Posts about Development
Prince George's County has struggled to attract new development, especially around its Metro stations, but it also lacks a defined center. Over 300 residents and constituents gathered for a town hall meeting at the University of Maryland last Saturday to discuss potential locations for the county's future "downtown."
The forum was the latest in a series of outreach efforts by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) as part of Plan Prince George's 2035, an effort to update the county's General Plan, last updated in 2002.
Over the past 6 months, county planners have worked with residents, business owners, developers and state and municipal officials to craft a vision for the county's future. They've concluded that the county's approach to development needs to change: instead of sprawling farther out, it must focus on a few select areas that have the transit and economic strength to draw private investment.
The problem: the county can't simultaneously develop 27 centers
One issue is that the current vision is too broad. The 2002 General Plan designates 27 growth centers. 15 are at each of the county's Metro stations, and another 3 are at the Bowie, Seabrook and Riverdale MARC stations. 9 other centers are far from existing or planned rail transit, in places like National Harbor, Konterra and Westphalia.
This isn't serving the county well, says M-NCPPC planner-coordinator Sonja Ewing. Virtually all of the centers remain undeveloped, and none have reached their housing and employment density targets.
Each center fits into one of 3 vague categories, "Metropolitan," "Regional," and "Community," but those often lead to competing and disjointed planning efforts. This time around, M-NCPPC proposes to adopt a more descriptive system with 8 categories. Each one comes with its own particular desired land use mix, desired types of housing, height limits, maximum floor-area ratios, and density limits.
M-NCPPC will also designate 2 or 3 of the "urban center" locations as "Priority Improvement Districts" (PIDs), where the county would provide marketing, infrastructure investments and financial incentives to encourage private development.
Planners pick 3 "high performers" and 3 "game changers"
After analyzing and scoring all 27 areas, Planners chose 6 potential downtown sites, all of which are at Metro stations. They say 3 of them, Prince George's Plaza, College Park, and New Carrollton, are "high performers" best poised for the PID designation because of the existing level of activity there.
The other 3, which they dubbed "game changers," need an additional push to make them viable downtowns. These sites are Greenbelt, which could be the FBI's future home, Largo Town Center, where the county wants to see a regional medical center, and Branch Avenue, where WMATA has expressed interest in a public-private partnership to build around the station.
The audience appeared to favor College Park as the best "high performer" due to the presence of the University of Maryland. There was also clear consensus that New Carrollton made sense as a downtown since it is already a major regional multimodal transportation hub. Largo Town Center was the most-favored "game changer" location.
I left the town hall meeting with several questions, which I hope can receive some attention as we move through the Plan Prince George's 2035 process. In the next part, I'll look at those questions.
Development at Fort Totten has been slow despite access to 3 Metro lines, its close proximity to both downtown DC and Silver Spring, its access to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, its green space and its affordability. But as demand increases for housing in the District, this previously-overlooked neighborhood could become a hot spot.
Last Saturday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth concluded their spring walking tour series with "Fort Totten: More than a Transfer Point," a look at future residential, retail and commercial development near the Fort Totten Metro station. Residents and visitors joined representatives from WMATA, DDOT and the Office of Planning on a tour of the area bounded by South Dakota Avenue, Riggs Road, and First Place NE.
Today, vacant properties and industrial sites surround the station and form a barrier between it and the surrounding area. Redeveloping them could improve connections to the Metro and make Fort Totten a more vibrant community.
There is a significant amount of new residential, retail and commercial development planned within walking distance of the Metro station. But Saturday's tour began with the only completed project, The Aventine at Fort Totten. Built by Clark Realty Group in 2007, the 3-building, garden-style apartment complex consists of over 300 rental units as well as ground-floor retail space.
The Aventine at Fort Totten, the newest apartment complex in Fort Totten. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Visitors were ambivalent about the success of the Aventine due to its small amount of retail space and lack of connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods. While residents noted that it created more options to live close to Metro, representatives of the Lamond Riggs and North Michigan Park civic associations agreed the development differed from the original vision for the project.
