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Posts about Anti Neighbors


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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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."


Friday's your last chance to speak up on DC's zoning code (and you should!)

Opponents of DC's zoning update are continuing to try to delay changes that will add housing and make it less expensive to build. But DC's zoning commission has had enough of delay. They now need to hear support from residents to actually approve the changes.

Photo by Warren R.M. Stuart on Flickr.

The final deadline to comment on the proposal, which has been going on for eight years, is this Friday.

Here are the key provisions and my comments. If you agree, the best thing to do is write a short (1-2 sentences is fine) explanation in your own words of the same general concept (or any other you believe in) and submit it through the online tool, linked next to each item below.

Accessory apartments: This proposal will let homeowners in detached house zones rent out a basement, other room, or existing garage to earn some more money from otherwise-unused space as well as providing someone else a place to live.

Comment here, and select section 253.8. I'm saying, "Please approve the proposal for accessory apartments. Many homeowners have extra space and need money to help cover a mortgage, pay for needs in retirement, or other expenses. Meanwhile, many people need places to live in DC. This proposal is a win-win that addresses both needs."

Parking: The new zoning code will lower minimum parking requirements, most deeply around Metro stations, streetcar lines, and high-frequency bus corridors.

Comment here, and select section 701. I'm saying, "Please approve the proposal to reduce minimum parking requirements. These requirements are often unnecessary and drive up the cost of new housing. Issues with street parking should be solved through street parking rules and not in the zoning code."

If you want to go further, you can advocate for even deeper reductions, or an outright elimination, of the parking minimums. The original proposal got watered down over time.

You can also comment on any of the other changes, all of which you can read about in The Office of Planning's zoning update blog.

The online tool is the easiest way to comment. You can also email a PDF letter to or use one of the other methods at the bottom of this page.

The zoning board says enough is enough

At least 40 opponents sent letters asking to extend the time even further. They also asked to have the Office of Planning go back to neighborhoods for yet another round of meetings, and to translate the zoning code into more languages.

Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, who had pushed for more meetings and some delays in the past, has had enough. He said,

We've extended the time and extended the time and extended the time. I understand this is a new undertaking, but ... we extended it 90 days, and on our own, because of concerns of things ending in August, we extended it a few more days ... so it went from 90 to 119 days. To extend it again and keep extending it and keep extending it; I think this city will not have a new zoning code which was forecast years ago. I think we have done due diligence for the residents in this city. It's probably 8 years now. This is an 8-year project.
On the translation issue, OP's Jennifer Steingasser noted that the agency had previously created and circulated a fact sheet, explaining the main changes, in Amharic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Zoning staff said a full translation of the text would cost $100,000 per language and is not required by law.

The commission voted unanimously to deny all of the extension requests, except for one from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A to submit its testimony about two weeks late. That ANC will get its minor extension; everyone else needs to speak by this Friday, September 23 25.

Go do it!


Opposition to housing in HBO's "Show Me a Hero" sounds eerily familiar

In the second episode of the miniseries Show Me a Hero, which premiered on HBO last Sunday, angry crowds—all white—protest at a Yonkers, NY city council meeting discussing a plan to put a measly 200 low-income households in the more affluent parts of the city. Many people watching surely believe that they wouldn't be throwing diapers at the council if they had been in Yonkers in 1987. I'm not so sure.

Yonkers residents protesting public and affordable housing at a city council meeting. Images from HBO unless otherwise noted.

DC may be close to half white and half black, but many neighborhoods are far from diverse, racially or in income level. West of Rock Creek Park and east of the Anacostia River are worlds apart, as much as Show Me a Hero's depictions of Yonkers east and west of the Saw Mill River Parkway.

DC hasn't taken very serious steps to change this reality in the last decade, but even those to move 1% of the way have been met with more than 1% of the anger and opposition we can see in Show Me a Hero.

In the series (and in real-life history) a federal judge found that Yonkers had violated civil rights laws and the Constitution by concentrating all of the low-income housing into a small area of the city. The judge ordered Yonkers to build 200 units of public housing and 800 of affordable housing in sites elsewhere. The council (all white) fought against the ruling to the bitter end.

Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko is faced with a council where no member wants new public housing in his district.

The first two episodes of the miniseries, by The Wire creator David Simon, show council resistance as the judge progressively threatens officials with contempt charges and fines. They also depict the intensity of public opposition to the idea of anyone who makes less money than they do living in their neighborhoods. "It's not a black and white issue," one says, unpersuasively to much of the series' 2015 audience.

Meanwhile, in DC in the 2010s, what affordable housing gets built mostly goes east of the Anacostia into the District's two poorest wards. Residents there keep pointing out the unfairness of adding even more subsidized housing in areas with high unemployment and relatively few retail or transportation options, but it continues. The Gray Administration even approved a proposal to build on public land in the Mount Vernon Triangle but locate required affordable housing units in Anacostia.

The concentrations of white (left) and black (right) residents in Yonkers in 1980. The darker the green, the higher the percentage. Image from Social Explorer via Uncovering Yonkers.

In DC's richest ward, new housing inevitably means a fight

There hasn't been any push to build affordable housing west of Rock Creek, but there have been a few efforts to build some higher-income housing that wasn't the detached single houses on large lots that predominate. Apartments on the site of the old Wisconsin Avenue Giant, the development now called Cathedral Commons, drew battles and lawsuits for well over a decade.

The DC Zoning Update proposed allowing homeowners with basements or carriage houses to rent them out instead of prohibiting the practice outright, as is the law today. That plan is still slowly grinding its way through the approval process after getting watered down significantly amid endless delays over more than seven years now.

And a 2003-2004 plan to allow denser development along Wisconsin Avenue near the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights Metro stations provoked a massive backlash. At the tail end, opponents attacked Ellen McCarthy, the planning director at the time, and successfully pushed for her ouster.

None of these efforts would have created much if any exclusively low-income housing. Some people, like Councilmember Vincent Orange, therefore argue wrongly that opposing new housing has no impact on low-income residents at all. But if it's so controversial to allow more market-rate housing in an already expensive area, where units might just go to some young singles and couples or retirees, imagine the firestorm if the same housing would have actual poor people. You don't have to imagine it; you can watch Show Me a Hero.

The specter of different people raises alarm

In the show's second episode, Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) hears on the news about the increasing chance of some low-income housing coming to her neighborhood and says, about the people who would live in low-income units, "they don't live the way we do. They don't want what we want."

In the 21st century and outside the crispness of a scripted television show, people don't quite say that, but some messages on the Chevy Chase listserv about the carriage house proposals came close. One person wrote, "I'm especially concerned about [these units], and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young childrens' safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units."

And these would have been units where an existing Chevy Chase homeowner hand-selected the person to rent to, not ones awarded through a housing lottery. What would this writer and the others who expressed similar sentiments done if the plan had actually been to desegregate the Chevy Chase neighborhood?

Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a single mother and public housing resident struggling to afford life in Yonkers.

This year, the US Supreme Court upheld a strong interpretation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act in a Texas case that has a lot of similarities to the Yonkers one, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued stricter rules to push cities to do more against housing segregation.

With the memorable and viral phrase "Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets," Kriston Capps argued in Citylab that many liberals' professed views won't stand up to the reality of actually getting affordable housing near them. Capps notes how a Republican county executive was elected in Westchester County (which includes Yonkers) after his Democratic predecessor approved new affordable housing across the county.

Lisa Belkin, author of the book on which the miniseries is based, wrote in the New York Times that "[s]upporters of desegregation won the Yonkers battle—but the high cost of victory lost them the war. Few in this country had the will to risk another divisive, ugly municipal bruising any time soon."

Many officials in DC and elsewhere might look at the miniseries, the real-life experiences in Westchester and DC and everywhere else, and conclude that residential segregation is something best ignored. That's certainly what the councilmembers in Show Me a Hero wanted to do. But as David Simon illustrates with cuts between the council hearings and scenes of the real lives of the affected low-income people, the human cost of inaction is very high.

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