Posts about Density
DC needs to find a place for substantial new housing and jobs in the future, and federal planners now seem to acknowledge that fact. They're willing to create a process, though an exhaustively long one, by which some future growth could exceed the federal height limit.
It's a tiny step forward for the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a very cautious federal agency, but actually a significant one. The blanket height limit made it impossible to even consider creating a skyscraper neighborhood somewhere in the city, perhaps like Poplar Point, or even having an occasional, iconic tower amidst lower buildings.
Last night, NCPC staff published an updated recommendation for changing the federal height limit. They've decided to insist on absolutely no change in the original L'Enfant City (basically everything between Florida Avenue and the rivers), but are willing to open a gate to a very long road for taller buildings elsewhere.
To recap, the federal law, which only Congress can change, limits heights of buildings in DC to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet, up to a maximum of 90-130 feet depending on the area. Outside downtown and downtown-ish areas like NoMA and the ballpark, local zoning restricts buildings far more, however.
The local zoning can change if the Zoning Commission, a board with 3 local and 2 federal representatives, agrees, but that board can't pierce the blanket federal height limit. Under NCPC's proposal, that could happen, but DC planners would first have to define the taller-building area in an amendment to the official Comprehensive Plan, a voluminous document updated every 5 years.
The DC Council, which otherwise has no voice in zoning, would have to approve the plan change, and NCPC, the mostly-federal board with representatives from agencies like the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration, would also have to assent. Congress would then have its own chance to overturn the changes if it chose.
But if, and it's a big if, a future plan for some tall buildings somewhere gets enough political support to convince the DC government, the DC Council, and NCPC, it could become a reality.
It's not a bad idea to ask that a taller building area undergo thorough planning and community discussion. Certainly many argue that we should simply have fewer restrictions on buildings. But that isn't a majority view right now. Eventually, however, enough residents may recognize that severe limits on our housing supply push up costs and be willing to explore solutions.
Those solutions could simply entail upzoning many areas around Metro stations and transit corridors (which wouldn't require height limit changes). Or, maybe it means a lot of tall buildings in one small space, like Paris' La Defense. Or each section of the city has an architectural competition for one distinctive and exceptional taller building.
Under this plan, at least we could have that debate. Those alternatives are within the realm of the possible. The city could try to trade extra height for important amenities that residents really want, as Montgomery County is doing with its White Flint plan.
On the other hand, this path certainly means a lot of veto points. And we know that any change engenders strong opposition, almost no matter what the change. It will be mightily difficult to get a plan for taller buildings past all of these boards.
Still, at least NCPC is willing to entertain the notion. The staff recommendation still reserves for NCPC control over any height limit exceptions, but that's a lot different from a Congressional law totally banning it. Which means that if and when DC needs more height, at least there's a way, even if it's a hard way.
One change would make a lot of sense at this point: if the process for allowing greater height involves so many steps of local and federal approvals, it now seems silly to completely exempt the L'Enfant City. There are tradeoffs between growing in the center, where it's already busy but there is more infrastructure, and at the edges, where some people crave economic development but taller buildings would stand out more.
NCPC staff argue that the federal interest is greatest in the L'Enfant City, where most federal land is, and lesser outside. Plus, just outside the L'Enfant City in Arlington there are already tall buildings, so it seems silly to insist on such a strict rule outside in other directions.
But it's still unclear that having buildings low, boxy, and boring A joint local-federal discussion about where to add height should encompass downtown and L'Enfant city neighborhoods as well as outlying areas. Why simply exclude a place like Hill East/RFK stadium from this discusssion? Or NoMA? NCPC can veto a proposal in those areas if it's not on board, but given that it would have to agree to any change, there's no need to exclude whole sections of the city at the same time.
A joint local-federal discussion about where to add height should encompass downtown and L'Enfant city neighborhoods as well as outlying areas. Why simply exclude a place like Hill East/RFK stadium from this discusssion? Or NoMA? NCPC can veto a proposal in those areas if it's not on board, but given that it would have to agree to any change, there's no need to exclude whole sections of the city at the same time.