They called it an example of the need to continually engage real estate developers and local government agencies to ensure that new development is of a high quality and responsive to the local context. Throughout the tour, residents said that future development proposals should adhere to DC's urban design guidelines, improve pedestrian access and have a plan to mitigate parking concerns.
Between South Dakota Avenue and the Metro station, the Cafritz Foundation will redevelop the old Riggs Plaza apartments to build ArtPlace at Fort Totten. When finished, the 16-acre project will contain 305,000 square feet of retail, 929 apartments, and 217,000 square feet of cultural and art spaces, including a children's museum. Deborah Crain, neighborhood planning coordinator for Ward 5, noted that ArtPlace will include rental units set aside for seniors and displaced Riggs Plaza residents.
As one of the largest landowners near the Fort Totten Station, WMATA has a huge stake in future development around the station. They own approximately 3 acres of land immediately west of the station along First Place NE that is currently used as surface parking lot for commuters. Stan Wall, Director of Real Estate at WMATA, discussed the great potential for development on the current parking lot mentioned that the agency will solicit proposals for development of the area in the near future.
Anna Chamberlain, a DDOT transportation planner, talked about how streetscape improvements could calm traffic, making streets around the Metro station more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. DDOT is also working to improve connections to the Metro, as some areas lack clearly defined walking paths. The agency will begin designing a path connecting the Metro to the Metropolitan Branch Trail within the next few months.
The final stop on the tour was Fort Totten Square, a joint effort by the JBG Companies and Lowe Enterprises to build 350 apartments above a Walmart and structured parking at South Dakota Avenue and Riggs Road. DDOT has completely rebuilt the adjacent intersection to make it safer for pedestrians and more suitable for an urban environment, replacing freeway-style ramps with sidewalks, benches, crosswalks and improved lighting.
Jaimie Weinbaum, development manager at JBG, says they're committed to working with the city and residents to make Fort Totten Square an asset to the community. They've promised to place Capital Bikeshare stations there and would like to have dedicated space for Car2go as well.
With help from the private sector and public agencies like DDOT and WMATA, Fort Totten could become a model for transit-oriented development, but much of the new construction won't happen for a long time. Until then, residents eagerly await the changes and continue to work with other stakeholders toward creating a vision that will benefit everyone.
Outside of Tysons Corner, Vienna MetroWest is Fairfax County's greatest experiment yet in transit-oriented development. But now it appears developers have scaled back, and may build car-oriented retail instead.
With construction of the residential sections underway, the town center seemed close to finally, finally happening. But now that it's time to actually start leasing spaces, the town center development plan looks a lot different.
Instead of dense, walkable midrises, the are single-story retail buildings surrounded by surface parking lots. Instead of an urban town center, it's a glorified strip mall.
What happened? One can speculate. A recession hit, competing developments at nearby Dunn Loring Metro opened first, and the market changed.
Developers do often build single-story retail as a "temporary" placeholder until they're ready for more intense uses. That was the idea behind the Kentlands town center in Gaithersburg, which is now redeveloping parcel by parcel. But "temporary" in this case can mean 20 years.
For people who bought homes at MetroWest based on the promise of a strong town center nearby, the potential of something better years in the future is little consolation.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
At a recent public hearing, neighbors of McMillan Sand Filtration Site renewed calls to make it a park. But the only way that can happen is by developing part of it as a neighborhood, and it's up to the DC Council to make it happen.
Residents filled a June 6 public hearing held by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to oppose plans to sell the derelict 25-acre site to Vision McMillan Partners, who will build homes, shops, offices and a park there. But others, including Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth say it's the best way to bring McMillan back to life.
