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Development


The real "best places to work" have great commuting options, too

Area magazines often issue lists of the "Best Places to Work," but they don't consider what the commute to those places is like. The real best places to work don't make employees sit in traffic for hours each day.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Each year, Baltimore Magazine releases its list of the Best Places to Work, based on factors like salaries, benefits, career mobility, and workplace culture. Washingtonian Magazine has a similar ranking.

But when my wife comes home from work, she does not talk about her employer's 401K plans, her healthcare, or the free gym. Most often, I hear about how long or stressful her commute by car is.

I try to empathize, but my commute is a leisurely fifteen-minute bike ride that I love, or a two-stop light rail ride when it rains, getting me to work relaxed and clear-headed. Shouldn't magazines talk about those things, too?

"Best Places to Work" rankings don't talk about commutes

Virtually every rush hour, one or more of our major regional highways is backed up when some unfortunate driver's car is mangled in a so-called car-b-que. The DC area usually ranks among the highest in the nation for traffic congestion, while Baltimore isn't far behind.

Beyond causing stress and eating up time, commuting by car can be dangerous. In 2010, Maryland had 493 traffic deaths. 296 were in passenger cars or light trucks vs one fatality in a bus. 383 fatal car crashes were on urban interstates.

Meanwhile, employers on the Baltimore Magazine list highlight commuting options with about the same frequency as company picnics and employer-paid pet insurance. Of the top 25, there are only eight employers with a walkscore rating over 70. A high walkscore can indicate whether an employee can walk to a place to eat, to live, or a central bus or transit line from their workplace.

Six of the eight employers are in downtown Baltimore with lots of amenities and transit within easy reach, while one is in Towson, a walkable downtown in its own right. The eighth, America's Remote Help Desk, is in Eldersburg in Carroll County, which isn't a walkable area but earns a high walkscore due to being in a shopping mall with shops and restaurants. The remaining 17 companies are in more remote or isolated locations where driving to work is the only option.

Another way to measure the "best places to work"

Some area employers recognize that the best perk might be a variety of commuting options. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore's largest employer, deserves credit. Its hospital is located at a Metro subway stop and has six bus lines. It runs an express shuttle service connecting its Homewood and medical campuses with Penn Station.

Hopkins is making investments so its community can conveniently live, shop, and play near each campus without a car. As importantly, Johns Hopkins has a robust Live Near Year Work program with downpayment/closing cost grants of up to $36,000, and is investing in the local public schools and business districts near its campuses as part of its Homewood Community Partners Initiative.

Let me tout my employer, the University of Baltimore. It has a 403b plan, comprehensive health and dental coverage, a free, full-service gym and library. But it also offers many choices for where its employees can live and how they get to work.

It's within walking distance of many types of housing with different price points. Employees can choose to walk to work, and some do. Those who live further out have the option of biking to work with new cycletracks on Maryland Avenue and Mount Royal Avenue, as well as the Jones Falls Trail, which I use.

The university offers discounts on Maryland Transit Administration service, meaning employees can take advantage of the 5 nearby bus lines, the MARC Penn Line, the light rail, and the subway, as well as a fleet of Zipcars. Penn Station, across the street, offers Bolt Bus and Amtrak.

If my colleagues want to be on the highways, go to Jiffy Lube, replace the tires, they can. But they don't have to. I call that a perk and a choice.


There are other ways to get around. Photo by the author.

As employers and office developers across the region make decisions about where to locate and to build, it is time to give employees choices about transport. There should be no more LEED-rated, "green" buildings in the middle of auto-oriented sprawl that costs employees their time, money, and health.

Greater Baltimore has plenty of available real estate a short walk from transit stations. There are office infill opportunities on or near commercial main streets and within walking distances of where people live. State Farm in Atlanta is one of many big employers who are moving to more transit-friendly locations.

But employers may not feel the need to offer employees more travel choices unless it's recognized as a desirable feature. Baltimore Magazine, how about adding commuting alternatives in the criteria for your "Best Places To Work 2014" list?

A version of this post appeared on Comeback City.

Politics


Where will DC's next 200,000 residents go? The mayoral candidates weigh in

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here is the first of 2 posts on discussions about housing with candidates for mayor. See all of the posts here.


Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.

"We've been a city of 800,000 before, and we're going to be a city of 800,000 again," said Muriel Bowser. "Keep in mind, the city's population at one time was 800,000 people," said Jack Evans. "The city used to have 800,000 people, but we have only 640,000 today," said Andy Shallal.

