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Ten small parks that prove tiny is terrific

Georgetown Day School recently downsized its plans for a mixed-use project in Tenleytown. Aside from cutting 50 units of housing, the developers also canceled plans for a pocket park. We called that a loss, but some skeptics said it wasn't a big deal because the park would have been very small. But when it comes to parks, quality is way more important than size. These 10 "teacup parks" show that.


Paley Park in Manhattan. Photo by Mike Boucher on Flickr.

In its original proposal, GDS offered to close a slip lane between Wisconsin Avenue and 42nd Street and create a pocket park of roughly 7400 square feet. The school offered a few designs, including a splash pad, a skatepark, and a demonstration garden. With the reduction in size, GDS will still close the slip lane for safety reasons, but it will just be another grass triangle.

Opponents of the GDS deal claimed that this small park was just too small, unlike what's typical in Ward 3. Fort Reno, for example, is 33 acres, or 1.5 million square feet.

But little parks can be everything for building engaging streets, something Tenleytown does not have. Here are 10 great park and plazas less than 15,000 square feet that make their neighborhoods a lot better.

Here are 10 great park and plazas that take up less than 15,000 square feet yet still make their neighborhoods a lot better.

1. Paley Park, New York City


Paley Park. Photo by Matthew Blackburn on Flickr.

If you ask a planner for an example of a pocket park, they'll probably bring up Paley Park. At 4200 square feet, it's smaller than the Ellicott Park would have been. But a water feature, movable seating, and a few delicate trees create a beloved retreat in one of the busiest, loudest parts of Manhattan.

2. Bethesda Row Fountain


Just a slightly thicker street corner. Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Because of the lively nearby streets, this tiny triangle of land in Bethesda has been swamped since it opened in 2000, despite being a mere 1500 square feet.

3. Columbia Heights Civic Plaza


The plaza hosts frequent events. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Designed by ZGF architects, buildings frame this 12,000 square foot plaza, which is just as lively hosting public events or a farmers market as it is demonstrations or a children's splash park.

The design screens the play area from traffic with adult benches. Photo by Bill McNeal on Flickr.

4. Parkman Triangle, Los Angeles


Parkman Triangle. Image from Google Maps

Residents turned a leftover sliver of concrete in Silver Lake into this 2000 square foot parklet, where desert plants shield seating from traffic.

5. Boyd-Jackson Park, Takoma Park


Boy-Jackson Park. Image from Google Streetview

A small neighborhood park, this fits play structures and a field into less than 8,000 square feet. It's hardly the National Mall, but it's still incredibly useful and convenient for its neighborhood.

6. Fowler Square, Brooklyn, New York


Fowler Square's temporary configuration. Image Courtesy NYC DOT.

New York's Department of Transportation connected a little island by transferring a single block from cars to pedestrians to create an 8,400 square foot plaza. Although drivers originally opposed it, it has become the highest-rated of New York's plazas and enough of a neighborhood amenity to make the change permanent.

POPS Skatepark, Philadelphia


Photo by Bill Benzon on Flickr.

One corner of a neighborhood park, this skate park's small, 6,000 square foot size works well for inexperienced, younger skateboarders.

8. Fox and Laurel Park and Community Garden, Los Angeles


Fox-Laurel Park. Image from Google Streetview.

In a space just twice the Ellicot Park lot (15,000), surrounded by a storage facility, the city fit two playgrounds, native plantings, and a community garden.

9. This private park at Brown University


Pocket Park at Brown. Image from Google Streetview.

This quiet space between academic buildings and houses takes up 5,500 square feet, but manages to pack in a secluded urban room.

10. Unnamed Triangle (Reservation 265)


Is this what they call Tactical Urbanism? Image from Google Streetview.

Some residents took a play set out to one of DC's many leftover grass triangles. It's not pretty, and probably not legal, but it's a lot more use than most of them get.

Small can still be great

Whether or not Ellicott Street gets a park, there many neighborhoods in DC that would benefit from a few pocket parks. Meanwhile, Tenleytown is trying to revamp its public spaces through the Main Street program. These examples show that it's foolish to get hung up on the size of a discrete strip of land. With busy nearby streets and good design, you can squeeze a lot of life into a modest space.

Of course, this is just what I could come up with from memory and asking a few people. There are tons of great public spaces of this size. Can you think of any that caught your eye?

Development


Tenleytown won't get 50 units of housing and a park

50-100 people won't be able to live in Tenleytown, and a major intersection won't get a pocket park and become more walkable. That's because DC's Office of Planning and some local leaders got anxious about a mixed-use building from Georgetown Day School that's shorter than another one across the street.


