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Posts about Density

Development


What do 80,000 people in a square mile look like? Depends on where you put them.

When we talk about dense housing, many think of New York City skyscrapers, or Soviet blocks. But as images maps of different neighborhoods in DC show, not all density looks the same.


A high-density block in Columbia Heights. All images from Google Maps.

Google Maps recently unveiled its auto-generated 3D imagery for DC. Using this feature, I compiled snapshots of what different levels of density—measured by people per square mile (ppsm)—look like throughout DC and Arlington. The population density numbers come from the 2014 American Community Survey, and I calculated at the census block group level.

5,000 people per square mile

In the Palisades, winding streets are lined with large houses (~5,000 ppsm):

And in Brookland, detached single family homes sit on lots with front setbacks and spacious backyards (~6,000 ppsm):

15,000 people per square mile

Though walkable, most of Georgetown isn't particularly dense, with blocks of tiny rowhouses clocking in at about 15,000 ppsm:

Lamond-Riggs achieves a similar population density with suburban-style duplexes (~13,000 ppsm):

20,000 - 30,000 people per square mile

With a mix of both historic and new-construction rowhouses, this block group in Hill East sits at around 22,000 ppsm:

This section of Fort Dupont is similarly dense, but looks much different. Garden apartments centered around green space and surface parking give this area a density of roughly 27,000 ppsm:

30,000 - 40,000 people per square mile

In Glover Park, rows of attached houses line a network of relatively narrow streets (~31,000 ppsm):

A mix of duplexes and garden apartments puts this part of Shipley Terrace at about 35,000 ppsm:

40,000 - 50,000 people per square mile

These blocks bordering the south end of Adams Morgan are almost entirely filled with large rowhouses, with a few bigger apartment buildings situated on the main thoroughfares (~45,000 ppsm):

In Rosslyn, parking lots and highways surround these 7- to 10-story apartment buildings (~47,000 ppsm):

50,000 - 60,000 people per square mile

These apartment complexes on Massachusetts Avenue near American University don't cover a lot of land area, but their height makes them relatively dense (~53,000 ppsm):

Dupont Circle's streets blend rowhouses with 4- to 8-story prewar apartment buildings (~55,000 ppsm):

80,000+ people per square mile

This section of Columbia Heights is mostly close-together 4-story apartment buildings, giving it both a high density and a human scale (~80,000 ppsm):

At the north end of Mount Pleasant, a large apartment complex pushes this block over 85,000 ppsm:

Just south of Logan Circle, bulky apartment buildings both old and new give rise to densities over 100,000 ppsm:

Development


50% of DC residents live on only 20% of the land

Also, a quarter lives on just 7% of it. I made these maps to illustrate that.


Maps produced by the author. Data comes from 2014 ACS five-year estimates.

According to survey data from the Census Bureau, 50% of DC's population lives on just under 19% of its total area (bodies of water are included). In absolute terms, that's almost 315,000 people living on roughly 8,000 acres.

Zooming in even more, we see that 25% of people living in DC inhabit just 7% of its land. These residents are mostly clustered around neighborhoods like Logan Circle and Columbia Heights, where housing is dense and transit is plentiful.

For comparison, 50% of New York City's population lives on only 11% of its land area:

Do you notice anything interesting in these maps?

Development


The peculiar fight over density at the Bethesda Metro

Clark Enterprises, a company that formerly owned the biggest road construction contractor in Montgomery County, is fighting against a new building planned atop the Bethesda Metro station.


The plaza above the Bethesda Metro station. The former food court is behind the fountain. Photo by the author.

Brookfield Properties owns a failed food court on a platform above the station's bus waiting area, which it wants to replace with a high-rise containing homes or offices. Brookfield would also bring more light and air into the bus bays by cutting into an underused plaza that occupies the remainder of the platform.

This site, in the center of Bethesda directly above the Red Line entrance and bus terminal, is ideally situated for transit- and pedestrian-oriented development. No new parking will be built. The downtown master plan now under review by the Planning Board recognizes the value of this location by allowing building up to 290 feet high.