When talking about growth and development, multiple candidates for mayor brought up this number. In many cases, they were citing it as evidence that there must be plenty of room in the city to add 200,000 new people. How can there notthere used to be!

But the city looked very different in 1950. Families were much larger. A lot of row houses had become boarding houses during World War II. Homeowners lived in one room and rented the rest out to unrelated people. Americans got married younger and had children younger. In short, our existing houses that have one or two empty nesters or a young couple with one child today might have held 5 or even 8 people 60 years ago.

What would our candidates for mayor do about it? Mayor Gray talked about "air rights." Evans and Bowser both pointed to less developed areas of the city; Evans highlighted Shaw, where we were speaking, as a corridor ripe for new housing and retail. He talked about his experience pushing for the Whole Foods, then Fresh Fields, to come into Logan Circle; during the first meeting, Fresh Fields representatives wouldn't even step out of the car, while today that is "the largest-grossing Whole Foods in the chain on a per-square-foot basis."

Bowser referred to her efforts building support for development at places like Walter Reed. She would like to see DC more proactively plan for the housing we need, through citywide and small area plans. She promised to make sure that the Comprehensive Plan, which is up for revision again soon, finds room in the city to grow back to 800,000. That's important, because according to the Office of Planning, even building everything to the limits in the Comp Plan won't be enough for our housing needs after 10-20 years.

Where exactly the housing might go, Bowser was less clear. She also proudly defended her efforts to remove a floor from a proposed building at the Takoma Metro, saying that there needs to be a participatory process to make sure residents are comfortable with a new development. But, I asked, doesn't that mean that every project will get a little smaller, lose a floor, and so on, I asked? Will that prevent us from building enough housing in the aggregate?

She wasn't concerned. "There are going to be some very smart people to make sure [the new residents] will have a place to live." And later, "The thing I know where there is a lot of demand is that the units will be created. In markets where people are looking for housing, and it's profitable for them to create housing, they will."

Tommy Wells criticized most of the thinking on this issue as being very "linear" and "two-dimensional," saying that as our needs change, many people will use space differently. More younger residents are willing to move into smaller spaces because instead of needing to own or rent all the space they'll use, people are "using the collective of shared space that they all pay for together," such as common rooms in buildings and public places like parks in the city.

Meanwhile, he said, offices are also using less space as fewer employees have their own offices, employees spend more time working at home, and people use common areas. Therefore, he said that people at one of the downtown business improvement districts think that some office space can become housing.

Andy Shallal is worried about the trend toward building smaller units. "I think those types of developments [are] overdone throughout the city," he said. "They're temporary housing, because when people get married, have a child, they can't really live in those small spaces. I'm just worried about this rush to build these small units, cookie cutter units, is going to make the city less desirable for families that want to live in larger homes."

Wells has an idea to deal with that:

I've been working with another architecture firm and a major developer to do what I call "flex buildings." With a flex building you can build small apartments, but as your life changes you can aggregate, so if you have a small child or your life changes in another way, you can add above or below or to the side, instead of bldg a fixed infrastructure with 3-bedrooms, 2-bedrooms and 1-bedrooms. That's an old way of thinking. The future of cities like ours is an adaptable way of thinking, not a linear use of space.

Another way to add flexibility is to let people rent out their basements or garages, as has been proposed in the DC Zoning Update. Shallal said, "I think we have to have some flexibility in those types of zoning laws. ... These homes are empty nesters now with one or two people living in a 3-4 story townhouse. For those people who are becoming elderly, maybe they want to have a little income and stay in their home. ... I think it's a great way to keep people who have lived here a long time to be able to stay in the home they've lived in ... rather than building another high-rise of apartments that are overpriced and end up requiring lots of parking."

Bowser isn't on board. She opposes the Accessory Dwelling Unit recommendation in the DC zoning update, though she tried to couch her opposition as minor and generally praised the zoning update. "I think that having our zoning codes not be reviewed in a comprehensive way for 50 years ... I think that they spent a lot of time on a lot of different issues. I think at the end of the day I have only 4 areas I wanted them to ... that's pretty remarkable for a 5 yr process. I think they have looked at all of the concerns."

What she didn't say is that the "only 4 areas" of concern are essentially the major policy recommendations of the zoning update, such as accessory apartments, corner stores, and parking.

Bowser also reiterated her opposition to any changes in the height limit.