It would be prohibitively expensive just to make McMillan a park. Since the underground cells are made of unreinforced concrete, they would have to be demolished and rebuilt just to make them safe to enter. Allowing some private development will give the neighborhood new amenities while paying to keep the best of what's already there.
Plan preserves historic structures while creating new park
VMP's plan preserves all 24 of the plant's above-ground structures, including the vine-covered sand silos visible from North Capitol Street, along with 2 of the below-ground filtration cells. 2/3 of the site will remain open space, while the southern third will become an 8-acre public park with a pool, recreation center, and a community center with meeting rooms and an art gallery. VMP promises that this will be "one of the largest and best-designed public park spaces in the District."
The historic buildings will become part of a new neighborhood with
about 800 585 apartments and townhouses, half 10% of which will be set aside for families making between 50 and 80% of the area's median income. There will also be street-level, neighborhood-serving retail anchored by a 50,000-square-foot, full-service grocery store. Along Michigan Avenue, there will be taller office buildings with a medical focus, taking advantage of proximity to Washington Hospital Center across the street.
To make this happen, however, the DC Council must decide this fall whether to declare the land as surplus and "dispose" of it. They can do this either by selling it to VMP or granting it as-is to VMP under existing zoning, which wouldn't allow major redevelopment to occur. They could also divide the property and sell off the parts to different owners and under different zoning. They can do all of this in a single set of hearings and votes, and they should to ensure that this process happens as quickly and fairly as possible.
Throughout the summer and fall, the council will hold separate public hearings on whether to surplus McMillan and the details of VMP's plan. Meanwhile, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board is reviewing VMP's plan to redevelop the site with housing, shops, offices and an 8-acre park and will hold hearings about it this month and in September. They've already offered comments about the proposal and will make their recommendations before the end of the year.
Plan will improve stormwater collection, traffic
Groups like Friends of McMillan Park and the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club argued that McMillan is already a public space and should become a public park. However, one DMPED official I spoke to after the hearing said that the city can't afford to do the work necessary to make the site safe for public occupancy. If the District retains ownership, the site would most likely remain decrepit and fenced off indefinitely.
Opponents maintain that the site's underground cells are needed to retain stormwater, mitigating the effects of frequent floods in Bloomingdale, which is downstream from McMillan. But DC Water already plans to replace two of the cells with water storage tanks, which will remain after redevelopment. Meanwhile, VMP has also promised to incorporate stormwater retention and buffers into the buildings and landscaping on the site, reducing stormwater runoff.
Another top complaint was traffic. Residents feel that the neighborhood's roads are already quite congested, especially at rush hour, and could not handle the extra trips generated by a major office, retail and residential center on the McMillan site. There is no question that the Washington Hospital Center, the city's largest non-government employer, needs better public transportation service, as it is not located near a Metro station.
VMP plans to build a bus turnaround for shuttles between McMillan and the Brookland Metrorail station, which would operate until a planned streetcar line along Michigan Avenue is built. Moreover, North Capitol Street has been designated a Bus Priority Corridor, meaning that the city intends to make changes to the street design and traffic flows to permit faster and more frequent bus service. The development would also open new through streets across the McMillan site, improving traffic flow and connections within the larger neighborhood.
Ward 5 needs parks, but it needs housing too
Some opponents say that new development should happen elsewhere in Ward 5, like on vacant and abandoned lots along North Capitol Street or Rhode Island Avenue. While not enough resources have been dedicated to encouraging more infill development, there's no reason why that can't happen in combination with the redevelopment of McMillan.
It is true that Ward 5 needs more and higher-quality parks, recreation facilities, and community centers. But the surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole are growing and are need more affordable housing, as well as more diverse shopping and entertainment opportunities within walking or biking distance or a short transit ride.
VMP's current plan reflects the input of community members gathered over the course of several design charrettes that were open to the public. It satisfies the need for several types of amenities in this part of the city in a balanced way. It combines buildings that are in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods with a large park, and preserves some of the historic filtration cells and all of the silos and brick regulator houses.
