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Not everyone agrees on where DC's Chinatown is

While DC's Chinatown officially spans roughly two square blocks in the city's central downtown area, a number of long-time residents have different ideas of the neighborhood's boundaries. This map shows how "Chinatown" means different things to different people.


The lines on the map represent 17 different definitions of where Chinatown begins and ends, along with DC's official boundaries. Map by Molly Carpenter, Pranita Rahbhise, Katy June-Friesen, and Dr. Willow Lung-Amam.

The map is part of a larger recent project by graduate students at the University of Maryland who wanted to better understand the rapid changes to the neighborhood and what they have meant for those in the Chinese American community with long term connections to it.

The researchers conducted 16 interviews with people who have long-term connections to Chinatown, either because they live there or are involved in the neighborhood through business and cultural organizations. They also interviewed eight people they met on the street or in restaurants or coffee shops. They asked those they spoke with to draw their own map of Chinatown and identify the places that were important to them.

While some identified Chinatown as a narrow strip of shops and restaurants along H Street, others saw the neighborhood as stretching from E Street to M Street. Meanwhile, others saw Chinatown as part of the larger Gallery Place or Penn Quarter neighborhoods.

Those more familiar with the neighborhood tended to see Chinatown as a shrinking span of restaurants along H Street NW, while newcomers or visitors tended to point to the Verizon Center and Gallery Place as the defining features of the neighborhood. And while many interviewed acknowledged that Chinatown has been shrinking, others recognized that the community has also spread out to the suburbs and is not dying.

Katy June-Friesen, one of the researchers, offered her take on why the people she interviewed had such varying definitions of Chinatown:

I think the way people understand the space, the neighborhood, depends on how they use and experience it. So for some elderly residents of Wah Luck House who speak little English, the neighborhood feels like it is shrinking, because there are fewer services and shops for them, such as a Chinese-speaking doctor or Chinese grocery store. Others (of Chinese background) who have long-term connections to Chinatown but don't live there may feel the place is more symbolic of history, culture, and traditions, but the boundaries or size of the neighborhood itself don't matter as much. A restaurant worker might think of Chinatown as just the strip of Chinese restaurants on H Street, while a non-Chinese newcomer to the area might not frequent those restaurants and might think of the neighborhood as "Gallery Place" or something other than "Chinatown."
Chinatown used to be in a different place, and it has seen a lot of change

First established in the 1880s at Pennsylvania Avenue and 5th Street NW, DC's first Chinatown was displaced in the 1930s by the Federal Triangle complex. As a result, Chinese immigrants began to settle in today's location.

In this new location, the community continued to grow through the mid-1960s, establishing schools, clubs, and other community organizations. However, by the mid-1960s, the population of the community began to decline, with many residents moving to the suburbs. Despite this decline, the population of Chinatown was 3,000 in 1970.

In subsequent years, the neighborhood has been the site of a number of revitalization efforts, including the construction of the Gallery Place Metro station and a new convention center (not to be confused with the current convention center), the establishment of a downtown historic zone, which includes Chinatown, as well as the later construction of the Verizon Center.

Recent years have seen changes to the neighborhood accelerate with the continued loss of Chinese residents and businesses. Much of this has been attributed to neighborhood affordability and buyout offers for local residents and business owners as part of a broader trend of redevelopment in the city.

Today, most of Chinatown's approximately 300 Chinese-American residents live in Wah Luck House and Museum Square, two subsidized housing complexes in the neighborhood.

Despite the diverse views of what constitutes Chinatown, all those interviewed expressed concern about keeping alive what the neighborhood means to them, namely Chinese culture and traditions.

Development


This building is very tall and very vacant

Our region's tallest building is in Rosslyn, and it has been vacant since the day it opened in 2013. That's because construction started during a time of economic prosperity but wrapped up during a downturn.


Image by Ron Cogswell on Flickr, with an editor's note.

The building at 1812 North Moore Street is 390 feet tallfor comparison, the Washington Monument is 555 feet.