I think the Congress should focus on things that we've asked for, and we've asked for budget autonomy. I think Congress should focus on how we unhinge our city from the federal government's budget. We're not a federal agency, we're a city. We collect our own taxes and we should be able to spend our own revenues. ...

You've got to wonder why they are focusing on something that nobody in the city has saideven including the development community, the government, the councilmembers saidthat we need or want and the things we do need and have asked for have been totally ignored. You've got to wonder about the motive, don't you?

Mayor Gray, meanwhile, defended his administration's efforts to change the federal Height Act.

What I think wasn't entirely clear was that we weren't proposing a particular change or a specific change in the height limits. What we were proposing was that the District have more control over setting the height limits, which would still give the people of the city a chance, through the Comprehensive Plan, through zoning, through legislation, a chance to be able to address, specifically, proposed height changes.

It was not that we would go out on Rhode Island Avenue and say we were going to have buildings that would be 37 fett tall. It was to say, just like we say with budget autonomy, shouldn't we have greater control over our city, especially areas outside the L'Enfant city? So we've sort of stopped at this stage, and we're working now to try to make sure people are clear about what it that we were proposing. But it wasn't that Building X was not going to become 14 stories higher than what it was.

In fact, Gray became the most energetic and animated just after we'd turned off the cameras, when perhaps he was more relaxed. He told stories about how he'd contacted DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson when Mendelson introduced his resolution against the height limit. It's a home rule issue, not about the heights, he'd tried to convince Mendelson, an argument which didn't go anywhere to Gray's evident frustration.

Tomorrow, we'll look at what the candidates said about public land and subsidized housing. Meanwhile, you can watch the entire exchange on housing with each candidate.

Evans:

Wells:

Gray:

Bowser:

Shallal:

Politics


Hear the candidates: Ward 1 on housing

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for Ward 1 on the DC Council. See all of the discussions here.


Images from the candidate websites.

The District is adding 1,100 people a month right now, and a GMU Center for Regional Analysis report estimates DC needs 41,000 to 105,000 new housing units over 20 years. Where will this housing go? Or will supply fall far short of demand?

I asked the candidates in DC's April 1 primary this question, and the answers from Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham an his challenger, Brianne Nadeau, illustrated a clear difference in how we think about growth.

To start with, Graham and Nadeau both support building multi-family buildings along the ward's main corridors, such as 14th and U Streets where there has already been a lot of development, especially near Metro stations.

Graham said,

I'm an advocate for developing the core. The areas around our subway stations, areas with excellent bus transportation, should be areas where all of this is developed, because what we found is ... people are coming without cars and contributing to the fact that ward 1 has the fewest number of car owners per capita of any ward in the city.

Nadeau:

We've watched key populations, such as our Latino population, be pushed out of the ward and over the border into other wards or even other jurisdictions because of rising costs. One of the things we have to do is increase density where it's appropriate. We want to maintain the distinct character of our historic neighborhoods, but what we can do is increase density around transit hubs.

Both also spoke up in favor of affordable housing programs, including providing more money to DC's Housing Production Trust Fund. Nadeau cited how the Home Purchase Assistance Program actually helped her afford a down payment on her own home 5 years ago. "Without that down payment assistance, I would still be renting," she said, "and what it's given me is long-term stability."

What income level should affordable housing programs serve?

Nadeau said she wants to ensure that enough affordable housing goes to people making below 60% of Area Median Income (AMI), and that there are enough units of appropriate sizes for families as well as singles. Graham was even firmer about the 60% threshold:

When we reach 60% of AMI, which I think is almost $100,000, everybody would like to have some kind of housing subsidy, but I can't bring myself to believe that they are as much in need as other income levels, particularly those who are at $60,000 or less. To give somebody a housing subsidy at $100,000 a year of income is puzzling. It's more than puzzling, it's unacceptable to me. I think that's too high of an income to merit a rental subsidy.
(Note: I believe Graham is confused about the AMI levels here. According to DHCD, the 2013 60% AMI level for a 3-person household is $57,960 and for 4 people is $64,540. 100% of AMI for a 4-person household is $107,300.)

Nadeau disagrees with Graham's bright line. "We talk a lot about people below 60% AMI because we recognize that there's a great, great need there. But once you get to 61% we can't be forgetting about those people either."

Many affordable housing advocates indeed push to ensure that our affordable housing programs benefit those significant below median income, especially 60% of AMI and even some at lower levels like 30% and 50%, but housing is a challenge even for people above the median income. What about those who have higher incomes and might not qualify for, or perhaps deserve, explicit government subsidies?

