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Development


Dead ends: Euphemisms hide our true feelings about growth

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. Vicky Hallett also discusses the book in today's Express.

Ben is giving a book talk on Tuesday, April 22nd, 5:30 pm at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. Afterward, GGW is cosponsoring a happy hour at the Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW, at 6:30pm. Stop by for just the talk, just the happy hour, or both!

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee "that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they."


Photo by Michael Patrick on Flickr.

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don't want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise.

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

Land use disputes thus come before the public veiled in a thick fog of evasion, euphemism, and flat-out falsehood. From this miasma rises a plague of obscurity that infects the language itself. Terms devised to conceal reality become so familiar that they are uttered without thinking. Critics find themselves unable to question received dogmas for want of words to express their thoughts.

A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning.

Compatibility, in the enlarged sense, is often thought of as a sort of similarity. But if two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, while with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos.

The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean, "I don't like it and I'm not explaining why." The word is notably unpopular with New Urbanists. Faced with such an obvious case of incompatibility, in the literal sense, as a parking lot in a walkable downtown, they call it a "disruption of the urban fabric" or a "wasteful use of land."

Compatibility may be the most pervasive linguistic deformation, but it is hardly the only one. Homeowners will complain about the impact on their neighborhood when basement apartments are rented out or high-rises are built nearby. This word conflates purely psychological desires, among them the wish to keep away from people with lower incomes, with physical detriments like smell and shade. Its value lies in its vaguenessobjectors can make a case without saying concretely what their objection is. ...

Another slippery phrase is public use. Here the word use conveys almost the exact opposite of its common meaning. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a definition: public use space is "space devoted to uses for public enjoyment, such as gardens, plazas, or walks." A common example is the empty plaza that sits between an office building and the street, elevating the status of its surroundings through the display of conspicuous waste.

The operative word in the definition is not "use" but "enjoyment." In other words, no productive work can be done in the space. By this definitional sleight of hand, disuse becomes a kind of use, and indeed the only kind allowed. In one case in 2011, the planning board forbade the placement of a barbecue in a public use space when a neighbor complained that it would encourage the public to use the space. ...

Our linguistic tour would hardly be complete without a visit to the greedy developer. The key to decoding this phrase is that the word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avariceif anything, non-profit builders of low-income housing encounter more hostility than the truly greedy. The ostensible target is the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses. The real one is the people who will live in them.

The builder stands accused, often enough, of the sin of manhattanization. When first used in San Francisco in the late 1960s by opponents of downtown skyscrapers, this was a vivid and descriptive coinage. But just as the developer's first name lost its connection to avarice, manhattanization became unmoored from New York City. The term, in current usage, can refer to almost any structure that rises above its surroundings.

A campaign against manhattanizing Menlo Park, California, objects to two-, three-, and four-story buildings around the train station. The movement's leader explains her goals by asking "Are we going to remain a small town, with low-density development, or are we going to be more like Redwood City and Palo Alto?"

Manhattanize might seem an odd choice of word to convey the meaning of "make it look like Palo Alto," but stale metaphor, as George Orwell pointed out years ago, does a service. It releases the speaker from the need to explain, or even figure out herself, exactly what she means to say. The premise of the argument against density is left unstated and thus immune from challenge.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell warned in his famous essay Politics and the English Language. For a half-century and more, deformed language has made it hard to think clearly about the communities we live in. Our system of land use will be the easier to understand, the more we use words that say plainly what we mean.

Development


How can Virginia balance traffic flow with a sense of place on Route 1?

A study of Virginia's Route 1 finds that people want "to create destinations, ... not a throughway." They also want better pedestrian and bicycle safety, and really want transit, but they also want to see traffic flow faster. What's the best way to balance these?


Route 1 today. Image from the study.

If this major public investment can succeed in creating walkable, livable transit communities along the corridor, the state and localities need to find ways to keep vehicle speeds down and not force people to cross long distances. They can start by designing roads to create a sense of place instead of inhibit it.

In fact, building better places could also speed up traffic flow, by making it possible for more people to get to local shopping without driving, or by taking other roads in a street grid instead of all piling onto Route 1 itself.

How fast and wide should Route 1 be?

The study assumes that the speed limit would remain 45 mph and lanes would be 12 feet wide. A road built for speed will create a less comfortable environment at center median transit stations. It will increase the distances pedestrians have to cross. And it will reduce the sense of connectivity between transit-oriented neighborhoods on either side of the road. Perhaps the speed will impact transit ridership as well.

There's a history here. A few years back, VDOT proposed reducing posted speeds to 35 mph, but faced a huge public outcry and the local supervisors made VDOT drop the proposal.

Bicycles struggle to find a place

The study also looked at ways to accommodate bicycles. Options included on-road bike lanes or an on-road cycletrack (among others), but the 45-mph road and wide lanes essentially forced the study team to select an off-road, 10-foot shared-use path for both bikes and pedestrians. This will almost certainly spark concerns about the impact on pedestrian safety, on the efficiency of bike travel, and the risks to bicyclists and pedestrians crossing intersections.

1997 British study on the relationship between vehicle speed and pedestrian fatalities shows that higher speeds mean more pedestrian fatalities.


Graph via WashCycle.

State and local officials should authorize the consultants to study an alternative with a 35 mph posted speed, 11-foot lanes, and on-road cycle tracks, to evaluate if this approach will not only smooth out and maintain good traffic flow, but will improve safety for all users, while enhancing the walkable, transit-oriented centers that the community seeks.

Will housing remain affordable if transit improves?