Supporters of DC's height limit say restricting building heights has worked to keep Paris beautiful. But embracing the Parisian built form would have unintended consequences on DC's neighborhoods.
The mid-rise Paris that we know today was built not by a democracy, but by a mad emperor and his bulldozer-wielding prefect. As Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning said in a recent WAMU interview, "Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them essentially block after block of small apartment buildings."
"If we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate easily 100 years' worth of residential growth," she added. "But they would be very different neighborhoods."
A haunting exhibition of photographs by Charles Marville, now on view at the National Gallery of Art, offers us a glimpse at how this change manifested itself in Paris.
The city government hired Marville to document the systematic demolition of central Paris' low-rise neighborhoods, the construction of new mid-rise neighborhoods (the ones we know today) in their stead, and the widespread displacement of the center's low-income residents to the urban fringe. (Numerous books have been written about the era, notably "Transforming Paris," by David Jordan.) There were technological limits on buildings in that era, too: elevators were slow and expensive, and the new water mains could not supply satisfactory water pressure to the upper floors of many buildings.
Not dissimilarly, downtown DC's horizontal march has steamrolled numerous low-rise neighborhoods in its wake, from Chinatown to Foggy Bottom. Now that only a few blocks are left for downtown to grow into, office buildings are muscling into Shaw. This is only natural for a mid-rise city: Paris' mid-rise urban fabric superimposed on DC would spill outside the diamond, vastly larger than the existing downtown.
That path of destruction is why most other growing cities in this century (i.e., built-out but growing central cities, from London and Singapore to New York, Portland, Toronto, and San Francisco) have gone the Vancouver route and rezoned central industrial land for high-rises. This method allows them to simultaneously accommodate new housing, and new jobs, while keeping voters' single family houses intact.
By opposing higher buildings downtown, DC's neighborhoods are opposing change now, but at the cost of demanding far more wrenching changes ahead: substantial redevelopment of low-rise neighborhoods, skyrocketing property prices (as in Paris), or increasing irrelevance within the regional economy as jobs, housing, and economic activity get pushed further into suburbs that welcome growth.
Among large North American cities, only Toronto has joined DC in making a concerted effort to redirect growth into mid-rise buildings along streetcar lines, and only as an adjunct strategy in addition to hundreds of high-rises under construction. (The two metro regions are of surprisingly similar population today.) Yet there, just like here, neighborhoods are up in arms at the very notion.
DC cannot put a lid on development downtown, in the rowhouse neighborhoods, in the single-family neighborhoods, and on the few infill sites we have left, and yet somehow also accommodate enough new jobs and residents to make our city reliably solvent, much less sustainable. The sum of remaining developable land in the city amounts to 4.9% of the city, which as OP demonstrates through its analysis, cannot accommodate projected growth under existing mandates.
Something will have to give. A good place to start is a loophole-ridden law imposed back when DC was a protectorate and when Greater Washington counted fewer residents than today's Asheville or Quad Cities.
The Office of Planning has suggested a reasonable framework for a subtly revised Height Act that can accommodate growth and change while preserving the city's cherished urban design and historic neighborhoods. Adapting the rigid 130' cap to a street-width rule maintains the Height Act framework along our ceremonial avenues, where our city's namesake actually set a height minimum.
Along streets like L'Enfant Promenade, Washington had the right idea: taller buildings will better frame vistas. Beyond the L'Enfant City, the Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance will continue to ensure that most buildings never reach the 90' Height Act maximum, but the city will have the flexibility to adapt to evolving construction techniques and special opportunity sites.
As DC re-adjusts to a new century of urban growth, after a lost generation of population decline and disinvestment, inaction poses a far greater risk than action. Paris' combination of horizontality and verticality is undeniably beautiful, but its unique form resulted from a peculiar historical process that I would not wish upon an American city today.
The District of Columbia Council is accepting written testimony about the Height Act until next Tuesday. For more information or to send your comments, visit their website.
A version of this post appeared on West North.
What should Southwest DC look like over the next few years? Will it continue to be a quiet neighborhood despite increasing development around it? Or will it become a bustling area with more people and retail?