Clark has opposed building here before

In 2008, Clark helped defeat a plan to build on the Metro station platform, and it has been fighting Bookfield's proposal since it emerged two years ago. A new structure would interfere with the view from the building where Clark's executive offices are located. As one of the building's tenants wrote, the new building would "obstruct views from our existing space." A second tenant acknowledged the same objection.

The construction firm, a relentless promoter of highway widenings elsewhere, has renewed its efforts over the last month with two mailings each sent to thousands of Bethesda residents. They call on the public to "protect open space" and suggest that the plaza could be expanded by demolishing the food court and turned into an attractive park.


Clark's first mailer.

The mailers' attractive photographs of grassy parks surrounded by trees have little in common with any possible upgrade of the plaza—tree roots can't grow on the platform—and even less with the dingy bus bays below. Indeed, Clark's proposal could make the bus bays even worse than now.

In their second mailing, the builders argue that the plaza should be made "street facing." What currently separates the plaza from the street is the one opening that penetrates the deck above the bus bays. Decking over that opening would further deprive transit riders of light and fresh air.


Top: The image from Clark's mailing opposing the new building. Bottom: The Bethesda Metro entrance. Lower photo by the author.

It's easy to laugh at a situation some have described as "builder turned NIMBY," and one might think Clark has little chance of success. But plans to build on this ideally located site have already been derailed once. Montgomery County's decision on the Bethesda Metro plaza will test its commitment to development near transit.

Correction: The initial version of this post referred to Clark Construction as the company opposing the building. Clark Enterprises, the parent company, sold Clark Construction to its executives in January 2016. However, as of this article's initial publication, the Clark website still listed Clark Construction as a subsidiary (but it was subsequently updated after this article ran).

Public Spaces


National links: Hockey as a harbinger

What does outlawing street hockey in Canada say about public space? Germany is building super highways for bikes, and Oakland is getting its first Department of Transportation. Check out what's happening around the country (and beyond) in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Dave Kuehn on Flickr.

Game Off!!: Fewer people are playing street hockey in Canada. People playing have received tickets for doing so on neighborhood streets, and some kids say a lot of the hockey they play these days has so much supervision and structure that it's boring. Hockey is one thing, but the bigger issue is that kids feel less welcome in public spaces, like streets, than they used to. (Guardian Cities)

Bike super highways: Germany is building a series of bicycle super highways that will soon connect ten cities and is predicted to take 50,000 drivers off the road. The paths are 13 feet wide and fully separated from car traffic, even at intersections. There's a hope that this kind of infrastructure will usher in alternatives to crowded road and transit systems. (Guardian Cities)

New department in town: Oakland, California doesn't have a Department of Transportation, but it's starting one up this month. The interim director says the new agency will lead the way in answering questions about how to design transportation equitably and inclusively and how to design bike infrastructure without putting drivers on the defensive. (Next City)

Urban growth measures: We often compare cities by their population growth over time. Houston has overtaken Chicago as the third largest city in the US, but that's because counts include suburban growth and annexation, not just central city infill. Analysis by Yonah Freemark shows how central cities have changed since 1960, and that we should consider differences in how cities have grown when we talk about transportation policy. (Transport Politic)

A dense definition: The word "density" makes different people think of different things, and it's pretty unclear what it means relative to cities Are we talking about the density of buildings? People? Another quantifiable statistic? Perhaps the best kind of density is when the result is places where people want to go out and be around one another. (City Metric)

Quote of the week

"These are public streets, and navigation apps take advantage of them. Waze didn't invent cut-through traffic, it just propagates it."

Aarian Marshall in Wired Magazine discussing the neighborhood animosity towards the Waze App.

Development


A zoning change in Fairfax will allow more density

In Fairfax, the zoning code now allows buildings that are near Metro stations or that are part of certain commercial corridors to be denser than than before. The Board of Supervisor's decision to approve the change last week is emblematic of an effort to make sure that new housing and office space are paired with transportation options.


Tysons Corner is one of the densest places in Fairfax, but the county is prepping for demand in other places as well. Photo by Ryan Stavely on Flickr.

The thought behind Fairfax's changes is that putting more density in these locations will allow the county's population to grow without adding much more congestion because new development will put people close to existing and coming public transportation.