Rendering of the proposed residential buildings along Wisconsin Avenue. All images from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

GDS proposes a transformative project for Tenleytown

In June 2014, after three unsucessful attempts to redevelop a Safeway grocery store at 42nd and Davenport Streets NW, the neighboring Georgetown Day School (GDS) bought the Safeway property, a WMATA chiller plant, and a car dealership across 42nd on Wisconsin Avenue.

Despite initial fears that this would mean no chance to add retail, build much-needed apartments, and link Tenleytown and Friendship Heights, after 20 months of public meetings, GDS proposed a design that would consolidate the school and build two mixed-use buildings on the dealership property.


Plan of the GDS proposal at Wisconsin Avenue's elevation.

Since the low-rise school was much lower density than zoning would allow, GDS wanted to use a process called a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to shift density from the school, closer to single-family homes, and over to the dealership site on Wisconsin Avenue.

The project would have added 270-290 housing units, 22-29 of which would have been permanently affordable. Plus, it offered 38,500 square feet of retail, a pocket park at Elliott Street, a spectacular public staircase, and a 42nd Street redesigned with state-of-the-art traffic calming features.


Traffic calming on 42nd Street. The school is at the left and the mixed-use buildings at right.

The only complication: The zoning would have to be changed from a lower-density commercial zone, C-2-A, to a slightly denser one, C-2-B. The same change was successfully made across the street in 1999, for a project called Tenley Hill. That project's penthouse is actually 7'6" higher than these buildings would have been.

You can read the full PUD submission and an amendment.

The project gets positive reviews but some "height-itis"

Reactions to the project among community members were mostly positive, but two groups of neighbors expressed concern about the scale of the project, "Neighbors of GDS" and the "Wisconsin Avenue Gateway Group," whose leaders live in the Tenley Hill building. Supporting GDS's project were the longstanding smart growth group Ward 3 Vision and a new group called "Revive 3E," which formed to specifically focus on what members felt was obstruction in the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 3E.

The ANC repeatedly expressed support for upzoning of the site, but dithered over whether the package of amenities and mitigation was adequate, demanding an detailed Transportation Management Plan, including a request that no new vehicle trips arrive at the site. The ANC's chair, Jon Bender, openly questioned whether alternative arrangements could fit more residential uses onto the school site.

The big sticking point, however, was the height of the buildings. The zoning change would have let both buildings rise 80 feet from Wisconsin Avenue. Because 42nd Street is down a steep hill, one would have been 86'3" on 42nd Street and the other maxed out at 97'4" adjacent to GDS's high school building.


Height of the school (left), north residential building (center), and across Wisconsin (right).

Office of Planning blocks the project

This week, there was a new surprise: DC's Office of Planning also took issue with the height.

To do a Planned Unit Development, a property owner first applies to the Office of Planning, which then recommends, or doesn't recommend, DC's Zoning Commission "set it down" for a hearing. As GDS's head wrote in a letter to the Northwest Current, OP expressed opposition to setting down the current proposal.

Why the Office of Planning opposed the project is not public knowledge. Once a project is set down, the Zoning Commission schedules a hearing and OP, as well as other city agencies, file public reports with their comments. But because of OP's opposition, the school withdrew this version of its plans.

Some housing and the park are gone

GDS now wants to go forward with fewer floor on the southern building and two fewer on the northern one. It's not even the first height reduction. Critics of the project had asked for a 65-foot nominal height and GDS compromised from the original height, cutting two stories off last fall. Now, the building will be as short as critics requested.

Because of the loss of revenue from three floors, GDS can't afford some of the big-ticket benefits that brought in community support: the pocket park at the north end, the special public space finishes, and the traffic calming measures on 42nd Street.

It's still a fine project, but had the first submitted design been accepted, it would have made Tenleytown one of the most complete urban designs in the city, crossing the work and play of multiple generations of Washingtonians in a single space.

More importantly, this second reduction means a loss of another 50 potential apartments. On a micro-level, that's unfortunate in an area that has a large student population but few small apartments, leading many students to live in group houses that could otherwise hold families with kids. It also reduced the density that can support small businesses and restaurants. On a macro scale it's just another opportunity increase the aggregate amount of housing in the city, lost to the tastes of a vocal minority.

Sure it's only 50 here, but 50 at the next one, and so on, contributing to a deficit across the city. If the 2006 Comprehensive Plan is what's keeping this site from an appropriate level of density, then it's failing. If OP is talking of the need to build shelter for a growing city and reduce automobile use, but disqualifies GDS' modest mixed used density, then the talk of two biggest issues the city faces is just a gesture devoid of substance.

