Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Density

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.

Development


It's now harder to add more housing near Adams Morgan

The Lanier Heights neighborhood has a mix of apartment buildings, row houses divided into multiple units, and single-family row houses. A group of residents want to to prohibit all but the last category, and their proposal took a significant step forward in December. But other neighbors have been mobilizing to stop it.


Photo by John Leszczynski on Flickr.

Lanier Heights is either in or just north of Adams Morgan, depending how you define neighborhood boundaries. It's the area behind the Adams Morgan Safeway, between Columbia Road and Mount Pleasant.

The area's zoning, R-5-B, makes it legal to put as many units in a building as the property owner would like. It's the same zoning as the rest of Greater Adams Morgan, most of Dupont Circle, and the blocks of Columbia Heights between 16th and 14th to the east.

But a spate of projects converting row houses into multi-unit buildings, often with additions, has stirred some residents to ask for the neighborhood to instead get the R-4 category, which applies to Mount Pleasant and the parts of Columbia Heights and Logan Circle east of 14th. R-4 only allows one or two units in most buildings.


Residential zoning in Lanier Heights (red oval) and surrounding areas. Blue is R-5-B, purple is R-4. Image by the author from DC zoning base map. Click for full version.

The request has been percolating since 2012, but the DC Zoning Commission recently "set down" the case for hearings. Under the commission's rules, this also meant that the stricter zoning came into effect immediately, at least temporarily, meaning the down-zoning has already happened on a provisional basis.

What are the arguments for and against the proposal?

Advocates for the change say that when a property owner converts a row house into a building with multiple units, they often add on top or in back of the house, cutting down on light to adjacent homes. The changes increase the demand for parking spaces, noise, and garbage.

Also, some proponents argue that the city needs family-sized housing, that most new larger buildings mainly comrprise studios and one- and two-bedroom units, and that row houses are a resource for larger housing that shouldn't be lost.


A rear addition to a row house on Lanier Place. Images from the rezoning application.

Other neighbors disagree. Unlike some recent zoning cases, there is an organized group opposing this change, called Neighbors Against Down-Zoning (and with the amusing acronym NADZ). Members of NADZ say they are themselves homeowners who want to protect property rights and want the ability to convert their own buildings one day, gaining financially and making it easier to remain in their houses as their needs for space decrease but financial needs, perhaps, increase.

A stricter zone doesn't fit all (or perhaps even most) existing buildings

A few things complicate the idea. For one, Lanier Heights is not entirely or predominantly row houses—there are a lot of apartment buildings there too. The neighbors applying for the zoning change have tried to draw the boundaries of the zone to exclude most of those, though this makes the rezoning apply to several small, discontinuous pieces of larger blocks—much smaller than almost all of DC's current zoning.


Image from the rezoning application.

Even so, the zone also wouldn't exclude every apartment building, according to the DC Office of Planning (OP)'s analysis of the zoning application, which doesn't take a position for or against the rezoning.

The current zone, R-5-B, also is more lenient than R-4 in many ways besides the number of units. Lots in R-5-B can be smaller or narrower than in R-4, while R-4 also requires a larger rear yard and (since a zoning change last year) limits the height of buildings more strictly. The OP report estimates that about 20-25% of the properties affected would exceed the maximum height under the R-4 rules. "Most," says the report, have sufficient area and width, while the report doesn't discuss the number with currently legal rear yards that would become illegal.

However, in another filing in the case, Ronald Baker of NADZ disputes that notion. He says that "Primarily due to issues of lot width, rear yard depth and building height, we believe that a majority of row houses do not conform to the standards of the new R-4 zone (even when only counting houses that have not been substantially altered from their original state)."

You can read the OP report, Baker's opposition, and other documents by going here and entering case number 15-09. The OP report is document #12 and Baker's rebuttal on this specific point is #13.

What will this do to overall housing supply?

A July 2014 article in the Washington City Paper summarized many of the concerns and arguments on this issue. Aaron Wiener wrote,

The appeal of the argument made by [proponents] is clear: Historic rowhouses are more attractive than converted apartment buildings, and no one wants a giant shadow cast on his or her backyard. The danger is what happens when this seductive logic is applied across the city. ...