We have an opportunity to transform a decrepit former public works site that has been fenced off for over 70 years into a citywide destination: a vibrant and attractive new place to live, work, shop and play that serves many of the needs of residents in this part of DC while incorporating many reminders of its unique history. The Council shouldn't waste any time taking advantage of it, as an opportunity like this won't come again soon.
If you'd like to tell DMPED and the Council to surplus McMillan and allow VMP's plan to happen, you can contact them here. Comments must be received by June 20.
Prince George's County wants to encourage growth in the right places by speeding up the approval process for transit-oriented development. The county council unanimously passed a bill last week that just might do it.
Developers have often said they don't want to do business in Prince George's because of its lengthy and unpredictable development review process. Bill CB 20 creates a fast-track development review process for projects within ½ mile of the county's 15 Metro stations and the Bowie MARC station.
Projects are eligible for the speedier process if the Planning Board finds they meet best practices for urban design, like mixing housing with retail and making engaging streetscapes.
The bill aims to increase transit ridership, reduce auto dependency, and encourage walking for more trips. It's one of several recommendations county planners say could draw more investment to the county's Metro station areas.
Concerned about attracting unwanted commercial uses, the bill contains a long list of uses that are not eligible for the expedited review, including adult entertainment, liquor stores, pawn shops, strip malls, and drive-throughs.
An earlier version of the bill would have eliminated most requirements for public meetings or site plan review. This could have potentially rushed low-quality projects to approval without giving the Planning Board and the public enough time to review proposed projects.
Not surprisingly, many people opposed it, and the County Council tabled the bill last year before putting together a roundtable to discuss ways to improve incentives for transit-oriented development. The current bill combines 2 overlapping versions councilmembers Eric Olson and Mel Franklin submitted earlier this year.
The bill's most important feature is streamlining the review process. It prevents the County Council from arbitrarily dragging out the process, a power they've abused in the past that creates uncertainty and discourages developers from working in the county. Developers say that the unpredictability of approvals in Prince George's County often makes it not worth the time and money spent there.
While the current bill shortens the review process, it still gives the Planning Board and members of the public enough time to offer feedback. If the Planning Board approves a proposal, the County Council has a few days to decide whether or not to review it as well. Project applicants or residents can also use this time to appeal the board's decision.
Bill CB 20 is just one of many actions Prince George's County has taken to encourage investment at Metro stations. Recently, county officials have also reduced the impact fees developers pay to support schools and public safety. Economic analysts say excessive fees discourage investment altogether, meaning the county won't even receive the fees it seeks to collect.
Another element of ensuring development goes at Prince George's Metro stations is having a good countywide plan. There is a town meeting this Saturday, 10 am-1 pm at the University of Maryland, to work on a plan for the county's growth over the next 20+ years. You can help push for a plan that works in concert with this legislation to encourage TOD at Metro station sites.
Arlington's Bluemont neighborhood fought plans to rebuild the local Safeway and add apartments. Now that the project's stalled, a new group called Bluemont Forward wants to change the debate over growth.
In April, the Bluemont Civic Association voted to oppose a proposal from Safeway and developer Silverwood Companies to replace the 1960's-era store on Wilson Boulevard just west of Ballston with a new supermarket and 160 apartments. They claimed that the building would harm the area's quality of life and left no room for compromise.
Now, neighborhood leaders say Silverwood has quietly backed out of the project. As a result, Safeway could continue to pursue plans for the site, or it could simply close the store and leave Bluemont without its only grocery store. Silverwood won't comment on the record, but it's possible that BCA's hard-line stance was a factor in the decision to pull out.
Bluemont Forward touts the benefits of progress
Residents formed Bluemont Forward around a common vision of remaking their stretch of Wilson Boulevard as a walkable, vibrant place. Their website invokes tradition and history, inviting people to "rediscover the benefits of rationally scaled, neighborhood-oriented, mixed-use commercial areas." The group's supporters include former BCA presidents from the past 20 years.