On Wednesday, the DC Office of Planning held a kickoff meeting for the Southwest Neighborhood Plan, which will be the Small Area Plan that will cover most of Southwest DC. The plan will address some of the development pressure that the neighborhood is experiencing, thanks in part to DC's growing population.
The neighborhood is currently surrounded by large development projects, like the Southwest Ecodistrict, the Wharf, and the Yards. Nationals Park borders the neighborhood, as well as the future DC United stadium and associated redevelopment in Buzzard Point. This creates a challenge for planners trying to craft a distinct vision for Southwest.
As the name "kickoff" implies, OP is still in the very early stages of putting the plan together. Right now there are no preconceived notions of what the plan will look like. Theoretically, everything is under consideration. The plan will focus on development along I and M streets, but plan will address issues of conservation, sustainability, and connectivity in areas to the north and south.
During this stage, OP is seeking input on what values are important to the community. Many residents value the diversity, affordability, green space, and access the neighborhood provides. But while some residents want more restaurants, retail, and bars, others are worried that competition will force out existing businesses. Neighbors also differed on whether a streetcar on M Street would be a good idea.
At the meeting, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning seemed optimistic that the neighborhood could build on its shared values to overcome differences and mold a plan. She pointed out that people aren't for or against the streetcar because it's a streetcar, they are for it or against it because of the perceived effects a streetcar will bring to traffic and the neighborhood. OP will continue to take input and then analyze and report back in late fall. They hope to have a final draft of the plan by Spring 2014.
Much of the land in the area is currently occupied by housing, which seems unlikely to go away over the next several years. But DC owns a fair bit of land that Tregoning called "underutilized." These are shorter structures like the DMV branch and inspection station and the DC Fire Department repair shop, located on M Street SW about halfway between the Waterfront and Navy Yard Metro stations. In the future, this area could sit right on a proposed streetcar line.
This week, the Montgomery County Council reduced planned development in Chevy Chase Lake and recommended the same for Long Branch, both home to future Purple Line stations. Residents say new development will lead to traffic and, in Long Branch, gentrification. But making it harder to build around transit may make those issues worse.
Now that Maryland has a new transportation funding source, work on the $2.2 billion Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton could open as early as 2020 if the state can get matching funds from the federal government. Naturally, people will want to locate near the line, so Montgomery County's working on plans for neighborhoods along the corridor to accommodate new residents, businesses, and public amenities.
This week, they passed a plan for Chevy Chase Lake, while the council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee gave recommendations on a draft of the Long Branch Sector Plan, which the council will vote on this fall. Both plans call for turning the neighborhoods' 1950's-era commercial cores into compact, urban neighborhoods, with taller, mixed-use buildings, new public spaces and streets that accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders, not just drivers.
Neighbors in Chevy Chase Lake fought their plan, saying it would exacerbate traffic. In Long Branch, residents worry that redevelopment will push out the area's large immigrant community and destroy local landmarks, like the historic Flower Theatre. So councilmembers have scaled back both plans in the name of reducing traffic and preserving affordable housing.
Council backs down on taller buildings in Chevy Chase Lake
The Planning Board endorsed the Land Company's "compromise" for a handful of buildings around a Purple Line station.
The Chevy Chase Land Company, a major landowner that first developed Chevy Chase Lake over a century ago, originally sought to build nearly 3,000 new homes in buildings up to 200 feet tall, or about 19 stories, around a future station on Connecticut Avenue. Neighbors said it was too much and county planners generally agreed.
The Planning Board offered a compromise, allowing buildings between 100 and 150 feet tall next to the station and buildings no taller than 55 to 80 feet surrounding it, providing a transition to surrounding single-family homes. They also called for staging requirements to ensure that the Purple Line was in place for major redevelopment could occur.
But a group of neighbors called "Don't Flood the Lake" pushed for even less. And the County Council gave in, setting maximum heights of 150 and 120 feet for 2 buildings next to the station, followed by 90 feet for adjacent buildings, and 50 feet in surrounding areas. Still, not everyone was happy. Councilmember Marc Elrich, the only one to vote against the plan, said the Council and Planning Board had "utterly . . . [disregarded] the wishes of the community."