Links


Worldwide links: Scalia the urban planner

Antonin Scalia's legacy has roots in a land use case, Atlanta's mayor says he'll kill a regional tax initiative if at least 50% isn't promised for transit, and professional sports team owners are starting to demand more from cities than just stadiums. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Stephen Masker on Flickr.

Scalia on land use: A land use case helped establish Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's legacy. In Nollan vs. The California Coastal Commission, Justice Scalia made his mark when he ruled anything a person exchanged for a government permit, like an easement, must relate directly to the purpose of that permit. (Urban Edge)

No MARTA, no roads in Atlanta: Atlanta's Mayor Kasim Reed wants to make it perfectly clear that if MARTA doesn't get at least half of a sales tax measure that's expected to go before voters this fall, he will oppose it. "The future of this city and this region is going to be transit based," he says. (Atlanta Journal Constitution)

A stadium, plus some: US sports teams have long been been reliant on public support for stadiums. Now teams are starting to ask for entire neighborhoods so they can benefit from spillover, too. The Atlanta Braves will control $400 million of mixed-use development surrounding their new stadium site, and plans for a soccer stadium and village in St. Paul came out yesterday. (Bloomberg View, Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Scary strangers: Recent research on the psychology of neighborhood opposition to density found that, rather than different architectural styles, people were most afraid of the "unpredictable social interactions" and increased crime they perceived diversity to bring. (Chicago Policy Review)

Ford wants to reinvent the... commute: Ford Motor Company wants to work in commuting but branch out from more than just cars. It's working with design firm IDEO and banking on concepts of archetypal commuters to help. (New York Times)

The Spanish Big Empty: Before 2008's recession, cities in Spain were preparing for lots of new residents. They never came. These striking images show downsides of planning for an expected boom rather than actual demand. (Huffington Post)

Quote of the Week

"...your whole work as a political reporter is based on the premise that power in a democracy comes from being elected. And here's a guy who has never been elected to anything and he has more power than anyone who was elected, and he has more power than the mayor and any governor or any mayor or governor put together." Robert Caro, author of The Power Broker, a book on controversial New York planner Robert Moses. (Gothamist)

Development


Town and gown clash over development in Takoma Park

Montgomery County's rapidly-growing community college, Montgomery College, wants to expand its northern Takoma Park campus. A number of Takoma Park residents don't like the idea, and are pushing for the college to expand in nearby Silver Spring instead.


Montgomery College sits partially in Takoma Park (inside the red line) and partially in Silver Spring. Image from Google Maps.

With campuses in Takoma Park, Rockville and Germantown, Montgomery College serves more than 60,000 students a year, a number that's growing quickly. Its first campus was built in northern Takoma Park in 1950, and in 2004 it expanded by adding new buildings in Silver Spring.

The college's board of trustees recently approved a new Facilities Master Plan for 2013-2023. The Master Plan is full of proposals and ideas for the Takoma Park campus, such as a new math and science center building, a new health and fitness center, and a new library. According to the plan, Montgomery College's Takoma Park campus has more capacity constraints and "obsolete or dysfunctional existing structures" than Rockville and Germantown.

The plan notes that enrollment has increased 18% over the past five years and is projected to increase another 27% by 2023. All of those additional students will need space for classes and laboratories. In order to achieve greater square footage without acquiring any new land, the plan calls for taller, wider buildings to replace the current ones, which are mostly smaller, two-story structures built to blend into the residential character of northern Takoma Park.

All of that has the college wanting to expand the Takoma Park campus, to the tune of over 56,000 square feet.

RenovationNew ConstructionDemolitionNew Growth
Takoma Park/Silver Spring9,295170,532(113,983)56,549

In the image below, the six buildings colored in yellow are those planned to be demolished and rebuilt, while the orange building is planned for renovation. It's worth noting that the college's daycare center (located on the right side and noted by the letters "DC") will be closed with no plans to reopen, meaning students with kids and some local parents will need to find a new childcare option.


Maps from the Montgomery College Facilities Master Plan.

Neighbors are opposed, but the college says it can address concerns

At a Takoma Park City Council meeting on January 20, 2016, Montgomery College Takoma Park campus provost and Montgomery College vice president Brad Stewart described the draft master plan to both residents and the council.

According to Historic Takoma, a non-profit organization founded to preserve the heritage of Takoma Park and the Takoma neighborhood of DC, the college agreed in writing in 2002 to consult with neighbors and the City Council on any proposed plans that could impact the neighborhood. While Mr. Stewart claims that two neighborhood discussions about the plan occurred (one in Takoma Park and one in Rockville), neighbors of the college claim that nobody told them.