While recent BCA meetings suggest the neighborhood is a hotbed of hostility to change, Bluemont Forward demonstrates that neighbors holds a variety of views. Many welcome progress and are ready to embrace the benefits of new development. Group members push for a pragmatic, collaborative approach that would serve the neighborhood well in future discussions.
"Arlington County, the developers, the Safeway, can come together for the common good," says Bluemont Forward spokesperson Chitra Kumar. "The Safeway is really a centerpiece of the community. Right now it's mostly a parking lot, and the community would like to see it redeveloped. We have talked to our neighbors and we know there's a sense of wanting to see some change, especially in that site."
Kumar says a new Safeway could bring about many positive changes. "If you have more foot traffic in that area, potentially have street improvements, a lot of positive things could come," she says. "We want to see that happen in a reasonable way."
Opponents' fears are overblown
Research shows that we have what psychologists like Dan Gilbert call an "impact bias." In the context of neighborhood development, author Edward Glaeser explains it best: "people…significantly over-estimate the impact that a negative shock will have on their happiness. The enemies of a new high-rise may think that the tower will make them miserable, but in reality, they will quickly adapt to the new situation."
The existing store on Wilson Boulevard, seen from west (left) and east (right).
Photos by the author.
Roger Lewis, an architect and frequent guest on WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show, offered similar thoughts to radio listeners in February. On the subject of "people worrying about everything from parking to density and property values, et cetera," Mr. Lewis said, "I think a lot of the fears are unjustified. A lot of the anxieties at least that I've heard voiced…are bogus. I don't think they're justifiable."
Neighbors who voted against the change may have legitimate concerns, but in time they'll become accustomed to it. "We do think people will get used to seeing it, especially if they see the benefits they get out of it," says Kumar. "There can be a lot of them: a walkable, biking-friendly Wilson Boulevard village center that they can walk their families to."
However, the difference between the BCA and Bluemont Forward is about more than tone or attitude. BCA has taken a hard-line position against any development whether or not the existing Safeway is economically viable. They unequivocally oppose rezoning the Safeway site, saying they want no additional density there.
Meanwhile, Bluemont Forward's vision for the Safeway site is arguably moderate: not too restrictive but not too big, either. They worry that 160 apartments may be too dense, but are open to changing the current zoning. "To encourage a service-rich neighborhood center," says their website, "we agree that a redeveloped Safeway site that offers public amenities should be allowed a level of density greater than the currently allowed density, which is amenable primarily to one-story strip-mall type development."
No one actually wants to lose Safeway
Surveys of Bluemont residents show that everyone wants to have a grocery store in their neighborhood. But with the redevelopment plans in doubt, so is the future. The worst-case scenario is that Safeway may decide it's easier to sell the property than to maintain an outdated store. The new owner may then build a big car wash or another auto-oriented facility, which are allowed under current zoning.
Former BCA president and former Arlington Planning Commission member Gerry Procanick confirms the possibility that Bluemont could lose the Safeway: "The analysis we did a number of years ago showed that the current zoning would not support any viable by-right upgrade to the property," he says. "Without significant re-development the site will remain mostly asphalt, or default to some sort of townhouse project. For those of us who plan to stay and have seen what other neighborhoods have done with similar properties, there is no doubt that our neighborhood can do better."
Development opponents say that this argument plays on people's fears. But by warning that a new Safeway and housing could produce more traffic, parking problems, noises, smells, threats to safety, and school overcrowding, they're doing the same thing.
Bluemont certainly can do better than the current Safeway. If Bluemont Forward is any indication, the neighborhood can also do a better job of working with Safeway than its civic association has in recent months.
The 1994 Clarksburg Master Plan envisioned a "transit- and pedestrian-oriented community" in upper Montgomery County with comprehensive transit service, a bustling town center, and phased development to protect the environment. 20 years later, many residents feel the promises have been broken.