The essence of the disagreement, for the sake of the city's wellbeing, is this: One side wants to preserve the character of Lanier Heights for its current residents; the other wants to make the neighborhood available to more people in the future. ... Greater density is needed in central neighborhood like Lanier Heights if we're to avoid taxing our roads and transit system with concentrated growth on the city's fringes.

The OP report references many provisions of DC's Comprehensive Plan. Many speak of the need to include more people: "By accommodating a larger number of jobs and residents, we can create the critical mass needed to support new services, sustain public transit, and improve regional environmental quality," (§217 7), and "Affordable renter- and owner-occupied housing production and preservation is central to the idea of growing more inclusively." (§ 218 3)

But at the same time, the plan also says things like, "In both residential and commercial settings, infill development must be sensitive to neighborhood context. High quality design standards should be required, the privacy of neighboring structures should be respected, and density and scale should reflect the desired character of the surrounding area." (§307 3)

Those who don't want to see much change in Lanier Heights could point to the many other R-4 neighborhoods, where new housing is much more difficult to add (and which OP made even more difficult with changes last year). Many neighborhoods have gotten an "opt-out" from adding new housing; should Lanier Heights too? But this opt-out has concentrated new housing in fewer new neighborhoods, and as more seek stricter protections, it will further constrain where DC can add the housing it needs.

Several people have said they are "not against development," like former ANC commissioner Elham Deborzorgi, who said "I'm all for higher density and I'm all for growth, but I'm not for growth in the wrong places, and I don't think row houses are the place for three, four, five units," according to and article in the Current, or resident Hilda Gore (document 15 in the case), who said "I am not opposed to growth" while supporting this downzoning.

But if not here, density and growth where? While there has been new housing in other parts of greater Adams Morgan, many other projects have also seen strident opposition, like at the Meridian Center on 16th Street. On the other hand, neighborhood commissioners favored new condos and retail in place of a gas station on Adams Mill Road in 2013.


2013 rendering of 1827 Adams Mill Road. Image from PGN Architects.

Are there alternatives?

Zoning is a very blunt instrument, as is clear from the debate over how a change from R-5-B to R-4 would render many existing buildings non-conforming. But right now, it's one of the few tools neighbors can even choose from. Another, a historic district, failed in 2008.

A down-zoning would simultaneously limit the number of people who can be in Lanier Heights, the sizes of buildings, and other types of changes property owners might want to make. But there may be ways to address some neighbor concerns without also slamming the door to new potential residents.

OP could pursue several avenues to identify even better policies than the down-zoning being discussed now or the broader R-4 change from last year. Some places to start might be:

Focus more on quality than density. One Comprehensive Plan provision quoted above calls for "high quality design standards," but neither R-5-B nor R-4 have anything to do with quality.

Wiener wrote,

In a sense, Lanier Heights' pop-ups are among the best examples of the right way to boost density. From the street, most range from nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive, at least compared with infamous pop-ups that have raised hackles in nearby neighborhoods, like the V Street NW middle finger or the Belmont Tower in Kalorama.
A change to R-4 would ban the most "nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive" additions as much as the most disruptive. Some of the testimony in the record in support of the change talks about shoddy construction that might not even comply with existing laws. There may be other ways to stop that besides a blanket ban.

Plan for the housing the area needs. The Comprehensive Plan simultaneously talks of adding housing while protecting neighborhood character. One way to square the two is to identify how much housing DC needs, divvy it up among parts of the city, and then lead more proactive efforts to figure out where it can go.

If the Adams Morgan ANC wants to support density in certain spots and limit in others, that's not outrageous. But the current case-by-case approach to zoning just looks at adding or removing allowable housing in one spot, not the larger need. A broader conversation could better balance neighbor desires with citywide interests.

Perhaps OP will think about these issues when it updates the Comprehensive Plan, a process that's slated to start this year. Meanwhile, the Zoning Commission will schedule hearings in the coming year on the specific zoning for Lanier Heights.

