Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Density

Transit


More households near transit mean more transit riders

Pop quiz! Can you name the 5 Metro stations that have the highest number of households within a half-mile walk?

Here's a hint: More riders walk to those 5 stations each morning than to just about any others in the system.

It's not a coincidence. According to WMATA's PlanItMetro blog, "the more people can walk to transit, the more people do walk to transitand data across Metrorail stations prove it."

But there's at least one surprise: 3 of the 5 stations with the most households in a half-mile walkshed are in Maryland or Virginia, not the District.


Households and walk ridership per Metro station. Image by WMATA.

Columbia Heights has by far the most households within walking distance. That makes sense. It's one of DC's densest neighborhoods, and the Metro station is right near its center.

But the second most household-rich Metro station is Arlington's Court House. Rounding out the top 5 are Ballston, Silver Spring, and Dupont Circle.

All 5 of the most household-rich stations are also among the top 10 stations with the most riders who walk to the station each morning. The rest of the top 10 walking stations are Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Bethesda.

More riders may be walking to jobs from the downtown stations, or from Rosslyn, but those are the destinations, where riders in the morning are getting off. The origin stations are the more residential ones.

All in all, Metro's stations fit neatly along a trendline that shows a strong correlation between more households nearby and more riders arriving to stations by foot.

Even the outliers tell a story. U Street and Mount Vernon Square have the 6th and 7th highest number of households nearby, but they underperform on walking Metro ridership. One might speculate that Mount Vernon Square is so close to so many offices that more people simply walk. U Street is a little farther away, but it's still close enough to downtown that buses and bicycles may be better options for a large portion of riders.

What else pops out as interesting?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Zoning


Should adding more housing be illegal even when neighbors support it?

If a property owner wants to divide a row house into multiple units, the neighbors agree, and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission does not object, should they be able to?


Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

The Office of Planning (OP)'s recent "anti-pop-up" zoning proposal would halt this practice, in an effort to keep row houses as one- or two-family homes and reduce the financial incentive to add on top and in back. But at two members of DC's Zoning Commission were not at all pleased with this proposal.

Commissioner Rob Miller said that the Board of Zoning Adjustment has been granting many variances recently to allow these multi-family conversions, but only whenand becausethe neighbors and ANC endorse the idea. In fact, he said, the BZA has been sometimes having to bend over backward to get such a request to meet the strict variance criteria. But, at least in his thinking, if this is something neighbors support, why shouldn't it be allowed?

OP's Jennifer Steingasser acknowledged that in the recent BZA cases, there has indeed been neighborhood support. Often that's because a property is vacant and crumbling, and neighbors are eager to see someone invest the considerable capital that might be necessary to overhaul it. Small developers have said that the economics only work out to do such substantial work if they can create more units.

Federal representative Michael Turnbull, who works for the Architect of the Capitol, doesn't believe that. He said, "I'm not really convinced by these marketing studies. For every marketing study that says one thing, you can get another marketing study that says, well no. ... So it's a little bit self-serving. I always look askance at these things."

But Miller does not agree. He said,

I think this proposal significantly constrains the ability of our existing housing stock ... and the existing zoning code to accommodate a growing population, including a growing proportion of smaller household sizes. We are very fortunate to have an existing housing stock that can partially accommodate this change and growth in our city. Cities are dynamic and we need to manage the change and make sure it doesn't change the residential character of a neighborhood, but I think we should do more to manage the change rather than just throw up additional roadblocks.
In response to much of the pushback OP has already received on its draft, Steingasser has developed some alternative approaches. One, which garnered some praise from the commission, would still allow converting row houses into apartments, but require that units beyond the first and second be below market rate units under DC's inclusionary zoning law.

This would permit more housing, but set some aside for people with lower incomes, perhaps ensuring that these neighborhoods remain mixed-income as they grow more dense. It would be helpful to know more about the economics of these conversions to ensure that property owners would still be able to afford them; otherwise, it's just a ban in another guise.

Miller also asked OP to add another option that would make multifamily conversions a "special exception" instead of a variance. In a special exception, impact on the neighborhood is the main test, rather than uniqueness financial need.

Where's the big picture?

Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that OP should be making any proposal as part of a larger housing strategy instead of as a one-off reaction to public pressure. "I just don't think we have a comprehensive housing policy in this city and I'm worried about all the unintended consequences of [this proposal]. I personally prefer the alternatives that you have [proposed]. I do believe we must have opportunities that are supported by an ANC and supported by a neighborhood to move ahead with higher density in an R-4 district."