Committee allows new development in some parts of Long Branch, but not others
Councilmembers also decided not to upzone 3 garden apartment complexes in Long Branch for higher-density development, saying it would preserve affordable housing. Groups like CASA de Maryland worry that the Purple Line, which will have 3 stops there, will price out the local immigrant community.
Last May's Long Branch Super Block Party. Councilmembers voted to rezone the shopping center in the background, but not the apartments. Photo by the author.
Today, a 3-bedroom apartment rents rents for $1471 a month, less than the cost of some studios in downtown Silver Spring. But the Planning Board felt that redeveloping the apartments was the best way to preserve affordable housing, both by increasing the overall supply of housing and because the county requires new buildings to set aside units for low-income households.
It's true that new apartments in Long Branch will be more expensive than what's there now. But not building them means that landlords in old buildings will just raise the rent when the Purple Line opens because there will be more demand to live there.
Fortunately, the PHED committee did endorse taller buildings in the Superblock, an area bounded by Flower Avenue, Arliss Street, and Piney Branch Road that's home to 3 strip malls. The Planning Board called for buildings 65 or 75 feet tall, or about 6 to 7 stories, but property owners said that wasn't enough to build an economically feasible project. Instead, the councilmembers recommended buildings up to 120 feet tall.
The committee also voted 2-1 to only designate the facade of the Flower Theatre, a vacant Art Deco movie house, as historic. Preservationists want to preserve the entire building and adjacent strip mall, arguing that new development can work with old construction, like CItyline at Tenley, a condominium built atop a former Sears in Tenleytown.
But Stacy Silber, representing owner Harvey Companies of Bethesda, says that the strip mall's layout and structure can't accommodate future redevelopment, like apartments or structured parking. Councilmembers Leventhal and Nancy Floreen, which voted to save just the facade, agreed.
"If it were financially viable to run a theatre here, there would have been a theatre here a long time ago," said Leventhal. "What is there today is not desirable." But councilmembers did get to look at some proposals for repurposing the theatre from the Flower Theatre Project, a group I co-founded last year, and decided to add language calling for "some kind of performing arts use" there, even if redevelopment occurs.
Doing nothing is not an option
Next up, county planners are working on a plan for Lyttonsville, a historically black neighborhood between Chevy Chase Lake and downtown Silver Spring. The council already approved a plan for Takoma-Langley Crossroads that Montgomery and Prince George's counties worked on together.
The Purple Line will have a huge impact on the communities it serves. Many of them will be positive, but there's also potential for displacement and disruption. However, keeping things as they are isn't an option. Not creating more opportunities for people to live in close-in, transit-served neighborhoods like Chevy Chase Lake or Long Branch will push up housing prices and make traffic worse because more people have to commute from far away.
Even with the DC area's extensive transit network, land near transit stations is a limited and precious resource. We can't afford to waste it.
Sunday's Washington Post featured a big story about gentrification on 14th Street, including the claim that it "recently surpassed Columbia Heights as the densest area in the city." Is that true? The US Census can tell us.
Using American FactFinder, I created this map illustrating the population density of DC's central neighborhoods.
5 of DC's 6 overall densest census tracts border on 14th Street, between downtown and the northern end of Columbia Heights. It's definitely the city's densest string of neighborhoods.
But is it denser north or south of Florida Avenue? That depends how you count. While the stretch of 14th Street between Florida Avenue and P Street remains a little sparser than in Columbia Heights, the stretch from P Street south to Thomas Circle is the densest single tract in DC.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Over 800,000 people lived within the boundaries of the District of Columbia back in 1950. How did all of these people fit, with fewer and smaller buildings than today?
The 1951 sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still" inadvertently shows us how. Klaatu, a level-headed extra-terrestrial emissary, escapes captivity at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He wanders down Georgia Avenue, away from not-yet-nuclear-weapon-free Takoma Park, and attempts to disappear into everyday DC.