Correction: The original version of this article identified Elham Dehbozorgi as an ANC Commissioner, but she is no longer on the commission. Also, she asked that the article be adjusted to include more of her original quotation to provide more context; that has been added.

Development


Not building enough housing is morally equivalent to tearing down people's homes

According to the California housing champion who's suing communities that don't allow enough new development, not building needed density is morally equivalent to tearing down people's houses.


Photo by .Martin. on Flickr.

Sonja Trauss, founder of the SF Bay Area Renters' Federation sums up the housing problem affecting nearly every growing American city today:

"Most people would be very uncomfortable tearing down 315 houses. But they don't have a similar objection to never building them in the first place, even though I feel they're morally equivalent. Those people show up anyway. They get born anyway. They get a job in the area anyway. What do they do? They live in an overcrowded situation, they pay too much rent, they have a commute that's too long. Or maybe they outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."
Trauss hits the key points: The population is growing, and people have to live somewhere. If we refuse to allow them a place to live, that's just like tearing down someone's home.

Someone else is displaced

Trauss' last sentence is particularly important. It explains how the victims of inadequate housing often are not even part of the discussion. She says "Or maybe [home buyers] outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."

Here's how that works: One common argument among anti-development activists is that new development only benefits the wealthy people who can afford new homes. That's wrong. It's never the wealthy who are squeezed out by a lack of housing. Affluent people have options; they simply spend their money on the next best thing. Whenever there's not enough of anything to meet demand, it's the bottom of the market that ultimately loses out.

Stopping or reducing the density of any individual development doesn't stop displacement or gentrification. It merely moves it, forcing some other person to live with its consequences.

Every time anti-development activists in Dupont or Georgetown or Capitol Hill reduce the density of a construction project, they take away a less-affluent person's home East of the River, or in Maryland, or somewhere else. The wealthy person who would have lived in Capitol Hill instead moves to Kingman Park, the middle class person who would have lived in that Kingman Park home instead moves to Carver Langston, and the long-time renter in Carver Langston gets screwed.

As long as the population is growing, the only ultimate region-wide solution is to enact laws that allow enough development to accommodate demand.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


Dupont Circle leaders reject neighborhood benefits to tilt at windmills over development

A new church and housing will almost certainly rise where a church burned down 45 years ago. The church and developer worked with neighbors to cut down on the impact of both construction and the eventual new building, but the deal failed to win key neighborhood approval last week.


Photo by Michael Gray on Flickr.

The Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B) voted not to support a zoning variance for St. Thomas' Parish at the corner of 18th and Church Streets. St. Thomas burned down from arson in 1970, and since then, the Episcopal congregation has met in what used to be the fellowship hall next door, while the land the church was on has been a park.

After an earlier abortive attempt to build a low-scale new church which turned out to be unaffordable, the parish partnered with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church on part of the land and housing on the rest. (Disclosure: I live on this block.)

Many nearby residents have organized to fight the project, which led to a fairly incoherent resolution from the ANC, simultaneously admitting that a small amount of extra height, set back from the street, would not affect the perception of the building that much, but vociferously opposing the proposed height anyway.

The ANC lost that battle in the historic preservation process, as DC's Historic Preservation Review Board approved the building. The next step is a zoning variance, where the church and developer are seeking permission to fill up 86.7% of the lot instead of the normally allowable 80%. That hearing is Tuesday, December 15.

Meet the MOU

In the months leading up to the zoning hearing, CAS Riegler and church officials met with neighbors to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a contract which specified things like limits on construction hours, protocols to minimize dust and rats, and ongoing discussions between neighbors and the developer during the construction process. There were also some restrictions on amplified music on the residential building's roof deck and the hours when the church would rent its roof deck out for events.

I participated in the negotiating committee, and while nobody got everything they wanted, the MOU included some meaningful measures which would improve the quality of life for neighbors while also letting the church get a new building and adding new housing in this area right near a Metro station.

In exchange, St. Thomas and CAS Riegler wanted to gain ANC support for the zoning variance. The 6.7% extra lot coverage would almost surely be along the alley behind the building, meaning it wouldn't affect the public's interaction with this building, nor would it create or remove any meaningful "green space."