You'd think that being right next to the Rosslyn Metro stop (which is also a bus hub) would make this 35-story building an ideal spot for all kinds of commercial tenants.

The problem is that from the time Monday Property and Goldman Sachs teamed up to develop the building in 2010, they never found a an organization to take on most of the lease, otherwise known as an "anchor tenant." It's ideal for commercial buildings to have anchor tenants before groundbreaking to guarantee a financial return on the building, and to help bring in other tenants.

The developers proceeded to build without an anchor tenant because at the time, our region's economy looked like it had successfully weathered the "great recession" thanks to stimulus funding and the reliability of government jobs. Monday and Goldman Sachs figured that even if a tenant wasn't lined up yet, they were sure to find one.

But the same year that 1812 North Moore got started, the region's job market started declining, which led to several large companies (Northup-Grumman, for example) and government agencies leaving Arlington. That included the federal government moving thousands of military jobs from Crystal City to the Mark Center, and eliminating others during sequestration. That created a glut in Arlington's office market that's taking a long time to fill.

Rosslyn's office vacancy rate tripled from 10 to more than 31 percent between 2011 and 2014, and 16 government defence agencies left Arlington County between 2005 and 2015. In 2015, the vacancy rate in Arlington was close to 21 percent, which was a historic high (DC never went above 12 percent).

What's keeping this building vacant? Here are a few reasons

Although the vast majority of office tenants these days want to be near Metro stations, downtown DC and Tysons Corner are competing much more strongly than they used to, making it harder for places like Rosslyn or Crystal City to fill office space. Downtown DC no longer suffers from negative image it had in the 1980s or 90s, and thanks to the Silver Line, Tysons Corner is in the game like never before.

(On a related note, buildings in Tysons will soon take the "tallest building in the region" crown.)

Also, eschewing the basic concept of supply and demand, the building's owners have not reduced their asking price for tenant leases, at least not as of late 2015

A final reason could be that though the economy has regained much of its steam from the 2008 downturn, the new economy is a lot different from the old one. More people are self-employed or work non-office jobs than before, and thanks to teleworking and increasingly paperless office environments, even large office-using employers fill less office space per worker than they used to. The farther you get from the DC core, the less demand there is for office space per capita in 2016 as there was just a few years ago.

Short of finding a tenant that wants to move in, 1812 North Moore will likely either need to cut its leasing price or sell to another investor.

Development


The peculiar fight over density at the Bethesda Metro

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


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

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

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

Clark has opposed building here before

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

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


Clark's first mailer.

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

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


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

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

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

Transit


Picture a rail yard, but with bike lanes and parks on top

A roof deck over a rail yard north of New York Avenue could create new space for bike lanes, a park, or more development in the area. The Virginia Railway Express, a commuter rail line that serves Virginia and DC, is looking at the possibility as part of a project to build a new place to store its trains.


Where the VRE's proposed storage tracks would go, north of New York Avenue. Amtrak's Ivy City Yard is the space wtih the grey/white building in the middle with tracks on both sides. Base image from Google Maps.

Currently, 16 VRE trains currently run north on the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines into DC each weekday morning, and 16 run back in the evening. While VRE train schedules are fairly limited and none run in off-peak directions or on weekends, VRE has long-term plans for expansion and is working on more bi-directional service at more stations.

For now, VRE leases space to store its trains in Amtrak's Ivy City Yard, which sits north of New York Avenue near 9th Street. But there isn't enough space for one of VRE's trains, so it runs to and from the agency's storage facility in Broad Run, Virginia, each day, which isn't cheap. Between that and the fact that Amtrak wants to use the space for something else anyway can start reducing VRE's storage space next year, VRE is looking for another way to house its trains in DC every day.

To find a new location for its trains, VRE evaluated 20 potential sites within 12 miles of DC, and decided that the best move would be to purchase or lease space just off of New York Avenue, east of the Amtrak lot (and just below Amtrak's Northeast Corridor tracks). In May, VRE released a Request for Proposal to find a builder for five new sets of tracks at that location.