In response to questions about the impact on housing supply, Steingasser repeatedly said that the rules didn't originate out of an analysis about housing; rather, they were an effort to respond to public outcry about pop-ups (including a sudden election-year interest in the issue from councilmember Jim Graham, who later lost his primary).

But this is exactly the problem. OP has now in several cases proposed new limits on zoning which, officials readily acknowledge, arose entirely in response to some requests by some neighbors. OP should certainly listen to neighbor concerns, but needs to also think about the big picture. Miller pointed out that they got feedback on many different issues, like fixing Inclusionary Zoning, and asked, why has OP reacted so quickly to this particular one right now?

Every change, especially one that affects the overall housing supply, has an impact beyond just the immediate neighbors and the people who have specifically met with Steingasser or testified at a hearing. The Office of Planning needs to have a broader idea of how much housing of different types DC has and how much it needs.

A policy that pushes more row houses to be family-sized housing and discourages small apartments in row houses could be a reasonable one, so long as DC also has a bigger plan for how to provide the smaller sized housing that other people want. As UrbanTurf recently discussed, many families would prefer a row house (we certainly did).

Maybe a comprehensive housing supply strategy will conclude that fewer row houses should turn into apartments while more apartments should go on other spots. But at the moment, there are no concrete numbers about the demand and likely supply. There are just handwaving statements about how more units will appear at places like McMillan (maybe not enough, and even fewer if opponents get their way) or that we need more family housing.

The Office of Planning is going to be doing more quantitative housing analysis as it prepares to revise the DC Comprehensive Plan. Steingasser also told the Zoning Commission that OP has more data on row houses and family-sized housing. While this proposal might be a piece of a puzzle, it would make far more sense to propose it as part of a fuller plan to ensure DC has the amount and sizes of housing it needs.

Zoning


Zoning update retreat on housing and parking gets a chilly reception from the DC Zoning Commision

DC's Office of Planning (OP) may have backed down on some key provisions of the DC zoning update, but some members of DC's Zoning Commission, which has the final say on zoning, voiced skepticism about the recent changes at a meeting last week.


Photo by Horia Varlan on Flickr.

A majority of commissioners may be prepared to reject several of OP's proposed amendments, including one that would have made it harder for homeowners to rent out a carriage house or garage and another that would have required more parking near high-frequency bus lines.

Before that happens, though, you get to spend yet another fun evening testifying before the Zoning Commission! That's because some of the commissioners "want to hear what the public thinks" about these changes. They will hold another hearing, likely in early September, to hear from people who happen to have the time and interest in spending a whole evening in a government hearing room.

New, stricter hearing rules for accessory apartments don't go over well

One of the zoning update's significant policy changes would allow more people to rent out space in their basements, garages, or elsewhere. Today, that's illegal in the low-density residential zones (R-1 and R-2) and lower-density row house zones (R-3) like Georgetown, In other row house areas like Capitol Hill (R-4), a rental unit can be in the main house but not in a garage or other external building.

OP has cut back the proposal several times to require a "special exception," where the homeowner has to go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a hearing, first for all accessory units in Georgetown and then for any newly-constructed external buildings.

Last month, bowing to what OP's Joel Lawson called "vociferous concern" from some residents, OP proposed also forcing a special exception hearing for any accessory apartment in any external building in the R-1 through R-3 zones. However, at the same time, planners also recommended allowing accessory apartments (by right inside the main building, by special exception outside) even for homes on lots that are smaller than the standard required lot size.


Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

Some members of the Zoning Commission also were not on board with this retreat. Rob Miller, one the five members of the commission, said:

This is at least the second or third compromise on this issue that would be being made. ... The need for affordable housingand any kind of housingin this city is so critical. ... And so I cannot support the additional compromise that's proposed here, that would require all accessory apartments in accessory bldgs to go through a special exception process that can be a very burdensome process for an individual homeowner. They will either do it illegally, as I guess is being done now, or the housing just won't be provided.
Commissioner Marcie Cohen agreed:
I think that we're at a point where, as a city, we are obligated to create more housing. We are in a crisis. Of course many of us do have our own homes but there are a lot of people coming into our city on a monthly basis. ... Accessory apartments provide an alternative of affordable units. Many of them. I'm very concerned about the need for affordable housing, and many cities around the country are looking at accessory apartments as addressing housing need.
Cohen also talked about the need for seniors, as they age, to potentially have caregivers come live with them, and may want that caregiver to have a separate apartment for greater independence. She said, "To subject them to any process other than the process of getting the proper building permits and the proper certificate of occupancyI think that's enough process for them to go thorough, as opposed to going to zoning for an exception."