Members of the City Council sided with the college's neighbors and chided Mr. Stewart about what they said was a lack of coordination on the college's part. Neighbors also complained that the larger, wider buildings contemplated in the master plan would be more appropriately located on the western side of its campus, which borders an urban, commercially zoned area on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

Mr. Stewart tried his best to allay concerns, noting that that Master Plan is not the final document with regard to actual design and construction. He assured the City Council that additional outreach will be done the school hires architects and starts considering building designs.

Regarding the building heights, Mr. Stewart responded that the college's architects heard neighborhood concerns and created setbacks on the top floors of buildings facing neighboring homes.

You can watch residents raise their concerns at the City Council meeting here, beginning around 13:20, with Mr. Stewart's presentation to the City Council starting around 2:02:00.

Residents and the college have clashed before

As noted above, during the January 20th City Council meeting a few local residents alleged that the college failed to conduct adequate consultation with the local community. But deeply embedded in the Master Plan is a section discussing the college's relations with its Takoma Park neighbors that brings into question whether opposing residents' demands about community involvement are reasonable.

Here's the critical part:

New development proposals on the Takoma Park side of Campus are nonetheless still opposed by a vocal minority of neighbors, who insist that the College shift all development to the Silver Spring side of Campus, or acquire new properties along Fenton Street and locate College programs there.
Jokingly referred to as "The People's Republic of Takoma Park," the neighborhood has a rich history as a community that is unafraid to challenge moneyed and other powerful interests. A recent blog post by Granola Park explains that in the 1970s the college sought to condemn and demolish 22 adjacent Takoma Park homes for new school buildings, but neighbors fought and won against the college.

Silver Spring development could be in Montgomery College's future

Interestingly, and perhaps as a result of repeated neighborhood opposition, the Master Plan does gesture towards future development on the Silver Spring side of the campus. The following map shows possible expansion sites:

Three of the four lots above are rather sterile space. The two on the east side of the railroad tracks are a combination of storage buildings, auto body shops and local rental car companies. One lot on the west side of the railroad tracks is a parking lot owned by the college's foundation and the remaining one abuts Jesup Blair Park where the college built a walkway to cross the railroad tracks and connect the campus.

Future expansion into Silver Spring would activate this space and make it more pedestrian oriented, which is great since the college is only six blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station and abuts the planned Met Branch Trail. But all of this would require the college to acquire these lots and then redevelop them, which is more costly and would take longer than to simply redevelop the buildings they currently own.

Crossposted at Takoma Talk.

Development


Opponents of a new Dupont building gamble and lose

Well, they blew it. Last month, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission decided to turn down a deal for neighborhood benefits in the proposed development at St. Thomas Parish and roll the dice on fighting the project. That turned out to be a bad bet.


Roulette image from Shutterstock.

On January 12, the Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved a variance so that the proposed building could occupy 86.7% of the lot instead of the 80% normally allowed under zoning.

Arson destroyed the St. Thomas Parish at the corner of 18th and Church streets NW in 1970, and now the church is partnering with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church along with a residential building whose profits will help fund the religious one. After going through historic preservation approval, the design extended just a small amount closer to the nearby alley than in the first drafts, requiring a zoning variance.

CAS Riegler and St. Thomas representatives invited neighborhood leaders and nearby residents to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding for neighborhood benefits during and after construction, like rules for loading trucks or noise on the roof deck. But many residents objected from the start to the size of the proposed building, which is larger than adjacent row houses but shorter than other large apartment buildings a block to the east and to the north.

Based on that sentiment, in December the ANC threw away the negotiated MOU and instead decided to oppose the variance. (Disclosure: I participated in the MOU negotiations and supported the proposed final deal.)


Rendering of the proposed church building and the residential building behind.

Zoning board members critique poorly-directed opposition

When announcing the ruling, several BZA members chided the ANC and neighbors for arguing against the project as a whole instead of addressing the actual variance under discussion. Most opposition focused on the building's height, but the building steps back at higher floors; adding lot occupancy would have just taken a small amount from the lower floors, and only in the rear, on the alley.

Chairperson Marnique Heath said, "The request that they've made is just for 6.7% of lot occupancy, which is rather minor. The primary concern of the parties in opposition was in regard to the large scale... [but] the strongest concerns that the opposing parties had really wouldn't be addressed by not granting that request."

Peter May, the zoning commissioner from the National Park Service (read this for why a Park Service employee is involved here) said,

I cannot see where the parties in opposition have actually explained how their objections relate to the requested relief. A lot of people were objecting to the loss of the park and to the height of the building. I could find almost nothing that specifically relates to lot occupancy, which is where the relief is requested. ...