This is convenient for Klaatu, who knows little of Earthlings' simple ways, but probably annoying for the Earthlings. Conditions like these were common in DC homes at the time.
The 1950 census found 14.1% of the District's 224,142 occupied housing units to be "overcrowded" (with over 1 person per room). By 2011, that figure had fallen by 2/3, to 4.7%, similar to the 5.3% of homes in 1950 that were extremely overcrowded (more than 1.5 occupants per room).
This crowding meant that on average, every apartment and house in DC had one more person living inside: households were 50.2% larger! In 1950, 3.2 people occupied each dwelling unit. In 2007-2011, the number of persons per household had fallen to 2.13, so the city's population still fell to 617,996. That decline would have been much steeper had the city not built 74,760 new housing units: the city's population would have plunged to 477,422, and the nation's capital would be less populous than Fresno.
Household size shrank nationwide as families changed. In 1960, married couples with children outnumbered single-person households almost three to one. In 2010, singles easily outnumbered nuclear families nationwide, and by 5.57 to one in DC.
As DC. gets reacquainted with the notion of population growth and begins to plan for a much larger population within the same boundaries, we'll have to have a realistic conversation about household sizes and housing production. A change of just 0.09 persons per household means the difference between planning for 103,860 or 140,515 additional housing units,1 or a total of 35% to 47% more units.
That amounts to 2,000-3,000 additional units per square mile of land, after subtracting the 10.5 square miles of parks and 7 square miles of water from DC's 68 square miles.
Klaatu, unfamiliar with our contentious Earth politics and "impatient with stupidity," might propose to build a platform of 5-unit-per-acre suburbia above the existing city, or require every second or third home to be subdivided, or return to 1950s household sizes and require every home to take in one boarder (not necessarily extra-terrestrials). But since Klaatu is no longer with us, we will instead have to figure out more complicated ways of infilling a built-up city.
We've obviously figured it out before; after all, DC has added an Alexandria's worth of housing units to its existing housing stock since 1950, plus plenty of offices, museums, hospitals, parking garages, and the like.
The area above K but below Massachusetts was a high-density mixed residential area in the 1950s, what Park & Burgess would've known as "the zone in transition," but today the height-constrained central business district has spread north to Massachusetts Avenue. Yet in fact many foreign visitors still board on that block, at the Jefferson Hotel and the University of California's Washington Center.
Unlike in the movie, there is no way that Klaatu can make DC's growth "Stand Still," and so the built fabric of many other DC neighborhoods will have to change in the near future. Thankfully, neither is there a grumpy Gort (pictured above) parked on the Ellipse, who will destroy the earth with laser-beam eyes if we don't all just get along.
A version of this article was previously posted at west north.
A proposed skyscraper in Tysons Corner will be 435 feet tall, making it the tallest in the DC region, and first to breach the 400 foot threshold. The building is proposed as part of the SAIC redevelopment, adjacent to the Silver Line's Greensboro Metro station.
Traditionally, the tallest skyscrapers in the region have been in Rosslyn. But Rosslyn is in the flight path to National Airport, so buildings there can't rise higher than 400 feet. A bevy of development projects in Rosslyn, Alexandria, Tysons, and North Bethesda are in the 300-400 foot range, but this is the first serious proposal to crack 400 feet.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Yesterday, the Montgomery County Planning Board unanimously voted to approve the controversial Chelsea Court townhouse development near downtown Silver Spring. The vote ends a 3-year fight between local builder EYA and a group of neighbors who said the project was too dense and would harm the environment.
The vote allows EYA to build 63 townhouses, including 8 Moderately-Priced Dwelling Units for low-income households. It will restore a historic house on the site of the Chelsea School, located on Pershing Drive one block north of downtown Silver Spring.
The private, special-needs school first announced their plans to close and sell their 5-acre campus in May 2010. Most of the school's students live in the District or Prince George's County, and administrators want to focus on teaching them at public schools closer to home.
History of neighborhood opposition
Neighbors in the surrounding Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association, or SOECA, have strongly opposed Chelsea Court from the beginning. They worried about traffic and density and said that townhouses didn't belong in a "single-family neighborhood", especially when the property was only zoned for single-family homes.
