Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Construction

Bicycling


15th Street's protected bikeway is back!

It's a Bike to Work Day miracle! For the last few months, demolition of the old Washington Post building has squeezed people on both bikes and foot into the same narrow space. But as of this morning, there's both a protected bikeway and a sidewalk, meaning there's a safe way for everyone to travel.


A new protected bikeway on 15th Street. Photo by the author.

When Carr Properties started demolishing the old Washington Post building, at 15th and L NW, it was supposed to set up two separate temporary paths along 15th, one to replace the closed sidewalk and one to replace the closed bikeway. What actually went up, however, was just a single narrow chute. While there were signs saying it was only for bikes, people used it for walking because it was the only option on that side of the street.

This morning, though, I noticed both a temporary sidewalk and protected bikeway, with a barrier in between, running on 15th between L and M Streets. And on L, there are sharrows that make it clear that people on bikes can use the full lane—that may not be as nice as the protected bikeway, but it can work on a temporary basis.

Nice work, DDOT! This is great news for people who depend on the city's bike infrastructure to get around. Now, they don't have to deal with a major gap in the network, which people were fearing would last for the estimated construction time of two years.

The city, and the region, still has a ways to go in terms of providing safe paths for everyone when construction comes along. But this development, made possible by a little paint and some bollards that make things clear, is an encouraging sign.

Development


Benning Road's building boom begins

While H Street NE has boomed in recent years, nearby Benning Road has lagged. That's about to change, with at least two big Benning Road redevelopments coming down the pipeline.


The proposal at 17th and Benning. Image from Capital City Real Estate.

Benning Road NE is, for all intents and purposes, an easterly extension of H Street. East of Starburst the name changes, but Benning more or less functions as the same road, streetcar and all. Except that while H Street has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years, Benning Road has not.

But now it appears the H Street boom is jumping to Benning.

On December 17, developers officially filed plans to build a 180-unit multifamily building at the northeast corner of Benning Road and 17th Street NE, across 17th Street from Hechinger Mall.

It's the first big, H Street-style proposal to see the light of day on Benning Road.

But it's not the only one. Half a block away and across the street, near 16th and Benning, another developer is proposing a 250-unit building. There are no renderings yet, but rumor purports it will be similar to The Maryland at Maryland Avenue and 14th Street NE.

Together, these developments show how the impending Benning Road boom isn't a matter of if, it's a matter of when. Properties along Benning are too enticing, demand for new housing in DC is too ravenous, and the streetcar, for all its faults, is too much of a draw. Benning is about to boom, and it won't be the same.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

History


See Metro Center when it was still under construction

In the mid 1970s, Metro's first stations were under construction and on track for their 1976 opening day. This historic photo shows Metro Center station while it was under construction, circa 1975.


Metro Center in 1974 or 1975. Photo source unknown.

In the photo, the basic form of the station is in place. The vault is done, the track bed looks good, and the station's lights are on. But there's clearly a lot of work left to do, including most of the finishing touches.

It's an interesting 40-year-old look at one of our region's most important transit hubs.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


Most of DC's new housing is in high-rises, which most people can't afford to live in

At first glance, the District's central-city housing boom might seem to be completely benign: as long as new housing is being built, does it matter where it is? But by funneling almost all new residences into central-city high-rises, the District is all but requiring that new housing be built with only the most expensive construction techniques, on the most expensive land. Potential residents need more choices.


Photos by the author.

Where housing is built influences how housing gets built. That, in turn, determines how much new housing will cost and thus, who can afford to live there. Given how the city is building high-rises, it's no wonder that the resulting housing is expensive: these buildings are expensive by their very nature, and far more expensive than what most of the District's new residents can afford.

High-rise buildings are built to last, with solid materials like concrete and steel plus expensive fittings like elevators and sprinklers. All of that heavy-duty construction costs a lot of money—up to twice as much as low-rise buildings, per square foot. Those fittings also cost more to maintain over the long run. And since these buildings aren't built on land that was cheap to begin with, it should be no surprise that high-rise apartments are expensive.

High-rises are too expensive to rent for anything but top dollar

How expensive are central city high-rises? The cost of just materials, labor, design, and appropriately-zoned land for a high-rise building in central DC amounts to over $400 per rentable square foot—and that's before its developer has made a single cent on her investment, much less paid interest to her investors, paid attorneys to get the site zoned correctly, paid for community improvements like transportation or affordable housing, or brought in the gimmicky amenities.