Instead, Clarksburg has little transit, no town center, and children who are bused across the street to school. Residents have formed a new organization, the Liveable Clarksburg Coalition, to influence the process for the final stage of development, which they call "our last chance to get it right." Their first meeting on May 26 drew a standing-room only crowd of 250 people.
The Liveable Clarksburg Coalition wants to halt further development until the plan's promises are fulfilled. And they warn against any development that might put pristine, environmentally-sensitive Ten Mile Creek at risk.
A town without a center, TOD without the T
The Master Plan called for 4 stages of development. Property owners in some areas could not build until adequate sewer infrastructure, some roads, and parts of the town center were in place. Meanwhile, safeguards tried to protect the health of Ten Mile Creek, called the county's "last, best creek."
Map of Clarksburg showing each of the 4 stages along with existing and proposed transit. Click on the image to see an interactive map.
The first stage was Clarksburg Town Center, which broke ground in 2000. Stage 2, including the Clarksburg Village and Arora Hills developments, started around 2003. And work began on the third stage, Cabin Branch, last year. The continuing construction suggests that development has gone smoothly. But actually, the opposite is true.
In 2004, residents discovered hundreds of site plan violations, a scandal that led to the resignation of the Planning Board chairman. The town center that was supposed to come first never got built; instead of stores, a supermarket, and a library, there are 17 acres of vacant land.
For Clarksburg to get its first supermarket, set to open in Clarksburg Village this year, the County Council had to pass a limited amendment waiving the master plan's requirement that commercial development happen in the town center first.
Meanwhile, the promised "comprehensive transit system" has turned out to mean 2 Ride On routes: the 75, which runs every 30 minutes on weekdays between the Germantown Transit Center and the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, and the 79, which runs non-express every 30 minutes during rush hour between Clarksburg and Shady Grove.
The Corridor Cities Transitway was supposed to stop in Clarksburg at Comsat, 2 miles south of Town Center and across I-270 from Cabin Branch. Now, the Maryland Transit Administration plans for the still-unfunded line to end at Metropolitan Grove in Gaithersburg, 9 miles south.
And as for pedestrian-friendly roads: children in the Gateway Commons neighborhood take the bus to a school across the street because it's unsafe for them to cross on foot. There will be a crosswalk and traffic signal after a bypass of Route 355 is built, as the master plan calls for. However, the bypass would go through the school.
Plan requires more evaluation before developing around Ten Mile Creek
The fourth and final stage of Clarksburg development is on the east side of Ten Mile Creek. Because the creek is environmentally sensitive, the master plan requires the County Council to evaluate its water quality before Stage 4 can begin.
If the water quality is worse, they must decide whether to require property owners in Stage 4 to take extra measures to improve the creek, study the water quality further, make changes to Stage 4 to prevent additional deterioration, or just let Stage 4 go forward anyway. In 2009, the Department of Environmental Protection completed the required evaluation and found that construction in Town Center had degraded the water quality in the Ten Mile Creek watershed.
The Planning Board recommended that the County Council amend the master plan to change Stage 4. Instead, the council appointed a water quality working group to study whether planned development could occur without harming the watershed.
The working group's recommendations split along predictable lines. Consultants felt that development could continue without problems thanks to more stringent requirements for stormwater management and sediment control.
However, the majority of the group, including county government staff, a Clarksburg resident, and a member of an environmental group, felt that the planned development could not happen without harming the Ten Mile Creek watershed. They cited studies that show urbanization at any level degrades water quality, as well as the way construction at Town Center had already degraded one Ten Mile Creek subwatershed.
This majority recommended changing the master plan for Stage 4, and last October, the County Council asked the Planning Department to prepare a limited amendment to the plan.