I'm frankly a bit disappointed. We often hear from neighbors who are unhappy with changes in the status quo, but I saw precious little appreciation from the neighbors for the 45 years they had for this public park, and I would hope that we would have seen more of that.

The only word to the contrary was from Fred Hill, a very new member of the BZA. Hill said he was "actually a little torn and "can understand why I wouldn't want something this large at the end of that block." But he went along with his colleagues on the issue of the law, recognizing that the variance wasn't actually about the size of the building.

Neighborhood leaders took a better approach in the past

Unfortunately, the ANC failed to steer a useful conversation in this situation. When there was controversy over the last church-related development project in the neighborhood, a parking lot at 17th and O, former commissioner and longtime resident Bob Meehan urged all parties to focus on achievable, specific requests that related to the zoning relief being debated. The main issue there was roof deck noise affecting residents at the building to the north; people negotiated and found some compromise.


Remember this? Photo by Adam Lewis.


What got built. Photo from Wikimedia.

Bob Meehan isn't on the ANC any more, and the relative lack of experience showed in the way many members had trouble evaluating how much weight their support or opposition would carry. In the end, that relegated the ANC to an ineffective position and left neighbors worse off.

Some commissioners decided to oppose the variance because of confusing and bad legal advice from the DC government about whether the MOU was enforceable. But others opposed it outright, and the ANC did not try to hold a special meeting or ask for a delay to work out any possible enforceability problems.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the 2013 government shutdown. John Boehner was trying to negotiate with Barack Obama, but his House GOP caucus kept refusing to make any kind of deal out of a zeal for partisan purity. As a consequence, the ultimate budget policies ended up being worse for the GOP than if they had made a deal.

DC needs more housing, and this corner is a good place for it. By implacably resisting the height of the proposed building and repeatedly refusing to engage on specific, achievable issues, the ANC really lost the chance to have a voice, to improve the quality of life without reducing the ability to add new housing.

Update: This article was edited to add a paragraph about the MOU's enforceability in response to questions.

Development


It's now harder to add more housing near Adams Morgan

The Lanier Heights neighborhood has a mix of apartment buildings, row houses divided into multiple units, and single-family row houses. A group of residents want to to prohibit all but the last category, and their proposal took a significant step forward in December. But other neighbors have been mobilizing to stop it.


Photo by John Leszczynski on Flickr.

Lanier Heights is either in or just north of Adams Morgan, depending how you define neighborhood boundaries. It's the area behind the Adams Morgan Safeway, between Columbia Road and Mount Pleasant.

The area's zoning, R-5-B, makes it legal to put as many units in a building as the property owner would like. It's the same zoning as the rest of Greater Adams Morgan, most of Dupont Circle, and the blocks of Columbia Heights between 16th and 14th to the east.

But a spate of projects converting row houses into multi-unit buildings, often with additions, has stirred some residents to ask for the neighborhood to instead get the R-4 category, which applies to Mount Pleasant and the parts of Columbia Heights and Logan Circle east of 14th. R-4 only allows one or two units in most buildings.


Residential zoning in Lanier Heights (red oval) and surrounding areas. Blue is R-5-B, purple is R-4. Image by the author from DC zoning base map. Click for full version.

The request has been percolating since 2012, but the DC Zoning Commission recently "set down" the case for hearings. Under the commission's rules, this also meant that the stricter zoning came into effect immediately, at least temporarily, meaning the down-zoning has already happened on a provisional basis.

What are the arguments for and against the proposal?

Advocates for the change say that when a property owner converts a row house into a building with multiple units, they often add on top or in back of the house, cutting down on light to adjacent homes. The changes increase the demand for parking spaces, noise, and garbage.

Also, some proponents argue that the city needs family-sized housing, that most new larger buildings mainly comrprise studios and one- and two-bedroom units, and that row houses are a resource for larger housing that shouldn't be lost.


A rear addition to a row house on Lanier Place. Images from the rezoning application.

Other neighbors disagree. Unlike some recent zoning cases, there is an organized group opposing this change, called Neighbors Against Down-Zoning (and with the amusing acronym NADZ). Members of NADZ say they are themselves homeowners who want to protect property rights and want the ability to convert their own buildings one day, gaining financially and making it easier to remain in their houses as their needs for space decrease but financial needs, perhaps, increase.

A stricter zone doesn't fit all (or perhaps even most) existing buildings

A few things complicate the idea. For one, Lanier Heights is not entirely or predominantly row houses—there are a lot of apartment buildings there too. The neighbors applying for the zoning change have tried to draw the boundaries of the zone to exclude most of those, though this makes the rezoning apply to several small, discontinuous pieces of larger blocks—much smaller than almost all of DC's current zoning.