These high costs go a long way towards explaining why so little of the District's new housing is affordable to low and moderate income households. It's not necessarily because developers are greedy, but because developers can't afford to sell their products at a 50% loss.

For instance, take a theoretical two-bedroom, 1,100-square foot unit in a newly built high-rise building. The play-an-apartment-developer online game handily provided by New York City's nonprofit Citizens Housing and Planning Council, reprogrammed with DC's considerably lower costs for land, construction, and property taxes, yields a rent of $3,993 for that two-bedroom apartment.


Under HUD's standards for affordability and household size, this theoretical unit could house a three-person household earning $159,720 a year, or 163% of the Area Median Income for three-person households in this region (which is $98,253). Alternately, to make the unit affordable to a "low-income" household that can afford rent of $1,966 a month, the developer would have to lose (or the government would have to pay) over half of the monthly rental cost.

Requiring high-rises also affects the diversity of the new housing that's built. Building fewer but larger apartments in a central-city high-rise divides the building's high costs among fewer units, pushing per-unit prices up even further relative to cheaper low-rise buildings. A typical three-bedroom unit sold in DC this year had 1,336 square feet; the CHPC's calculator indicates such a unit would be affordable only to a four-person household earning more than twice the Area Median Income.

Wages in the region aren't keeping up with rent costs

All of this would be fine if the new jobs that this region is creating were all high-paid, but they're not. A June report by Jeannette Chapman from George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis forecasts that only 37% of the new households that will settle in the District from 2011 to 2023 will earn middle or high incomes (120% or more of Area Median Income). That leaves 63% of all new households, and 73% of new renter households, earning low or moderate incomes.

Most of DC's new households, then, will be priced out of most of DC's new housing. 30,000 new households of more moderate means, who can't afford fancy new high-rise apartments, will instead have to compete with existing households for existing housing, pushing prices up across the board.


High-rise apartments under construction near the Navy Yard.

The District could step in and provide tremendous subsidies to pay the high rent on high-cost high-rises, which is sort of what inclusionary zoning does on a very small scale. Or it could acknowledge that while luxury high-rises have their place, they cannot meet everyone's housing needs, and that new housing is also needed that's intrinsically more economical—built using less-costly low-rise and mid-rise techniques and on less-expensive land.

That would be possible if more housing were being built outside of the central city, which is exactly what the Comprehensive Plan calls for.

Roads


A Maryland road widening will be more costly than the transit it replaces

Maryland governor Larry Hogan wants to build roads with money saved from cancelling the Baltimore Red Line and cutting back the Purple Line. The governor says the two light rail lines cost too much. But his marquee highway project, a wider Route 404 on the Eastern Shore, looks to be far less cost-effective than either.


Route 404. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

The Route 404 widening will turn 12 miles of two-lane road between Route 50 and Denton into a four-lane divided highway. The work will cost $204 million: $160 million in new money plus $44 million budgeted earlier.

The governor presents his road plan as a way to speed traffic. But the travel time savings from widening Route 404 will be far more expensive than the time saved by the two rail lines.

The two-lane road only backs up on summer weekends when people drive to the beach. According to Google maps, the average traffic delay on summer Friday and Sunday afternoons varies from zero to six minutes. By a generous estimate, this adds up to 60,000 hours lost each year in traffic backups, making the construction cost $3,400 per annual hour saved.

Building the Purple Line will cost $288 per annual hour of rider benefits, and the number for the Red Line is $456. The amount of money the state is spending to save a minute of travel time on Route 404 is seven and a half times greater than the amount it refused to spend to save a minute of travel time in Baltimore. That means a Baltimore bus rider will wait an hour so that an auto passenger can get to the beach eight minutes faster.

Highway safety is another goal, but widening 404 may not help much

Eastern Shore officials offer another rationale for widening Route 404. There are many fatal crashes on the road, and they suggest that the planned widening will fix that. But it's unlikely that the death toll will go down significantly.

Using web searches and a memorial website, I found descriptions of 11 fatal crashes on Route 404 since 2010. Seven of them were on the 12-mile section of two-lane highway; four on the 12-mile stretch that is already four lanes.

Of the seven collisions on the two-lane road, only two involved vehicles crossing the center line. Three vehicles were hit from the side as they turned onto 404 from side roads. There were two rear-end collisions. On a four-lane divided highway, center-line crossing would be impossible, but turns would be more difficult. These numbers suggest that widening 404 would only modestly improve safety, if at all.