She concluded, "We've already compromised once, and I think this is watering it down too much and it's bad public policy."

Lawson pointed out that another change OP made (at the commission's request), dropping the minimum lot size would more than double the number of properties which would be eligible. However, that lot size rule was something OP added between November 2012 and July 2013, making it another restriction that cut down on accessory apartments from the original proposal (and one I didn't even notice at the time). So OP would just be reversing that limit while adding another.

Lawson said that there were some neighborhood concerns that OP could perhaps address by adding some new and specific conditions to matter-of-right accessory apartments. Peter May, the representative on the commission from the National Park Service and one of two federally-appointed members, also sounded unenthusiastic about OP's new special exception rule and said that perhaps a mixture of the two options would be better.

May also questioned another accessory apartment rule that would not allow an accessory apartment where more than six people live in the main home and the accessory apartment combined. May said that many people (including himself) have families of five or more, and under these rules, a family of five could not rent a basement or garage to a couple. He suggested OP look at another rule, perhaps one that only limits the number of people in the smaller accessory unit.

Chairman Anthony Hood, however, prefers the special exception. He said, "Anytime you can get public input, and I think this is very critical, whether it's new or existing, it's very critical."

Commissioners frown on higher parking minimums near major bus lines and in the West End

OP's plans to reduce parking minimum requirements, especially near transit, have also gone through multiple rounds of cutbacks. A new base parking requirement in mixed-use and multifamily areas would be lower in some places than today; in addition, OP had been proposing to cut the requirement in half around Metro stations, streetcar lines, and WMATA priority bus corridors.

On top of that, OP was proposing a new Transportation Demand Management (TDM) rule saying that where buildings significantly exceeded the minimum, larger buildings would need to include things like more bike parking, trees, car sharing spaces, electric car charging stations, and more green roofs, walls, or space. Garages with 100 more spaces than required would have to add a Capital Bikeshare station.

Last month's change dropped the lower parking requirement around bus corridors and also increased the threshold where TDM kicks in to two times the minimum instead of 1.5 times as in the original proposal. Further, the zoning update specifies no parking minimum in downtown zones, but some people in the West End also asked to exempt their area from this rule. OP agreed.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

OP got negative feedback from zoning commissioners on all three counts.

Marcie Cohen said,

We must begin to recognize that there's just too much congestion and traffic in this city, and that we have to have a multimodal effort.

I don't want to take anybody's car away, but on the other hand, we can encourage people by improving service to use buses and other forms of transportation. ... We have to recognize that we are choking in this city or we will choke if we continue our behaviors. So I am not in favor of removing parking reductions. ...

It's sort of like the old adage that if you widen the roads you get more cars. If you provide parking you get more cars. We have to now bite the bullet and say we can't afford that any more, for health reasons. Cars are the second largest producers of carbon emissions after energy plants. So I really feel strongly about the vehicle parking.

Rob Miller agreed with Cohen. Hood, however, did not:
Anytime we reduce parkingI am not in agreemence with some of what I've heard about cars. We all choose a way of life, and we all need to do a balanced approach.

One of the things I've watched is [Rhode Island] Row. We had a developer come in and say, we have so much parking. The caveat to that is that they don't let you park in the first three rows, and nobody tells you that.

We do a disservice to the residents of the city when we squeeze them out of parking, when people have a problem finding parking. ... I've heard the developer, they stopped me in the street, and said you made us build too much parking. You have 3 rows cut off. I forget why they do that.

I thought at first that Hood might be meaning the Metro garage, but Dan Stessel of WMATA checked with the Metro parking officials, who said the first three rows in the Rhode Island Row private garage are reserved for retail users and short-term parking. *

May, who is likely the swing vote on this issue, didn't take a clear position on the bus route parking minimum, but he definitely opposed having a minimum for the West End. He also disputed OP's change in the TDM threshold from 1.5x to 2x. He said, "If you're going to go with that many more spaces than the minimum required, then you need to do things to encourage people not to use cars."

What's next?

