center on the Buchanan Street side.
  • The Value Furniture store, the former home of the Park Theater, which opened in 1924 but shut its doors just four years later. As the second largest site (75,000 square feet) in the study area with single ownership, it has the best potential for redevelopment within the next 5 years. It could easily become 2 or 3 floors of residential space above ground floor retail, an ideal spot for a neighborhood-serving grocery store.
The plan recommends focusing on attracting unique retail, such as second hand shops, specialty food shops, and culinary incubators (the plan includes a photo of Boston's Crop Circle Kitchen culinary incubator as an example of what could be). The goal is to fill niches between the chain stores to the south in Columbia Heights and the proposed Walmart to the north in Brightwood.

Affordable space for artists?

The Jefferson-Longfellow Street node has its wide sidewalks, some as wide as 20 feet, that are perfect for pedestrian-oriented activities, such as a farmers' market. However, there's also a high commercial vacancy rate, which the proposed Walmart store on nearby Georgia Avenue will likely exacerbate.

The plan recommends focusing on arts-related uses in this area, with a focus on artists who have been priced out of other neighborhoods and who might be attracted to the area's relatively large spaces. OP recommends designating this area as an Arts Cluster and listing the node's vacant commercial spaces in the DC Creative Retail Space Bank in order to advertise their availability.

The area can build on its existing positive features, such as the mature tree canopy, attractive housing stock, and walkable neighborhood atmosphere. The plan makes several recommendations for improving the area's aesthetics while strengthening pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, as well as connectivity between the three commercial nodes.

Better transportation

A number of recommendations would improve mobility, including:

  • Upgrade bus service. 14th Street is one of WMATA's Priority Corridors. Improvements like making traffic signals adapt to the buses, having people pay before boarding the bus, and more could speed up travel and make buses more reliable and productive.
  • Add Capital Bikeshare stations. OP recommends placing a Capital Bikeshare station at or near the intersection of 14th and Kennedy Street during DDOT's next round of station installations.
  • Increase car sharing options. To give residents a choice not to have to own or drive personal vehicles, OP recommends collaborating with DDOT to target off-street locations for car sharing companies. Two possible locations are the parking lot of DSK Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the parking lot of the Children's Medical Care Center (14th and Kennedy Street).
OP plans to create a task force of community residents and stakeholders who will help determine which recommendations are the highest priority. Community and business associations can also help find resources, programs, and grants to bring specific recommendations to fruition.

To give your comments on the plan, mail them to OP or (more likely) email by February 3, 2012.

Cross-posted at The Brightwoodian.

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