Also of note: five of the 11 crashes involved tractor-trailers. Requiring through trucks to use US 50, which has far fewer intersections without signals, might have prevented most or all of these.

Moreover, former Maryland highways chief Parker Williams has said that Route 404 isn't an especially dangerous road, which implies that highway safety money could be better spent in other places. For the cost of widening 404, the state could install some 2,000 of the flashing crosswalk lights known as hawk beacons. They would undoubtedly have saved a good number of the 630 pedestrian lives lost on Maryland highways between 2009 and 2014.

The highway projects in Governor Hogan's package have never gotten the sort of detailed assessment of costs and benefits that the Red and Purple Line projects were subject to. The numbers for Route 404 suggest that cancelling the Red Line was not at all the cost-conscious decision the governor presented it as.

Architecture


It's about to get easier to build mid-rises in DC

Soon, it might be a lot easier and less expensive to build mid-rise buildings along transit corridors in DC. This is thanks to a 2015 update to the International Building Code.


The View at Waterfront, new buildings

The View at Waterfront, a proposed 85' tall wood-framed building. Rendering by SK+I Architecture.

The code now permits light-framed buildings of wood or steel, which are often faster and less expensive to build than equivalent heavy-framed structures, to reach eight stories and up to 85' high—just shy of the 90' limit the Height Act imposes outside of downtown.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

How much less expensive? The blocks above illustrate three potential scenarios for a light frame apartment building built with wood or steel studs, and with sprinklers.

On the left, the building has five floors of light wood framing (yellow) over a one-floor "podium" of heavy concrete framing. On the right, the building has eight floors, all of heavy concrete framing. Switching from the left to the right increases the building area by 33%, but because concrete is more expensive, costs increase by 60%.

When I wrote about this topic last year, seven- and eight-story buildings had to be built from heavy-duty concrete or steel, welded or poured on-site, for fire reasons. This "Type I" construction process is time-consuming, material-intensive, and expensive.

Eight-story buildings made economic sense on 14th Street NW, where land values are high. But the high cost of construction stymied development in less pricey neighborhoods.

What the 2015 building code permits is a compromise, with a taller "podium" of concrete framing. That's the middle example. This building has 23% more area than the building on the left, but costs only 26% more.

DC currently operates under the the 2012 version of the IBC, but will soon start reviewing the 2015 code for formal adoption. DC law requires that the Council consider adopting the updated IBC by July. Maryland is on a faster track, having adopted the new code in January, and Virginia is about one year behind.

The new code in practice

One site where this compromise is being applied is adjacent to the Waterfront metro station. In 2007, a developer first proposed building apartments on two parking lots between Arena Stage and the Metro.

Since Southwest DC is considered part of downtown, it has a 130-foot height limit, and the developer got zoning approval for a pair of 11-story, 112-foot tall reinforced-concrete high-rises.

Mill Creek Residential, which developed the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station's parking lot into the Avenir mixed-use complex, recently bought what they're now calling The View at Waterfront. SK+I Architecture redesigned the proposed buildings with wooden frames.

Under the new building code, the concrete podium can have multiple stories.

To take advantage of the change, the new plans for the View include a two-story concrete podium with five and a half stories of wood frame above, according to drawings within the zoning filing. The podium will contain a retail space (probably a restaurant) facing Arena Stage, resident common areas, and apartments.

Builders have a new material at their disposal, too

Another building code change that took effect in 2015 officially allows cross-laminated timber, a "mega-plywood" that mimics the heavy timber beams of yesteryear. The code limits CLT buildings to the same heights as conventional, light frame buildings, even though some countries' codes allow its use for taller buildings: 10-story buildings have been built from it in London and Melbourne.

T3 in Minneapolis
T3 in Minneapolis. Rendering by Michael Green Architecture.

For now, CLT may find a niche in commercial buildings due to its unique appearance, and ability to span wide-open spaces. The first mid-rise CLT building in the United States, a seven-story office building, will break ground this summer in a Minneapolis neighborhood known for its brick lofts.

Bob Pfefferle from developer Hines (which also built CityCenterDC) told Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star-Tribune, "it provides an authentic building that is respectful of the neighborhood. This will have the ambience of the old warehouses with timber beams that everyone wants, but solves all the problems of energy efficiency and light."

CLT could be an intriguing new technology to watch for in new commercial buildings in areas with an industrial heritage, like Union Market or Ivy City.