The commission "set down" OP's amendments for a hearing. According to Sharon Schellin of the Office of Zoning, they haven't picked a date yet, but it will likely be in early September.

On the accessory apartment and parking issues, where at least some commissioners didn't agree with the amendment, it'll still go to the hearing, but the hearing notice will essentially advertise two options, to go with OP's change but also not to. That's a choice with any of the amendments, but the notice will make clear that the commission may indeed not be taking OP's recommendation on this point.

Even though many of you have slogged through many, many hearings over six years on this issue, it'll be important to show up yet again, as some commsisioners may make up their minds, at least in part, based on how loud the push is on each side.

* The original version of this article speculated that Hood was talking about reserved parking at the Metro garage. However, Metro parking staff don't think that is the case, and he was probably talking about the private garage. The post has been updated.

Zoning


DC planners want to limit row houses from becoming condos

In neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, people have been converting row houses to 3- and 4-unit condo buildings. Should zoning stop this practice? It would under a new proposal from the DC Office of Planning, but not all of DC's zoning commissioners were enthusiastic about the idea.


Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

This proposal would apply to the zones now designated R-4, including neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Trinidad, Bloomingdale, Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, and Park View. Today, it's legal to have two separate units in one of these row houses, but not more unless the lot is particularly large.

OP's proposal would take away the ability to have more than 2 units at all. It would also limit houses to 35 feet instead of 40 (though owners could go to 40 with a zoning hearing) and end the current policy allowing small "mezzanines" to not count as floors.

The Comprehensive Plan defines the R-4 zone as primarily single-family row houses (perhaps with basement apartments), not as apartment buildings. But in booming neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, OP planners say, developers have outbid individual families for houses with the expectation that they could get BZA exceptions to make the building into a multi-unit condo and add on to the top and back.


Color-coded map of residential zones (as of 2008). R-4 zones are in purple.

Zoning commissioners worry this may reduce housing

OP Associate Director Jennifer Steingasser presented this plan to the Zoning Commission, DC's part-federal, part-local board which has the final say on zoning, on June 9. Commissioner Marcie Cohen asked whether this change would reduce the amount of new housing that can get built in the city. She said,

A major concern that I have is the need for housing, and that's usually the need that's brought before us in the BZA cases. It's adding housing. And no one seems to appreciate density, yet we have the infrastructure in certain neighborhoods for density and I guess I'm in favor of taking advantage to provide the needed housing that we have in the city. How do we balance that?
Steingasser laid out the arguments, and said,
It's just a balance. We're trying to encourage housing, by all means, but we would rather it not be in the single family and at the expense of the historic row houses, that it be geared more towards these larger lots or into these higher-density, multifamily, commercial mixed-use areas.
Something of a debate ensued.
Chairman Anthony Hood: I'm glad to hear you say that, Ms. Steingasser ... While I understand the need, there are a lot of folks in this city who bought in their areas for a reason. ... Do we just throw everybody on top of them or do we kind of balance that out? ... While there is a need for housing, we have to be delicate with that because in this city who's been there a long time, they spent a lot of money in purchasing their homes which is their biggest investment, and they didn't buy into that.

Comissioner Rob Miller: That's why there are five members on this commission, because it is a changing city, it is a growing city, and where you tip the balancedoes two to three [units in a building] really change the character of a neighborhood? I don't think so. But maybe others do.

Steingasser: This is coupled with the new RF zones that we're proposing that do allow for more than 2 units. And where those get mapped will accommodate that. So it's not ensuring an amberification of all R-4, but allowing some areas to have more and some to have less.

However, Steingasser just walked back a very important proposal in the zoning update where homeowners in the R-4 zone, who can already have two units in their building, could put one of them in a carriage house without a zoning special exception. This will reduce the amount of housing that gets added in R-4 zones inside existing buildings.

At the moment, not clear if the neighborhoods that will take advantage of the new 3-unit and 4-unit zones will be R-4 (2-unit) zones, adding more potential housing, or R-5 (unlimited unit) zones, which would decrease potential housing.

In a blog post, unnamed OP planners added,

So, in a time when the demand for housing is great in DC, why would OP propose this? In addition to being inconsistent with the intent of the R-4 zone and sometimes the character of the neighborhood, this is having an impact on the diversity and the relative affordability of our family housing stock. ...