Image from the rezoning application.

Even so, the zone also wouldn't exclude every apartment building, according to the DC Office of Planning (OP)'s analysis of the zoning application, which doesn't take a position for or against the rezoning.

The current zone, R-5-B, also is more lenient than R-4 in many ways besides the number of units. Lots in R-5-B can be smaller or narrower than in R-4, while R-4 also requires a larger rear yard and (since a zoning change last year) limits the height of buildings more strictly. The OP report estimates that about 20-25% of the properties affected would exceed the maximum height under the R-4 rules. "Most," says the report, have sufficient area and width, while the report doesn't discuss the number with currently legal rear yards that would become illegal.

However, in another filing in the case, Ronald Baker of NADZ disputes that notion. He says that "Primarily due to issues of lot width, rear yard depth and building height, we believe that a majority of row houses do not conform to the standards of the new R-4 zone (even when only counting houses that have not been substantially altered from their original state)."

You can read the OP report, Baker's opposition, and other documents by going here and entering case number 15-09. The OP report is document #12 and Baker's rebuttal on this specific point is #13.

What will this do to overall housing supply?

A July 2014 article in the Washington City Paper summarized many of the concerns and arguments on this issue. Aaron Wiener wrote,

The appeal of the argument made by [proponents] is clear: Historic rowhouses are more attractive than converted apartment buildings, and no one wants a giant shadow cast on his or her backyard. The danger is what happens when this seductive logic is applied across the city. ...

The essence of the disagreement, for the sake of the city's wellbeing, is this: One side wants to preserve the character of Lanier Heights for its current residents; the other wants to make the neighborhood available to more people in the future. ... Greater density is needed in central neighborhood like Lanier Heights if we're to avoid taxing our roads and transit system with concentrated growth on the city's fringes.

The OP report references many provisions of DC's Comprehensive Plan. Many speak of the need to include more people: "By accommodating a larger number of jobs and residents, we can create the critical mass needed to support new services, sustain public transit, and improve regional environmental quality," (§217 7), and "Affordable renter- and owner-occupied housing production and preservation is central to the idea of growing more inclusively." (§ 218 3)

But at the same time, the plan also says things like, "In both residential and commercial settings, infill development must be sensitive to neighborhood context. High quality design standards should be required, the privacy of neighboring structures should be respected, and density and scale should reflect the desired character of the surrounding area." (§307 3)

Those who don't want to see much change in Lanier Heights could point to the many other R-4 neighborhoods, where new housing is much more difficult to add (and which OP made even more difficult with changes last year). Many neighborhoods have gotten an "opt-out" from adding new housing; should Lanier Heights too? But this opt-out has concentrated new housing in fewer new neighborhoods, and as more seek stricter protections, it will further constrain where DC can add the housing it needs.

Several people have said they are "not against development," like former ANC commissioner Elham Deborzorgi, who said "I'm all for higher density and I'm all for growth, but I'm not for growth in the wrong places, and I don't think row houses are the place for three, four, five units," according to and article in the Current, or resident Hilda Gore (document 15 in the case), who said "I am not opposed to growth" while supporting this downzoning.

But if not here, density and growth where? While there has been new housing in other parts of greater Adams Morgan, many other projects have also seen strident opposition, like at the Meridian Center on 16th Street. On the other hand, neighborhood commissioners favored new condos and retail in place of a gas station on Adams Mill Road in 2013.


2013 rendering of 1827 Adams Mill Road. Image from PGN Architects.

Are there alternatives?

Zoning is a very blunt instrument, as is clear from the debate over how a change from R-5-B to R-4 would render many existing buildings non-conforming. But right now, it's one of the few tools neighbors can even choose from. Another, a historic district, failed in 2008.

A down-zoning would simultaneously limit the number of people who can be in Lanier Heights, the sizes of buildings, and other types of changes property owners might want to make. But there may be ways to address some neighbor concerns without also slamming the door to new potential residents.

OP could pursue several avenues to identify even better policies than the down-zoning being discussed now or the broader R-4 change from last year. Some places to start might be:

Focus more on quality than density. One Comprehensive Plan provision quoted above calls for "high quality design standards," but neither R-5-B nor R-4 have anything to do with quality.

Wiener wrote,

In a sense, Lanier Heights' pop-ups are among the best examples of the right way to boost density. From the street, most range from nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive, at least compared with infamous pop-ups that have raised hackles in nearby neighborhoods, like the V Street NW middle finger or the Belmont Tower in Kalorama.
A change to R-4 would ban the most "nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive" additions as much as the most disruptive. Some of the testimony in the record in support of the change talks about shoddy construction that might not even comply with existing laws. There may be other ways to stop that besides a blanket ban.