The ANC's Zoning, Preservation and Development Commitee chair, Daniel Warwick, led the MOU negotiating process, which spanned multiple long meetings. The newly-elected commissioner who represents the St. Thomas area, John Kupcinski, decided at the end of the negotiation process to not support the MOU, and on December 9, ANC 2B voted not to sign the MOU either.


Rendering of the proposed church building.

Are MOUs enforceable?

Complicating the situation was a last-minute legal opinion from Joshua Turner, an Assistant Attorney General in DC's Legal Counsel Division. Turner raised doubts about whether the ANC could be a party to such an agreement, since among other things, DC law does not allow ANCs to bring legal action.

This MOU was modeled on a similar one the Philips Collection, an art museum, signed 15 years ago, when it expanded in the district Warwick now represents. That MOU has functioned effectively, but Turner's emails to ANC 2B seemed to question the possibility of using this tool at all, or at least the ANC's role.

These questions over enforceability led at least two commissioners, Nicole Mann and Michael Upright, to change their minds and oppose the MOU at the ANC's vote.

There are residents who think developers shouldn't have to negotiate any concessions with neighbors at all, and on the flip side, there are also people, including some ANC commissioners, who don't want to accept any deals and want to just oppose any zoning relief requests outright.

But most pro-more-housing neighborhood leaders see MOUs as a good tool to build community support for development projects. They add needed housing, but also concentrate impacts on immediate neighbors. Good negotiations can mitigate those impacts without taking away opportunities for new housing.

From "height-itis" to "width-itis"

There's a good chance this project will win its variance—similar projects have many times. The DC Office of Planning supports the variance, as does the District Department of Transportation.

Even if it doesn't, something will get built which is marginally, if at all, different in terms of open space; the application packet says that the only alternative to the variance is to leave the parking ramp uncovered—not a big win for anyone. (Meanwhile, several people will be deprived of an opportunity to live in the Dupont neighborhood.)


Floor plans of the proposed building (top) and without the variance (bottom). Is there any neighbor benefit here?

Yet for many residents and at least some commissioners, it seemed from the debate, no amount of concessions around construction, noise, operations, etc. would suffice; many people simply wanted to continue taking a stand against the whole idea of a building of this size.

Most people who spoke against the variance didn't draw any distinction between the 80%-coverage version of the building and the 86.7%-coverage version; rather, they wanted to continue to battle over decisions that had been long since made in historic preservation about the building in the first place.

In July, I said the ANC had caught "height-itis" for its monomaniacal, and counterproductive, fixation on the height. Now, it's simply shifted to a fixation on the building's width.

Neighborhoods engage most successfully with development when they identify concrete elements they care about and advocate for those. To simply draw lines in the sand and refuse to budge from them, even when the conflict has moved far beyond that line, is ineffective and gives up the chance of actually helping neighbors.

It's like this amusing Improv Everywhere video, where an actor pretends to be Gandalf, impotently shouting "you shall not pass!" at tourists.

The consequences of the ANC's poor judgment in this case, unfortunately, will be that either the variance goes through and neighbors don't get what they asked for in the MOU, or the variance doesn't go through, a building still gets built, neighbors get little in return, and still don't get what they asked for.

Width-itis and height-itis can be crippling afflictions.

Development


This building is way too short

Along Florida Avenue between U Street and California, at the southern edge of Adams Morgan, there's a block-long strip of retail containing Pleasant Pops, Mint, and until recently, Hans Pedr' Kaffe. It's also missing something big: housing on top.


1781 Florida Avenue, NW. Photos by the author.

In a city full of mixed-use buildings, this one sticks out like a sore thumb. It's just too short. It looks like a suburban strip mall in its low, horizontal nature. And it's right in Adams Morgan, where there's plenty of demand (these days, anyway) for housing. It looks very out of place in DC.


Image from Google Maps.

This site used to house the Kilimanjaro nightclub and a parking garage. According to Cheryl Cort, who lives a few blocks away, violence in the late 1980s hastened its decline. the apartment building across the street was vacant for many years.