New rails could bring bike lanes and space for development

As part of the project, VRE is looking at how to make the new rail yard fit into the surrounding area. Part of VRE's request instructs its consultant to examine what it would take to provide "improved rail transit access to the surrounding neighborhood."

VRE threw out a few possibilities that they might look at, including a possible new VRE and/or MARC rail station as well as walking and biking that connect the neighborhood to surrounding areas, including the NoMa Metrorail station.

The language in VRE's proposal is pretty broad and vague, but it does ask whoever takes the project on to look into building a deck over top of the tracks. That'd make room for additional development, trails, a possible rail infill station nearby, or park space. In Manhattan, development above a major rail yard is underway:


Construction at Manhattan's Hudson Yards, December 2012 through May 2016. Video from Hudson Yards New York.

It's possible this could help with realizing DC's 2005 Bike Master Plan, which calls for expanding the bike and pedestrian trail from 4th Street NE to further up New York Avenue near the Arboretum. With some collaboration between VRE and DC, a new decked-over rail yard could provide the space needed to get the ball rolling on the trail project and could be a win-win for everybody involved.


Cross-section of the VRE storage yard with existing and proposed ground lines. Image from VRE.

Train storage in Virginia doesn't currently work for VRE

CSX Transportation owns the Long Bridge which runs from Virginia to DC as part of the company's RF&P subdivision, running from DC down to Richmond, VA. Through an agreement signed with VRE, the passenger rail company has 38 slots for trains running over the bridge. VRE uses 32 of these slots daily for passenger trains to and from Fredericksburg and Manassas. Two more slots are used to deadhead the one train down to Broad Run, since there isn't storage space for it in DC. And the last four slots are borrowed by Virginia to run Amtrak service to Richmond/Norfolk and Lynchburg to DC.

The limit imposed by CSX is one of the main bottlenecks in VRE's network, and keeps the agency from running more trains through to and from DC during rush hours. This limitation by itself essentially would eliminate the option of storing VRE trains mid-day in Virginia without a renegotiated access contract giving VRE more slots.

Another possibility, though more long-term, would be to agree with MARC to have trains run-through and service each others' stops. The two agencies have talked about doing this for several years now, but there are still hurdles to overcome before that might be a possibility. The tracks at Union Station would make running-through trains only easily doable for the MARC Penn line, the two agencies use a mixture of high and low platforms, and the issue of not enough capacity over the Potomac remains true.

Development


A zoning change in Fairfax will allow more density

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Here's what opponents said

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoning fights in Fairfax aren't new

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Development


This new law would mean a better count of DC's vacant buildings

DC probably has a lot more vacant and blighted properties than its official count says, largely because of loophopes in the counting system. A bill before the DC Council is aiming to change that.


Residents proposed ideas for ways a long-vacant property could be put to better use. Photo by Myles Smith.

In February, Elissa Silverman introduced the Vacant Property Enforcement Amendment of 2016 to work in tandem with a similar piece of legislation she introduced in 2015. Both would shift the burden of proof from DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to the property owner, meaning it'd be on the owner to show that a buildint isn't vacant rather than on the city to show that it is.

This change would make building owners much more accountable, as well as strengthen DCRA's ability to enforce existing vacant and blighted properties laws.

First, a quick recap of the current situation

Under current law, properties determined that DCRA's Vacant and Blighted Enforcement Unit determines to be vacant are taxed at elevated tax rates of five percent of assessed value if vacant and 10 percent if the property is found to be blighted.

But the process for classifying a property as vacant or blighted and then maintaining the property's classification is onerous; District law states that the Mayor is the only person in the city who has the authority to list a building as blighted, and there are a number of loopholes in the law that allow negligent owners to avoid elevated tax rates.


A vacant building at 824 Kennedy Street NW. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Every six months, DCRA has to reassess the property and determine that it is still vacant and/or blighted. That means that when a building goes onto the list, chances are high that it will revert to the normal non-vacant, non-blighted tax rate even if the owner does nothing at all.

We estimate that there are as many as 5,000 vacant and blighted properties in the District, a number far too large for the small staff of DCRA's Vacant and Blighted Enforcement Unit to keep a handle on.