Increase the supply of housing? Where?

Even though there are some significant parcels of land, like McMillan, Saint Elizabeths, and Hill East where new growth can go, the Office of Planning estimates that in 10-20 years DC will hit a ceiling of how much housing can be built under current zoning and the Comprehensive Plan.

I asked Graham, "What do we do for people making 60% of AMI or more so they have the opportunity to live in neighborhoods in Ward 1?"

"They may not have that opportunity," Graham replied, though he did cite the Inclusionary Zoning program which creates some units at 80% AMI. Other than that, he pointed to neighborhoods like Brookland which is seeing significant new development to accommodate new residents.

If each ward grows comparably, that would be 5,000 or more units for Ward 1 and every other ward. Should Ward 1 find room for that much housing? Nadeau said, "I don't know what the percentage [of new housing between wards] would be, because we are the most densely populated ward so we need to control for that," but she suggested a planning process or and housing audit to identify needs for affordable and market-rate units, and "providing enough housing so we're bringing the market down."

To the same question, Graham said, "The answer to that question is we may not find those 5,000 units in Ward 1. ... I don't know whether Ward 1, with its current boundarieswe have so little vacant land left because we have wisely developed all of the major parcels."

Graham talked about how Anacostia is on the cusp of becoming a neighborhood many people want to move to, and how prior to 1965 it had large numbers of white residents as well as some long-time black residents. But, I asked, people in and around Anacostia are nervous about "overdevelopment" and "changing the character of the neighborhood" just as people are in Ward 1.

"I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face," said Graham. "If we wreck the historic character of the neighborhoods, we're just becoming a neighborhood that's closer to downtown jobs. That's not a neighborhood I want to move into. If we wreck all of that for the sake of more people, we make a poor bargain indeed."

See the whole discussion about housing:

We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood. Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.

Development


Harriet Tregoning is leaving the DC Office of Planning

Harriet Tregoning, head of DC's Office of Planning, will step down from her post on February 23 to work for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, DCist reported.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Tregoning has been one of the region's leaders around smart growth. She pushed for helping the city grow and locating new housing, jobs, stores, and other amenities where people can easily get to them on foot, bike, and transit.

That she was ready to move on from DC is not much of a surprise. She had been planning director across two administrations, and there had been news reports she was on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's short list to head that city's planning department.

Tregoning made the most headlines for things like pushing to give DC more autonomy around the height limit, but her biggest influence for DC was more behind the scenes. As the mayor's representative on the federal National Capital Planning Commission, the regional Transportation Planning Board, and other bodies, she did a masterful job of working with officials who often don't have the center city's health at heart.

At one of the first NCPC meetings I ever attended, for instance, Tregoning was trying to convince members like Herbert Ames, a George W. Bush appointee who lived in South Carolina, as well as the representatives of the Department of Defense and other agencies, that it really was not a matter of the federal interest whether mechanical penthouses had to be set back from interior courtyards of buildings, a minor point of zoning where NCPC was considering overruling the city's Zoning Administrator.

Tregoning looked to the future, not the past

Tregoning is at her most comfortable when talking about the future, and in fact some described her as "DC's futurist-in-chief." She can cite statistics about the city's demographics, growth, and change to paint a vivid picture of where we are and where we might go. Rather than manage around conditions as they are today, Tregoning would envision where they would be tomorrow, or quoting the famous Wayne Gretzky adage in testimony, "skating to where the puck will be."

Under her leadership, the Office of Planning truly tried to anticipate our future growth and demand, and find ways to match plans and zoning to the city's actual needs. OP promoted aligning parking requirements with not the guesses of 1958 or even the patterns of today but how people will get around in a world of choices such as Zipcar, car2go, Capital Bikeshare, Uber, and more. It supported helping seniors to age in place and potentially repurpose large yet mostly empty single family houses to hold more residents of many generations, as they once did.

Patience meant success but also missed opportunities

Tregoning has an uncommon combination of drive and patience, which is necessary to be effective in government. Some people with a lot of good ideas run up against brick walls and grow frustrated (and, perhaps, even she eventually did.) Others simply content themselves with punching a clock and not rocking the boat, maybe trying to achieve a small amount from time to time but rarely sticking their necks out.