Plan for the housing the area needs. The Comprehensive Plan simultaneously talks of adding housing while protecting neighborhood character. One way to square the two is to identify how much housing DC needs, divvy it up among parts of the city, and then lead more proactive efforts to figure out where it can go.

If the Adams Morgan ANC wants to support density in certain spots and limit in others, that's not outrageous. But the current case-by-case approach to zoning just looks at adding or removing allowable housing in one spot, not the larger need. A broader conversation could better balance neighbor desires with citywide interests.

Perhaps OP will think about these issues when it updates the Comprehensive Plan, a process that's slated to start this year. Meanwhile, the Zoning Commission will schedule hearings in the coming year on the specific zoning for Lanier Heights.

Correction: The original version of this article identified Elham Dehbozorgi as an ANC Commissioner, but she is no longer on the commission. Also, she asked that the article be adjusted to include more of her original quotation to provide more context; that has been added.

Development


Not building enough housing is morally equivalent to tearing down people's homes

According to the California housing champion who's suing communities that don't allow enough new development, not building needed density is morally equivalent to tearing down people's houses.


Photo by .Martin. on Flickr.

Sonja Trauss, founder of the SF Bay Area Renters' Federation sums up the housing problem affecting nearly every growing American city today:

"Most people would be very uncomfortable tearing down 315 houses. But they don't have a similar objection to never building them in the first place, even though I feel they're morally equivalent. Those people show up anyway. They get born anyway. They get a job in the area anyway. What do they do? They live in an overcrowded situation, they pay too much rent, they have a commute that's too long. Or maybe they outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."
Trauss hits the key points: The population is growing, and people have to live somewhere. If we refuse to allow them a place to live, that's just like tearing down someone's home.

Someone else is displaced

Trauss' last sentence is particularly important. It explains how the victims of inadequate housing often are not even part of the discussion. She says "Or maybe [home buyers] outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."

Here's how that works: One common argument among anti-development activists is that new development only benefits the wealthy people who can afford new homes. That's wrong. It's never the wealthy who are squeezed out by a lack of housing. Affluent people have options; they simply spend their money on the next best thing. Whenever there's not enough of anything to meet demand, it's the bottom of the market that ultimately loses out.

Stopping or reducing the density of any individual development doesn't stop displacement or gentrification. It merely moves it, forcing some other person to live with its consequences.

Every time anti-development activists in Dupont or Georgetown or Capitol Hill reduce the density of a construction project, they take away a less-affluent person's home East of the River, or in Maryland, or somewhere else. The wealthy person who would have lived in Capitol Hill instead moves to Kingman Park, the middle class person who would have lived in that Kingman Park home instead moves to Carver Langston, and the long-time renter in Carver Langston gets screwed.

As long as the population is growing, the only ultimate region-wide solution is to enact laws that allow enough development to accommodate demand.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


Dupont Circle leaders reject neighborhood benefits to tilt at windmills over development

A new church and housing will almost certainly rise where a church burned down 45 years ago. The church and developer worked with neighbors to cut down on the impact of both construction and the eventual new building, but the deal failed to win key neighborhood approval last week.


Photo by Michael Gray on Flickr.

The Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B) voted not to support a zoning variance for St. Thomas' Parish at the corner of 18th and Church Streets. St. Thomas burned down from arson in 1970, and since then, the Episcopal congregation has met in what used to be the fellowship hall next door, while the land the church was on has been a park.

After an earlier abortive attempt to build a low-scale new church which turned out to be unaffordable, the parish partnered with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church on part of the land and housing on the rest. (Disclosure: I live on this block.)

Many nearby residents have organized to fight the project, which led to a fairly incoherent resolution from the ANC, simultaneously admitting that a small amount of extra height, set back from the street, would not affect the perception of the building that much, but vociferously opposing the proposed height anyway.

The ANC lost that battle in the historic preservation process, as DC's Historic Preservation Review Board approved the building. The next step is a zoning variance, where the church and developer are seeking permission to fill up 86.7% of the lot instead of the normally allowable 80%. That hearing is Tuesday, December 15.

Meet the MOU

In the months leading up to the zoning hearing, CAS Riegler and church officials met with neighbors to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a contract which specified things like limits on construction hours, protocols to minimize dust and rats, and ongoing discussions between neighbors and the developer during the construction process. There were also some restrictions on amplified music on the residential building's roof deck and the hours when the church would rent its roof deck out for events.