The Planning Board approved rezoning the land for townhouses in 2011, but it was rejected by the County Council, who said EYA's proposal for 77 homes was too dense. The Council eventually granted the rezoning for a reduced number of houses last year. Neighbor Thomas DeCaro filed a suit against the county saying they acted illegally, but the case was dismissed.
More recently, SOECA argued that Chelsea Court violates state and county environmental laws. A consultant hired by the neighborhood says EYA ignored Environmental Site Design requirements to preserve natural features. Opponents say cutting down the property's mature trees and removing its steep slopes will cause runoff into a stream buried below Ellsworth Drive.
In a letter to County Councilmember Valerie Ervin, SOECA president Jean Cavanaugh urged her to "take all steps necessary" to ensure that Chelsea Court incorporated ESD "without regard to the possible loss of development intensity."
However, officials from the county's Department of Permitting Services say the site's natural slope was already removed to create sports fields for the school decades ago. "I understand that you may not agree and that you have expressed significant opposition to the project," replied DPS director Diane Schwartz-Jones. "In our opinion, the applicant has complied with the standards spelled out in the Montgomery County Code and with [Maryland Department of the Environment] standards."
EYA willingly makes changes
According to this planning staff report, EYA's latest design includes several changes in response to neighbor concerns. They've agreed to provide more parking than required, move a private road serving the new houses and restrict turns to or from it to discourage through traffic in a neighborhood where most streets are already blocked off.
In keeping with existing houses in the neighborhood, EYA's townhomes will be only 2 or 3 stories tall, as opposed to the 4-story homes they normally build elsewhere. Townhouses facing Springvale Road will be designed to look like single-family homes in order to blend in with existing homes across the street, while a double row of trees will shield them from sight.
Meanwhile, 51% of the property will be preserved as open space, including small courtyards between the rows of houses and two pocket parks. This figure also includes the private yard of the 150-year-old Riggs-Thompson House, which the school is currently using. EYA will turn it back into a single-family house. Planners say this counts because the house's yard contributes to "a general appearance of openness."
At yesterday's meeting, 18 residents gave testimony about the project, including several supporters who noted EYA's responsiveness to their suggestions. "I'm pleased to see what EYA has crafted and look forward to the development coming to fruition," said Robert Bacon, who lives a few blocks away.
More density in Silver Spring is environmentally and economically sustainable
It's not surprising that neighbors don't want to see trees cut down to build Chelsea Court, but this property isn't a virgin forest. It's a school campus that's already been cleared and built on. Building here is the environmentally responsible thing to do because it reduces the pressure to build in actual environmentally-sensitive areas.
Chelsea Court is also located in an urban area a short walk from one of the region's biggest jobs, shopping and transit hubs. 60% of downtown Silver Spring residents already get to work without a car. Meanwhile, an independent study of EYA developments, including ones in Silver Spring, found that their residents walk more and drive less. Building more homes here means more people get to do the same, reducing their energy use.
But for all of the environmental benefits of being here, Silver Spring is an increasingly expensive place to live, due to the high cost of land and the expense of a 3-year-long permitting process. At an Urban Land Institute talk last summer, EYA partner AJ Jackson said that the time and money they've spent trying to get Chelsea Court built could add $50,000 to the price of each home.
Neighbors might say that maximizing density means bigger profits for EYA, but in reality, it means EYA can spread the cost of land and permitting over more homes, making them less expensive. $50,000 may not seem like a lot, but it means fewer people can afford to live in Silver Spring.
While people deserve a say in what happens in their community, the bitter and vitriolic fight over Chelsea Court sets a bad example for future projects. Not only does it create bad blood, but it encourages destructive suburban sprawl and makes Silver Spring a less affordable place to live.
We have to find a way to have a constructive dialogue about development, because this community's going to grow and change whether we like it or not. In the meantime, Chelsea Court has been approved. Not everyone will be happy with the Planning Board's decision, but they made the right one. Now it's time to get this project built.
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