Buildings with one and two dwelling units represent approximately 38 percent of the District's housing stock, but only about 4 percent of the units in the housing pipeline over the next 15 years. Conversely, the District has a large supply of multi-family or mixed use zoned land and developments in the housing pipeline for multi-family housing that is appropriate to meet the demand of smaller households.

Few new multifamily buildings are being delivered with three or more bedrooms, unless they are part of housing planned to replace similarly-sized public housing units. Over the past three years, three-bedroom units have risen in price almost three times as fast as one-bedroom unitsa reflection of the limited supply, subsequent demand pressure, and rapidly escalating prices.

Families seeking to purchase relatively affordable homes are competing with developers who can pay more for a larger house than a family because they can profit by splitting up the building and selling smaller units. Ensuring that the R-4 zone remains a single-family rowhouse or flat zone can begin to address this pressure.

Despite appearances, this doesn't deal with pop-ups very well

OP is right that DC does need some family housing. It also needs single and couple housing. Encouraging family housing is a good idea, but like many zoning proposals from OP recently including the past few years of zoning update tweaks (and like DC's parking policy in recent years), it seems to be just layering customized rule on top of customized rule without a broader strategy.

This specific proposal doesn't even address many of the complaints people have. This is mainly being billed in the press as a move to stop pop-ups. The lower height will deter some of the worst pop-ups, but it isn't going to stop people from adding a third story onto a 2-story row house in a place like Trinidad and the biggest objection is usually that the pop-ups are cheaply made and ugly. A design review process may be better than a zoning limit. Nor will this do anything about many of the more infamous pop-ups, like the one on V Street, which is in an ARTS/C-2-B zone.

How about some actual planning?

Rather than slap on a patchwork of new rules that react to each neighborhood request, why can't the Office of Planning actually plan? Work with residents to figure out where the housing DC needs can go, and what's the best place for different size housing. Figure out where and what kind of family housing there could be, and then write rules to encourage that.

There's a good chance that existing row houses are a more ideal place for family-sized housing. A limit might make sense if, at the same time, the city has a strategy for adding the housing it needs in other ways. It doesn't have one now. There was also massive opposition to allow even targeted exceptions to the federal height limit. People are fighting development at McMillan, at Takoma, at the Big K site in Anacostia, and on my block, all saying that whatever is proposed is too big for whatever area it's in. There was a lot of opposition to allowing accessory apartments in single-family zones, even though that wouldn't change any buildings. And so forth.

Since the first zoning update proposals in 2008, Steingasser's division of OP has been largely reactive, responding to complaints and tweaking the zoning (just about always to make it more restrictive). The agency needs to start being proactive and engaging residents in a discussion about the best way to add the housing DC needs. It's got to be somewhere, and really a lot of somewheres.

Soon, DC will revisit its Comprehensive Plan, which is a good opportunity for this conversation. But it will only happen if OP actually plans for growth which DC's sustainability plan already calls for.

Development


12 maps show how American cities sprawl differently

Some big US cities are dense, while others are spread out. This affects the economy, quality of life, and the environment. Here's a way to visualize the residential density of the country's 12 largest regions and their varying levels of sprawl.


Images by the author.

Earlier this year, Smart Growth America released a report titled Measuring Sprawl 2014, finding that New York is the country's "most compact, connected large metro area," with an index score of 203.4, while Atlanta is the "most sprawling," with a score of 41.0.

But what does that gap really look like? The world's most iconic skyline on one extreme, contrasted with a highway full of motorists stranded overnight due to a snowstorm on the other? What about viewed through a wider angle lens, at a regional level? Next City recently published a series of GIFs illustrating regional sprawl over time, and this post tells a similar story from a different perspective.

The visualizations below show residential density (as one unit of height for every person per square mile), by census tract, for the nation's 12 statistical areas of at least 5 million inhabitants. The images show Combined Statistical Areas (CSAs) with the exception of Miami, which until recently was not part of a CSA. The regions are viewed from the same height and distance, but from different directions, most often from the south.

NYC

LA

CHI

DC

SF

BOS

PHI

DAL

MIA

HOU

ATL

DET

Note: One census tract, 307.2 in Chicago, was omitted from this visualization as its population density is off the charts. The tract essentially encompasses only the land on which these three high rises are located.

Cross-posted at R.U. Seriousing Me?

Development


The MIT solution to small-space living

One way to increase density in our cities is to make living units smaller. But this can present problems when you have to fit bathroom, kitchen, sleeping, and living areas in a small space. But a group at MIT has come up with an innovative solution:

The CityHome puts sleeping, bathing, cooking, and living facilities all in one cube that you use gestures to operate. The set up allows you to condense all these in one compact area, freeing up precious floor space in a small apartment.