And the commercial corridors that aren't as close to a Metro station may become denser as a way to create more mixed use areas in Fairfax where people don't have to drive as much for basic errands. This will also make these places ripe for future transit projects or improvements as well.

The county plans to do this by increasing the limit of a new building's floor area ratio, or FAR. FAR is a typical tool in figuring out how dense a building can be rather than just designating a number of floors or lot coverage. Two buildings that look different could have the same FAR depending on how they're built.


This is not really what the county has in mind. Photo of Sao Paolo Brazil by Kalexander2010 on Flickr.

The higher the FAR, the bigger and denser any building is allowed to be. Fairfax's new zoning will allow FARs up to 5.0 in designated areas, which is more than the current maximums of FAR 2.0 or 3.0 in many of the areas slated for rezoning. That means if a building takes up 100% of a building lot, the building can be built to a maximum of five stories. If the building takes up half the lot the building can be ten stories. Either way, the building is at FAR 5.0.

Here's what opponents said

The zoning changes did meet opposition from people who said that a FAR of 5.0 would be too extreme a jump from what has been allowed. Even some very urban places, like Rosslyn, which is home to some of the region's tallest buildings, has an allowed FAR of less than 5.0.

Another issue is whether or not Fairfax is allowing developers to build without having to provide anything to mitigate some of the negative effects from their projects in neighborhoods pinpointed for the change.

On an episode of the Kojo Nnamdi Show last week, before the Fairfax vote, Terry Maynard of the group Reston 20/20 argued that Fairfax was giving too much leeway to developers and not doing enough to protect existing communities from possible negative impacts of new development.

Another contention was that while greater density is okay or even ideal around the county's Metro stations, increasing density in places without rapid transit would just lead to more congestion, which would be harmful. Opponents of the increase argued that Fairfax should instead wait to develop areas after new public transportation investments have been made.

That's because while various comprehensive plans for the targeted neighborhoods contain recommendations for both density and mitigation, for neighbors the bill in front of the Board of Supervisors would only allow new density, leaving both the county and developers off the hook for providing the amenities and infrastructure promised in the comprehensive plan.

Plus for a county as large as Fairfax, many contend that such a general change ignores the differences in specific areas of the county.

Zoning fights in Fairfax aren't new

This wasn't exactly Fairfax's first rodeo when it comes to debating how dense an area should be.

Seven Corners ,at the extreme eastern edge of Fairfax County, has already been one major flashpoint in the fight over density and development in Fairfax. The neighborhoods in Seven Corners are already pretty dense, and the tangle of roadways that lends the area its name makes it a difficult place to get around no matter how you're traveling.

Plans to redevelop the area to build housing in existing commercial spaces and improve the road network (especially for pedestrians and cyclists) led to a major election challenge for Penny Gross, who represents the area on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. The plan moved forward and Gross won her reelection last fall, but opponents still haven't given up and are likely to keep pressing the issue, especially as redevelopment begins in earnest.


More of this is coming to Fairfax. Photo by Dan Reed.

Reston is another big one. The area between the original development founded by Robert E. Simon and the Reston Town Center is already pretty dense, but Fairfax is planning for more growth to take advantage of the opening and further construction of the Silver Line. Those against more density say the area is already overburdened and Restonians are being asked to shoulder too much of the county's projected growth while developers aren't paying enough for the impacts of their projects.


Reston already looks like this. More is coming. Photo by Payton Chung.

More broadly, this is about Fairfax's fundamental approach to planning

For some, the thought of new businesses and residences in places with a lot of existing congestion is reason to be nervous. Many also feel that Fairfax is changing too much, and is no longer the suburban retreat that they felt like they bought into.

But some of Fairfax's current congestion and development problems stem from a history of growth that missed chances to mitigate congestion by building walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development. Keeping density low and sprawled out has ensured that many people have to drive for almost any trip they take, which is a problem Fairfax is now trying to fix.

An obsession with keeping car traffic moving is partly to blame for the zoning rules that actually make sure people drive more rather than less. That's especially true when development is contingent on whether or not a road is wide enough to handle expected traffic, as we know that widening roads usually just incentivizing people to drive.

Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth emphasized that point on that same episode of the Kojo Show I mentioned above. When the debate over whether or not FAR 5.0 would mean too much density, he was careful to point out that the way a building is designed is far more important than the actual density which can be configured in many ways.

It's also worth noting that a 5.0 FAR is just the maximum. Ultimately, the market will figure out how big a particular project should be, and not every building will be built to the maximum unless demand for development in these areas takes a very big, unexpected upswing.

Cities and neighborhoods thrive when they're allowed to change. That's why we still allow new construction even in neighborhoods with strict historic preservation rules. And its necessary to house a growing population as well. Embracing that and working with that knowledge in mind is being proactive about the future rather than accepting the inevitable.

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.

Development


America's most unattainable housing is right by downtown DC. That's a huge problem.

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Five people are currently vying for the chance to occupy the White House this November, but only one will win. This is a classic supply and demand problem, and the solution is simple: Build more housing.


Concept rendering for The Estates At President's Park. Original image by Jeff Prouse.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW is an extremely low-density property, with 82 acres housing a population of only 5 people (and a very small amount of office space). Even without adding new buildings, the existing one could become a taller apartment building with plenty of room for the Clintons, Sanderses, Trumps, Cruzes, and Kasichs, even without changes to Washington, DC's federal height limit.

This building is also located in a gated community with large open spaces around it which serve little purpose. They are off-limits to most pedestrian foot traffic and residents of the exclusive community are rarely seen using them either. The Ellipse, just to the south, is largely used as a parking lot. Developing some of these open areas could have provided even more housing.


Significant underutilized land. Photo by US Department of Defense via Wikimedia.

The exclusionary nature of this area has already prevented numerous families from being able to move here. According to news reports, families from Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, Arkansas, California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and others gave up on their hopes of being able to move here for a better job. The lack of available housing is an clear impediment to labor mobility.

Historic preservationists and other groups may complain about such a move. After all, this house is one of many which tour groups frequently pass by on their tours, and some (but not all) US Presidents lived here, adding to its historic value.

However, Washington has many historic buildings; this one is not as architecturally interesting as the office building next door to the west. The National Park Service, which controls the area, is so under-funded it may have to shut down a bridge which carries 68,000 vehicles a day. NPS needs to prioritize its funds and not waste so much money on a property which few people can enjoy.

Original architect James Hoban actually proposed a larger building, but changed his initial design, supposedly to better reflect the "monumental" nature of Washington, DC. As Kriston Capps put it, it's a "Hoban cut off at the hipbone." "It's a perfect architectural metaphor for the almost-urbanism that characterizes life in Washington," he wrote.

Candidates react to the idea

Reached on his corporate jet, Donald Trump said, "I think it's terrific. I can make a great deal to build this and I'm working with the GSA on the hotel down the street which will open early and will be the best hotel in all of DC. I'm good at building things. I'm the best. I have built so many things. Good things, you know, really good things. I know how to build. I have the skills, the best skills. And I can get this done. And I have great taste in furniture, the best taste. We'll increase the quality of the finishes substantially, marble finishes, very, very high quality of luxury marble, the most luxurious marble you've ever seen. Just phenomenal luxury."

Based on the District's inclusionary zoning ordinance, the new White House will be required to include one affordable dwelling unit, which will likely go to Marco Rubio.

In a press release, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager said they'd worked out an agreement to use the basement to build an ultra-secure server room inaccessible to the House of Representatives.

Reached on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, Ted Cruz expressed his opposition to the proposal. "I'm an outsider. I don't need a building to live inside."

The Burlington, Vermont headquarters of Bernie Sanders' campaign sent this statement: "This is why we need to break up the big banks and make sure everyday Americans benefit instead of just Wall Street and big corporations."

While many are excited about the 1600 Penn project's increased density, others have expressed concern that this is simply another situation where developers will trigger displacement of another black family from a neighborhood with an overwhelming percentage of African-American residents according to the 2010 Census.

Still, this neighborhood is very close to ample parks, stores, jobs, and transportation, including multiple Metro stations. The low quantity of housing is a clear public policy failure. Let's end the Lafayette Square housing crisis immediately.

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