The stakes are high
On June 20, the Planning Board will hold a worksession to present and discuss the proposed amendment. A public hearing will follow in September. If the Planning Board votes to endorse the amendment, it will then go to the County Council for a final vote that will determine how Stage 4 development will proceed.
Groups including the Sierra Club, Audubon Naturalist Society, and the Liveable Clarksburg Coalition are calling for changes to the Clarksburg Master Plan to protect Ten Mile Creek and support the vision of Clarksburg as a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town.
However, the two major developers in the watershed are pressuring the county to let Stage 4 proceed without major changes. Pulte Homes owns 538 acres in the Ten Mile Creek watershed and says they've spent $70 million preparing for the 1,000-unit development they're already advertising. And the Peterson Companies want to build a Tanger Outlet Center on a 98-acre property in the creek's watershed east of I-270.
Councilmember Craig Rice, whose district includes Clarksburg, has introduced 2 bills that would let projects with pervious pavers include more paved surface area than the Master Plan's limits would otherwise allow. Planners say that these bills "propose a solution to a problem that does not exist, and would create new problems."
For nearly a generation, development in Clarksburg has been a history of missteps, mistakes, empty words, and broken promises. Instead of a transit- and pedestrian-oriented town, the first 3 stages of the Clarksburg Master Plan have produced a car-dependent, transit-less sprawl. With the master plan amendment on Ten Mile Creek, Montgomery County has one last chance to get development in Clarksburg right.
The city routinely bids public land out to private companies. Instead of money, the city demands amenities like affordable housing, workforce development, or a library. Sometimes, these deals work well. Sometimes, they're just a bad deal, or developers renege on promises.
WAMU reporters Patrick Madden and Julie Patel have been delving into this issue in a series this week. Their Tuesday and Wednesday installments look at the ways public land deals and subsidies can go wrong.
Their week-long series frames the issue around the inappropriate influence of money in politics. If campaign donors get a leg up in the competition for deals, that is a serious problem, and good for Madden and Patel for giving it attention. However, campaign cash is only one of several possible reasons these deals can turn out bad. At the same time, they can also bring valuable benefits as well.
Land deals aren't just a giveaway
The Tuesday headline was "Million-Dollar Properties, $1 Deals." The lede talks about 5 projects that went to Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Construction. "The appraised value of all this public land, according to city records: $17.5 million. The price paid by the developers to the city, a little more than a parking ticket: $88."
Sounds like a massive handout! Where can I get a few acres for a buck? But later, Madden explains that it's not quite so simple. The deals come with big strings. In particular, they often have to build affordable housing.
Certainly there's some profit in these deals, and if that profit goes to the biggest donors, that's a big problem. However, Donatelli's profit isn't anywhere close to the $17,499,912 that the intro might lead people to believe.
Madden gives a table of the top 5 land deals:
|Project||Payment to DC||Value of land||Contributions|
by dev. team
|Hine Jr. HS||$21,800,000.00||$44,700,000.00||$194,045.00|
|West End (Library & Fire Station)||$18,000,000.00||$30,018,000.00||$127,295.00|
|Capital Fire Station||$15,000,000.00||$40,300,000.00||$123,646.00|
|Minnesota-Benning (Phase 2)||$10.00||$13,176,000.00||$122,076.00
This table isn't really, complete, however, without factoring in what the development teams have to spend on the public amenities that go into the buildings.
|Project||Pmt. to DC||Value of land||Public amenities|
|Hine Jr. HS||$21,800,000.00||$44,700,000.00||20% affordable housing|
C Street & plaza
|West End||$18,000,000.00||$30,018,000.00||New library, fire station|
|The Wharf||$1.00||$95,000,000.00||15% affordable housing|
|Capital Fire Station||$15,000,000.00||$40,300,000.00||(can't find this)|
|Minnesota-Benning||$10.00||$13,176,000.00||100% affordable housing|
What makes a good deal?