That patience sometimes meant that OP would not take on more difficult tasks. You wouldn't know it from some of the vitriol, but by and large, she worked with many of DC's most affluent and politically powerful neighborhoods to shape changes in a way that would avoid a big fight. When working on the Georgetown campus plan, for instance, OP acceded to many of the requests from neighborhood leaders, sometimes finding a win-win for all, sometimes to reach a suboptimal result like endorsing neighborhood demands to move all undergraduates onto the campus.

The Williams Administration, and former Planning Director Ellen McCarthy, had formulated a plan to make upper Wisconsin Avenue a thriving and walkable commercial corridor like many others around the city instead of a disjointed set of low-slung and dumpy buildings and parking lots. But the blowback from some neighbors was very strong, and many called for removing McCarthy for it.

Tregoning's OP mostly left Wisconsin Avenue alone and focused on areas where the city is going to change much more. That may have been politically wise, but it also meant that the need to house more residents fell disproportionately on changing neighborhoods while established ones got to erect barriers to new people coming in. Likewise, she didn't invest much effort into fixing weaknesses in the city's historic preservation system, which fulfills many important roles but also sometimes becomes a vehicle for lopping a floor off every building regardless of historic merit.

A one-two punch for smart growth in local government

Tregoning is stepping down around the same time as Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. The two are probably the region's greatest voices within government for smart growth. Others will have to step up, or regional decisions like plans from the Council of Governments' Transportation Planning Board could become a lot less forward-thinking.

The good news is that both Tregoning and Zimmerman are staying in DC while they work on national issues. This certainly means they will remain aware of local developments while at HUD and Smart Growth America (the nonprofit Tregoning's husband Geoff Anderson runs), respectively.

The Gray Administration will have big shoes to fill

Quite a few of Mayor Gray's most meaningful achievements involved Tregoning. Most notably, his ambitious Sustainable DC plan came from a multi-agency process Tregoning led. Without her, it seems very unlikely the District Department of Transportation would have committed to bold targets, like having 50% of trips by transit and 25% by walking and biking by 2032.

If Gray does not win the April 1 primary, then anyone he picks will be a caretaker and most likely very few high-level projects will get done at the Office of Planning. (Certainly the numerous good planners at the department will keep doing their jobs on the many important smaller initiatives, of course.) If Gray does win the renomination, even though he may face a general election fight, it would be reasonable to be thinking about a permanent replacement if he can attract one.

While Gray has hired some excellent people (mostly after his first year in office) and holds a good vision for the future of DC, his administration's record has been lackluster on bringing in dynamic agency heads from outside the city government. More often, he promoted deputies, some of whom were ready for the top job while others seemed lost without strong guidance.

On the other hand, the mayor corrected some early hiring mistakes in his own staff quite effectively. Would he ensure that the next planning director maintains DC's momentum instead of simply giving in to the inevitable opposition to every change?

Update: Tregoning will be Director of Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD. She said the job

deals with a lot of the issues I've been really passionate about in Washington: transportation and working clsoely with US DOT; sustainability; urban job creation. I'm getting more and more terrified about what's happening to middle wage jobs, with the income disparities. ... Cities have reflexively squeezed the labor out of transportation and municipal operations for decades without thinking about it, and we have to think about that.

We are having a great conversation about that here in DC around green infrastructure and the Green Rivers plan, or looking at some of the things we've touched on in Sustainable DC. Retrofit of buildings, urban agriculture, sustainable transportation and waste management are all things that could have huge implications for jobs and are things cities need to be investing in.

It sounds like a great fit for her most recent work in DC and her current interests. Best of luck!

Architecture


The door opens a crack for taller buildings in DC

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.


La Defense. Photo by Yu on Flickr.

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.


Is this flatness necessarily in the federal interest? Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

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 boringthe height limit's effect downtownis really in the federal interest, or why an avenue of mid-sized buildings that frames a monument looking tiny in the distance is better than framing the same monument with taller buildings, as many other world capitals do.

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.

Architecture


No, DC is not going to be like Paris

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.


Demolition near l'Opéra in Paris, 1877. Photo by Charles Marville

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.

Development


DC kicks off planning for Southwest's future

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?


Will Southwest see more development like this? Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

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.

OP will continue to seek feedback through community meetings, an interactive website, and the #SWDCPlan tag on Twitter.

Development


Montgomery nervous about density around Purple Line stops

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.


Rendering of the future Chevy Chase Lake from the Chevy Chase Land Company.

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

On Tuesday, the County Council voted 8-1 to pass the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan, but with much shorter buildings than county planners or developers wanted.


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 Flower Theatre at night. Photo by Chip Py on Flickr.

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.

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