The zoning on this site is C-2-A, low-density commercial development, and is also part of the Reed-Cooke Overlay. That limits non-residential Floor-Area Ratio to 1.5, residential to 2.5, and height to 40 feet, if I'm reading the zoning correctly. But it's likely not even hitting those limits, since the sloping site means it's only one story high on some sides.


1781 Florida Avenue, NW. Photos by the author.

This is not in a historic district (it's just outside two districts). If it were, and someone proposed redeveloping this today with five stories of housing, it would probably evoke a usual chorus of objections that such a building would be "too tall." But it's not; a taller building would be more compatible with this area because existing buildings are more vertical in nature and new buildings are generally taller than this one. Arguably, this building is too short to be compatible.

But since this was already redeveloped recently, it's likely to stay as is for some time. That's a big missed opportunity.

What other buildings do you think are too short and/or represent missed opportunities for more housing?

Development


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The specter of different people raises alarm

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Development


This map shows which parts of the DC area are really "urban" and "suburban"

Where does "the city" start and end? Some might say it's the District line. But in reality, the lines between "city" and "suburb" are more unclear than you think.


"Urban" (blue) and "suburban" (green) parts of the DC area based on housing density. Map by the author. Click for a high-resolution version.

I got into an argument with someone at a happy hour a few years ago. Why? This dude said I lived in the suburbs, because Silver Spring was outside the District. Even if I was literally 1,000 feet from Eastern Avenue.

"But no," I protested, "Silver Spring is an urban place! We have tall buildings! We're a major transit hub! I walk everywhere!" He wouldn't relent, and a normal bar disagreement got way more heated than it needed to be. (Thankfully, nobody got hurt.)

Many people would say the same: DC is "the city," and everything else is "the suburbs." But as our region grows and changes, the lines between "city" and "suburb" can get kind of blurry.

"Urban" and "suburban" are about "what," not "where"

What makes a place "urban" or "suburban" isn't just whether it sits on one side of a municipal boundary or another. The distinction is about physical characteristics, like population density, the mix of uses, and how it's laid out. More often than not, urban places are older, built at a time when driving was less prevalent and places needed to support walking and transit use.

As a result there are places like Alexandria or Silver Spring that feel urban but happen to sit outside the District or even predate its founding. Meanwhile, there are parts of the District that were built more recently and feel very suburban, like Fort Lincoln in Northeast.

"It turns out that many cities' legal boundaries line up poorly with what local residents perceive as urban," wrote Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia, in a blog post a few months ago on FiveThirtyEight looking at how "suburban" some American cities are.

So how can you determine whether where the "urban" parts of a city or region really are? Kolko started by simply surveying people about whether they felt they lived in a rural, suburban, or urban place. He discovered that the housing density had a big impact on how residents saw where they lived.

Kolko found that at a density of 2,213 households per square mile, people started to say they lived in an urban place. That's about the density of Falls Church. Below 102 households per square mile, they reported living in a rural place. Taking a few other data points into account, Kolko mapped several American cities and found that what many considered "the city" was actually really suburban, and vice versa.

He didn't map the DC area, however. We don't have the complete model he used, but I was able to map the region's Census tracts based on household density.

Looking at the map, you can see a huge swath of blue in the District, representing areas with urban household densities. But that blue area hops across the Potomac River into Virginia, covering most of Arlington and Alexandria. It also extends into Maryland, encompassing Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Hyattsville.

Beyond that, there are urban "clusters" outside the Beltway, in places like Wheaton and Rockville in Maryland and Merrifield and Reston in Virginia. Many of them overlap with Chris Leinberger's map of "Walkable urban places" or WalkUPs. Meanwhile, the District has a fair share of "suburban" areas, like Palisades, Foxhall, and Crestwood in Northwest, Deanwood Kenilworth in Northeast, and Bellevue in Southwest.

Of course, this is just a map of housing density, which doesn't really say anything about urban form: places that aren't just dense, but have a street grid that makes it easy to walk and a mix of housing, shops, and other uses. Some of the urban places outside the District have those things. Others, like Fairland in eastern Montgomery County, have the population density but are really just dense suburbs, designed for driving and lots of it.

What else do you see in this map?

Support Us