I participated in the negotiating committee, and while nobody got everything they wanted, the MOU included some meaningful measures which would improve the quality of life for neighbors while also letting the church get a new building and adding new housing in this area right near a Metro station.

In exchange, St. Thomas and CAS Riegler wanted to gain ANC support for the zoning variance. The 6.7% extra lot coverage would almost surely be along the alley behind the building, meaning it wouldn't affect the public's interaction with this building, nor would it create or remove any meaningful "green space."

The ANC's Zoning, Preservation and Development Commitee chair, Daniel Warwick, led the MOU negotiating process, which spanned multiple long meetings. The newly-elected commissioner who represents the St. Thomas area, John Kupcinski, decided at the end of the negotiation process to not support the MOU, and on December 9, ANC 2B voted not to sign the MOU either.


Rendering of the proposed church building.

Are MOUs enforceable?

Complicating the situation was a last-minute legal opinion from Joshua Turner, an Assistant Attorney General in DC's Legal Counsel Division. Turner raised doubts about whether the ANC could be a party to such an agreement, since among other things, DC law does not allow ANCs to bring legal action.

This MOU was modeled on a similar one the Philips Collection, an art museum, signed 15 years ago, when it expanded in the district Warwick now represents. That MOU has functioned effectively, but Turner's emails to ANC 2B seemed to question the possibility of using this tool at all, or at least the ANC's role.

These questions over enforceability led at least two commissioners, Nicole Mann and Michael Upright, to change their minds and oppose the MOU at the ANC's vote.

There are residents who think developers shouldn't have to negotiate any concessions with neighbors at all, and on the flip side, there are also people, including some ANC commissioners, who don't want to accept any deals and want to just oppose any zoning relief requests outright.

But most pro-more-housing neighborhood leaders see MOUs as a good tool to build community support for development projects. They add needed housing, but also concentrate impacts on immediate neighbors. Good negotiations can mitigate those impacts without taking away opportunities for new housing.

From "height-itis" to "width-itis"

There's a good chance this project will win its variance—similar projects have many times. The DC Office of Planning supports the variance, as does the District Department of Transportation.

Even if it doesn't, something will get built which is marginally, if at all, different in terms of open space; the application packet says that the only alternative to the variance is to leave the parking ramp uncovered—not a big win for anyone. (Meanwhile, several people will be deprived of an opportunity to live in the Dupont neighborhood.)


Floor plans of the proposed building (top) and without the variance (bottom). Is there any neighbor benefit here?

Yet for many residents and at least some commissioners, it seemed from the debate, no amount of concessions around construction, noise, operations, etc. would suffice; many people simply wanted to continue taking a stand against the whole idea of a building of this size.

Most people who spoke against the variance didn't draw any distinction between the 80%-coverage version of the building and the 86.7%-coverage version; rather, they wanted to continue to battle over decisions that had been long since made in historic preservation about the building in the first place.

In July, I said the ANC had caught "height-itis" for its monomaniacal, and counterproductive, fixation on the height. Now, it's simply shifted to a fixation on the building's width.

Neighborhoods engage most successfully with development when they identify concrete elements they care about and advocate for those. To simply draw lines in the sand and refuse to budge from them, even when the conflict has moved far beyond that line, is ineffective and gives up the chance of actually helping neighbors.

It's like this amusing Improv Everywhere video, where an actor pretends to be Gandalf, impotently shouting "you shall not pass!" at tourists.

The consequences of the ANC's poor judgment in this case, unfortunately, will be that either the variance goes through and neighbors don't get what they asked for in the MOU, or the variance doesn't go through, a building still gets built, neighbors get little in return, and still don't get what they asked for.

Width-itis and height-itis can be crippling afflictions.

Development


Bike lane debates move from city hall to late night TV

Bicycling is becoming so popular that even late night talk show hosts are talking about it. The Late Late Show's James Corden recently weighed in on a controversial bike lane plan in California.

Coronado, a town near San Diego, recently tabled plans to paint bike lanes on many city streets after public backlash. Many of the opponents literally did not want to see any extra paint than they felt was necessary on the town's roadways.

Corden apparently found those objections pretty wild.

Despite his jokes, its clear that Corden is in favor of the bike lanes. The news clip he plays points out that lots of people bike in Coronado already and talks about many of cycling's benefits.

He wonders why anyone would hate the idea of bike lanes and he lists a number of benefits to both bike lanes and cycling in general. He also jokes about how the actual objections (like calling bike lanes "graffiti") are hyperbolic and don't really make sense.

Finally, he offers to paint the lanes themselves, rallying his audience to ride in the "Bike Lanes of Justice."

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