History


Today's problems were visible decades ago, but zoning has blocked solutions ever since

No one could have foreseen that DC's zoning could push middle-class residents out of the District and force people to drive even to get milk, right? Actually, planners in 1970 warned of exactly of these dangers.

44 years ago, when Richard Nixon was president, the same consultants that noted outdated ideas at the root of DC's then-outdated zoning code foresaw other problems looming for the city.


Image from DDOT DC on Flickr.

The first Walter Washington admini­stration hired planning firm Barton-Aschman to examine the zoning code after the MLK assassination riots, urban renewal, the Metro, and freeway revolts. Planners greatly rethought their approaches after these seismic events.

Not all of Barton-Aschman's comments were negative, but they criticized the technocratic, autocentric attitude that underlay the 1958 zoning code. They found fault with the 1958 code's absolute separation of commercial and residential uses, which underlies the ban on corner stores.

They noted that the then-planned Metro system justified higher densities downtown and less reliance on automobiles. Finally, they anticipated that zoning restrictions made it hard to build enough housing for a growing city.

Barton-Aschman foresaw the problem with restricting housing supply

Studies for the 1958 code by its main author, a consultant named Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed large families and urban renewal instead of historic districts. The 1970 report says:

It is possible that zoning makes it difficult to develop new family-type housing units in the district, while also inhibiting the development of high-rise apartments which may be more attractive to single persons and families without children. ... If zoning helps deter population growth, is it contributing to an imbalanced society in the District?
They noted that these restrictions would push out the middle class, "leaving predominantly the rich and the poor of both races." They wrote that this is not a local fluke, but one that is recognizable nationwide:
The Douglas Commission has pointed out that existing codes and ordinances of major cities across the country deter the development of low-cost housing by private industry. Land is too expensive, parcels are to small, height and floor area ratios are too low, and density patterns are too restrictive to encourage modern, attractive, and livable low cost residential projects.
Aggressive downzoning, ostensibly to preserve urban character, exacerbated these problems during the 1980s. The report raised this concern, warning, "Local residents might stretch the zoning process to become exclusionary." The specter of explicit segregation was fresh in the public's memory, so they worried that the code might be abused to the same end.

Barton-Aschman realized that Metro changed everything

Barton-Aschman's 1970 report was blunt about how Metro would change the city:

Perhaps the metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
Lewis, meanwhile, saw his plan as an alternative to a mass transit system. At a public hearing on July 28th, 1956, he justified his plan:
Washington has, of course, a free choice as to which means of transportation it wishes to dominate the central city, ... no new transit system can possibly start operation for several years at the earliest, and it is therefore obvious that the [1958] zoning must be based on solid present trends and solid present fact.
Those trends? Declining transit ridership and the extensive network of highways that were soon to snake their way through Washington's neighborhoods.

In his published report, as well as the 20 public meetings held to discuss the plan, Lewis saw those highways as serving a second function, separating residential and commercial uses.

He saw the inner beltway as a great "dam" that would forever keep a shrunken downtown from bleeding into into residential neighborhoodsat least the ones that survived highway construction. Secondary arterials like Wisconsin Avenue in NW and Pennsylvania Avenue in SE would divide the city into residential cells, free of commerce.


Harold Lewis and NCPC imagined a Washington of nodes an neighborhoods.

Lewis tried to eradicate all corner stores

Lewis also saw corner stores as a blight, and proposed relocating all commercial activity to well-parked shopping centers, like the one in Spring Valley today. Residents could then drive down one of the major thoroughfares to the store.

Although Lewis had to introduce a Special Purpose (SP) mixed-use zone after the first round of comments, he still tried to force noncompliant uses like corner stores to close. The Zoning Advisory Commission decided that the enabling legislation didn't permit that. They agreed that separating uses was theoretically sound, but not politically feasible. Therefore, this attitude persists in the code's minutiae.


Recommended employment centers, from the Lewis report.

We don't know whether the authors at Barton-Aschmann would support the text of the proposed new zoning code as it was set down last September 9th. But we do know that they saw a lot wrong with the text we have now. We've known about those problems for decades; scouring the flawed assumptions and integrating the ad-hoc fixes is unavoidable to create a code for the 21st century.

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:

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