Transit


The Takoma Langley transit center is rising from the ground

Construction is progressing rapidly at Maryland's Takoma Langley transit center. Take a look:


Construction progress as of Saturday, April 18, 2015. Photos by the author unless noted.

The transit center will feature bus bays and rider amenities, covered under a great curving roof that's sure to become a local landmark.

Fow now, the bright white frame looks more like something out of a sci-fi movie than a bus station.

Here's what it will all look like once construction is done:


Rendering of the final station from the State of Maryland.

Langley Park needs this

Langley Park, at the corner of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue, is the busiest bus transfer location in the Washington region that isn't connected to a Metro station.

Eleven bus routes stop on the side of the street at the busy crossroads, serving 12,000 daily bus riders. That's nearly as many bus riders per day as there are Metrorail riders at Silver Spring Metro, and it's about double the number of Metrorail riders at Takoma station.

Corralling all those bus stops into a single transit center will make transfers vastly easier, faster, and safer for bus riders.

Heavy construction began at the transit center last year, and is scheduled to be complete around December 2015.

If the Purple Line light rail is built, Takoma Langley will become one of its stations, boosting ridership even more. The light rail transitway and station would have to be added later, and would fit snuggly in the median of University Boulevard.


How a Purple Line station would fit. Rendering from the State of Maryland.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Pedestrians


Walkblock of the Week #3: L St NW between 6th and 7th

Construction is certainly a part of life, but when it closes sidewalks, it can make walking more difficult and dangerous. DC's policies require keeping a safe passage for people walking and bicycling, but that doesn't always happen.

Nearly an entire block of sidewalk is closed a block from Mt. Vernon Metro station, on the south side of L Street between 6th and 7th. With the sidewalk closed, the most direct walking route for many pedestrians is in the street. That's avoidable.


Pedestrians walking in the street, after DDOT gave permission to completely close the sidewalk. All photos by the author.

The sidewalk is closed because Douglas Development is constructing a building that will add offices and new retail. But construction is still in its early stages, and it may last for another year. Meanwhile, two car travel lanes are open.


The purple line shows the closed sidewalk on L Street NW. The red lines show other nearby closures. Base map from Google Maps.

DDOT granted permission

DDOT's online system shows that the construction site has the proper permits, and it appears that the construction company has the appropriate signage necessary to close the sidewalk. The current permit expires on August 9th, 2015. But does this sidewalk really need to be closed?

George Branyan, DDOT's pedestrian program coordinator, said that when demolition is still going on at construction sites, closing nearby sidewalks is the preferred route.

"This closure should have relatively little impact on pedestrians accessing the Convention Center Metro station since it is located at 7th Street and M Street, a block north of this development," he said. "Additionally, with the entire block face being developed and no pedestrian generators on the block, fewer pedestrians are attracted to the south side of the street."

It's amazing that while DDOT's policy is for sidewalks to close only as a "means of last resort," Branyan called this particular instance "preferred." He didn't discuss whether or not anyone at DDOT ever considered alternatives to closing the sidewalk. "Means of last resort" looks like a catch-all for any sidewalk closure in the city.

While there are places in the city where keeping sidewalks open would require difficult trade-offs, this site isn't one of them. Its sidewalks are relatively wide, and its vehicle volumes low. The sidewalk here could easily and relatively inexpensively occupy the parking lane, with scaffolding protection like in other locations around the city. This is a case of a clear violation of DDOT's policy for safe accommodations.

The cost of making that happen would be a drop in the bucket considering that this is a multimillion-dollar construction project. This area could be a lot safer and more convenient for people on foot, but DDOT staff and leadership are not making that a priority, and it's not clear why.


There is plenty of space to accommodate people on foot.

DDOT can accommodate walking

The sidewalk at the site looks wide enough to accommodate walkers during construction. Within DDOT, there is the technical ability, creativity, and political will to keep sidewalks open; You can see it in action on nearby 5th Street.

Unfortunately, making excuses for closing sidewalks seems to be a higher priority than finding ways to keep sidewalks open. Doing so directly conflicts with DDOT's policy of allowing sidewalk closures only as a "means of last resort."

A priority shift toward keeping sidewalks open would make DC an even better place to walk and send a clear message that pedestrian safety is a priority here.

Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to allwalksdc@gmail.com or tweet them to @allwalksDC with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.

All Walks DC is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, advocating for people who walk in the District of Columbia. To get involved, email allwalksDC@gmail.com.

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