Silverman's bills do four things:

It reduces from three years to two years the maximum amount of time a vacant property can qualify for an exemption from higher taxes.

  • Currently, property owners can get exemptions from higher tax rates for up the three years by filing for work permits that cost a fraction of the potential tax penalty. In practice, these exemptions can last much longer than three years, as David Sheon and I have documented in a number of cases. There is no requirement that any actual work be done to earn the exemption.

This vacant building at 5112 9th Street has been vacant for three years, but it regularly falls off the list and its owner doesn't get taxed at a higher level consistently. Neighbors complain of loiterers and drug activity on the property.

It shifts the burden of biannual proof that the building is vacant or blighted from being the responsibility of DCRA inspectors and onto homeowners.

  • As the law stands, DCRA has to inspect every one of the 1300 properties on the list plus any new properties every six months. This bill shifts the burden off of DCRA and onto the owners of vacant properties by making them demonstrate with utility bills that the properties are no longer vacant.
It raises fines for failing to register vacant properties or allow DCRA to inspect them.
  • Accepting a fine is often easier and less expensive than registering a property as vacant. This bill reverses those incentives, making it easier for DCRA to maintain accurate lists with up to date information and to take enforcement actions when necessary.
It provides positive incentives by allowing an owner of a vacant property who follows the law and fills the vacancy within a year to receive a rebate of one year of vacant property taxes.
  • There is currently no mechanism for reimbursing owners of vacant and blighted properties who remediate blight and fill vacancies. This law will provide a strong incentive for owners to move quickly and do the right thing.

A vacant building at 615 Jefferson Street NW. Note the stop work order in the window.

The DC Council will take the next steps in July

The Council has scheduled hearings on the proposed legislation for July 14. Hopefully, we'll see the bill brought up for a vote following the hearings.

While this bill does not address all of the loopholes, it does fix the most obvious flaws. We are pleased to see this development, and urge Council to add the additional amendments needed to address the above listed issues.



Development


A big development in Woodley Park may spark DC's next housing battle

The Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park is set to get a major influx of new housing. Washington Post reporter Jonathan O'Connell pegs the project as the next big development battle in the District, and he's not sure the opposition will be justified.


Map of the proposed new building. Courtesy David M. Schwarz Architects/Gensler/Lemon Brooke.

Currently, the site at Woodley Park encompasses the Wardman Park hotel, the Woodley apartments and the hotel-condo Wardman Tower. But the DC Comprehensive Plan designates the entire site as high- or medium-density residential. That makes sense, given how close the site is to a Metro station.

Developer JBG has both short- and long-term plans for the site. In the next few years, it hopes to add an "eight-story, 120-unit multifamily building," according to the Washington Business Journal. The addition will include a large green space, and will sit between 2700 Woodley, an existing 212-unit apartment building, and the Wardman Tower.

The longer-term build out calls for replacing the hotel with almost 1300 new residential units, in four new buildings, with more than of 1200 parking spaces and 400 bicycle spaces.


The possible long-term buildout, including almost 1300 new residences. Map of the proposed new building. Courtesy David M. Schwarz Architects/Gensler/Lemon Brooke.

At build-out, the new buildings will have fewer units in them than the Wardman Park Hotel does today, and the big conventions and meetings will go away.

And yet, tensions over development are so high in DC that, Jonathan O'Connell, the Post's main development reporter, tweeted his expectation that this project will spur Woodley Park to become the next in a line of DC neighborhoods to oppose new housing.

Hostility to new housing has becoming increasingly common in the District. Vocal Lanier Heights residents recently won downzoning of that nearby neighborhood. In Northeast DC, Brookland is another front in the so-called "development wars."

"If everything were to go absolutely perfectly," said JBG's Robert Vaughan to the Washington Business Journal, the PUD would be approved by the second quarter of 2017, with groundbreaking to follow in the first quarter of 2018 and delivery by early 2020.

But with a project of this magnitude, even during an affordability crisis, that hardly seems likely.

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