Figuring out how much those public amenities are worth, however, is the tricky part, and whether the government is getting a good deal. People often disagree about how much affordable housing is fair. In the West End, DC is giving Eastbanc two parcels, which now contain a library and fire station. Eastbanc can build housing, but has to also build a new library and fire station.
Eastbanc is also building 52 units of affordable housing with an additional $7 million subsidy from the city. DC's zoning commission then let Eastbanc out of the Inclusionary Zoning affordable housing requirement on one of the two parcels, after the developer and officials argued that the value the city is getting from the new library and fire station uses up all the value of the property.
Cheryl Cort thinks that despite the IZ exception, this is probably the best deal we can get. A library advocacy group Ralph Nader founded, the DC Library Renaissance Project is suing to stop the project, arguing that DC should have held out for more affordable housing. Many neighbors want the library, already and think the Nader group is going too far. There's no definitive way to know who's right.
Under the current leadership of DMPED's Victor Hoskins, the city has been seeking less affordable housing from its public land deals, and more direct revenues.
Sometimes public officials don't push for important amenities
DC economic development officials are often quite eager to get a deal done, even at the cost of important amenities. At Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, a DDOT plan for the area recommended a new road connection to expand the grid around Minnesota Avenue Metro and a highly congested intersection.
One of the two bidders included the connection, while the winner, Donatelli, did not. Representatives of Mayor Fenty's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) then joined Donatelli in lobbying against the concept or even reserving the right of way for a future street. Maybe it was too expensive or difficult, or maybe it was an important amenity that officials just didn't bother to push for.
Madden and Patel discusses some other problems with public land development deals like this. A law requires the developers to hire small and minority-owned businesses. Sometimes they don't. (Other times, those companies are just shells that give a payout to owners while a larger firm actually does the work.)
A WAMU investigation of 110 D.C. developments that received $1.7 billion in subsidies found:The series has an overarching thesis that much of this comes about because the developers are dishing out campaign cash. That certainly may be part of it, but it's not the only reason. Plus, Aaron Wiener plotted donations against the size of deals and found only a weak correlation.
- Flaws with benefits pledged for about half
- A third missed requirements on hiring local businesses, or the city didn't have paperwork for them
- Another 15 percent downsized or delayed benefits, costing the city millions in lost revenue and others arguably didn't need the subsidy in the first place
- Less than 5 percent of the subsidies approved were for the city's poorest areas, wards 7 and 8.
Cash probably does have an effect. So do other factors. Sometimes economic development officials or politicians just want to get the deal done because a ribbon-cutting is appealing while a project sitting unfinished is a hassle.
Public land deals, though often bungled, are still necessary
Madden says, "Activists and even some council members have asked why the city just doesn't hold a public auction for these properties and award them to the highest bidder." That's an option, but then there would be no amenities. Where would the new library go? Making it part of a larger mixed-use project is probably the best way to use the land, since a library doesn't need to take up an entire building. Wouldn't we be better off with a broader mix of uses that maximize the value of this site?
DC could just rent space in an office building for a library, perhaps, but is that space going to be well-suited for a library and in the right location? Plus, that would mean library rent goes up as neighborhoods become more desirable, creating a risk that future budget cuts imperil libraries entirely instead of just shortening their hours. Meanwhile, there's definitely no spec building out there that can fit a fire station.
Others, like Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, feel that public land should never go to private uses. She'd like DC to keep all of the publicly-owned land for schools, libraries, and so on. Many other activists also view any public-private partnership deals with suspicion, and don't want a private company building a library.
These public-private deals, imperfect as they are, seem to be a compromise between these two views. The public gets something for its land, but the land can also accommodate housing and offices when the public doesn't need every square foot for public use.
Still, it's important that public officials push to get the best deal for the city, and ensure that winning bidders keep the promises that helped them win bids in the first place. When officials don't, sometimes it's because of campaign cash, but there can be many other reasons as well, which are just as important to combat.
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