Until recently, the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax and Prince William hasn't seen the same level of investment as other parts of the two counties. It hasn't moved beyond aging strip malls, an unsafe pedestrian environment, deteriorated streams, and plenty of traffic.

This is also an area with an important supply of affordable housing, and many are concerned that the promise of new transit investment will increase land values and eliminate existing market-rate affordable housing.

Given that Fairfax County's commercial revitalization corridors are also the location of most of the county's affordable housing, the county needs a proactive approach when planning major new transit investments in these corridors. That must preserve affordable housing in good condition and include new affordable units in new development projects.

Unfortunately, the county has severely cut back its housing trust fund, and its inclusionary zoning policies for affordable units don't apply to buildings over four stories. The study should consider how new transit will affect property values and the current supply of affordable units. The county needs to commit to a robust housing strategy for the Route 1 corridor like the one Arlington adopted for Columbia Pike.


Potential development at Beacon Hill with BRT or LRT.

Change is indeed coming to the Route 1 corridor. The demand to live closer to the core of the region and expansion at Fort Belvoir are already driving new investment, including the recently-completed Beacon of Groveton, the Penn Daw development, and upgraded strip shopping centers.

Long-time residents are hungry to see more change come sooner. Many at the meeting pressed to move the transit project forward as soon as possible. That's a challenge given the lead times required to plan, fund and build major new transportation projects. Fairfax and the state should make this transit corridor a top priority. They also must support investment in Metro's core capacity so that the rail system can handle the new riders.

The study team should complete the traffic analysis by the end of April; the economic, land use and funding analysis will follow by the end of May; and they will recommend an alternative by July. The next public meeting is in June. In the meantime, take their survey and make comments on this form.

Roads


No carmageddon at McMillan, says a study

Redeveloping DC's McMillan Sand Filtration site will not choke neighbor­hoods in new traffic as long as the District follows through on transit plans, says a transportation study from the project team.


McMillan Sand Filtration Site. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

The most important element: better transit

The study says that it's quite possible to avoid burdening busy roads in the surrounding neighborhoods, as long as planned improvements to transit actually happen. The report says is transit is actually necessary regardless of whether the project goes forward or the site remains fenced off.

In the short run, improving the Metrobus 80 bus line on North Capitol Street, which WMATA has already designated a "bus priority corridor," will help the most. Other bus lines also need improvements that previous studies have identified.

The report also calls for building the proposed streetcar line along Michigan Avenue from Woodley Park to Brookland Metro. If these projects get delayed, he report recommends coordinated shuttles to the Brookland Metro station.

Along with some tweaks to surrounding roads, the traffic will be no worse with the McMillan project than if nothing gets built.

The report also calls for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, including completing the street grid through McMillan, multiple pedestrian access points in each building, ample bicycle storage, and space for three Capital Bikeshare stations.


Top: Transit today around McMillan. Bottom: Proposed transit. Images from the report (p. 92 and 97).

Pitfalls remain

While the study demonstrates the redevelopment can move forward without burdensome traffic impacts, it also points to potential problems that the project team will need to take care to address.

There needs to be ongoing pressure on the city and DDOT to move forward on transit. The city has moved slowly to upgrade transportation elsewhere, so project partners need to keep a close eye on progress.

Walking and bicycling conditions on and off the site also need more attention. Busy driveways on Michigan Avenue pose potential new conflict points for pedestrians and bicyclists. As the city reviews this project, it should take every chance to improve access and safety in the area. Also, while it's great to leave space for three Capital Bikeshare stations, the development should pay for at least one.

The transportation plan specifically cites a proposed DC Circulator route from Brookland to Tenleytown, which covers the same ground as the current H buses. Instead of duplicating existing service, DC and Metro could work together to improve existing H bus service. In fact, Metro recently studied the H lines and made several recommendations to make service faster and more reliable through the area.

New traffic signals will help pedestrians and bicyclists, but the added turn lanes and driveways on Michigan Avenue and First Street NW could pose additional barriers and hazards.

The report also recommends incentives to reduce driving, lower vehicle parking ratios, and encourage transit use in later phases. Instead, these efforts should start now.

With a redevelopment as large and controversial as McMillan, it's important to push for the right policy decisions. To voice your support for the right policy decisions regarding the McMillan redevelopment, head over to the Coalition for Smarter Growth to sign up to speak at an upcoming hearing.

Development


Prince George's is trying to be serious about transit-oriented development

Prince George's County officials want everyone to know that the county is serious about transit-oriented development and making the most of its Metro stations. A promise to plan needed streets, sidewalks and parks around a short list of stations could be an important change to county spending that's been focused on big-ticket road projects.


Photo by the author.

The county has been lobbying hard to get the FBI headquarters at the Greenbelt Metro station. Next week, officials break ground on a new Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development headquarters at the New Carrollton station. And the county has committed to locate a $650 million hospital at Largo Town Center station.

All are examples of the county's strategy targeting five Prince George's Metro stations: Largo, New Carrollton, Prince George's Plaza, Branch Avenue, and Suitland. The county will speed up the approval process around these sites and offer financial incentives for transit-oriented development.

The county has also committed to plan infrastructure such as streets, sidewalks, and parks around each station. For the last few years, the county's requests to the state government for transportation projects listed infrastructure at Metro stations, but did not make a detailed request. County officials now are committing to assessing specific station area needs, to make sure that infrastructure at Metro stations are in the line for funding from the county, state, or other sources. The current draft of the county's 20-year land use plan also calls to revise the county's capital project lists to align with its transit-oriented development priorities.

But apart from the Purple Line, which isn't entirely in the county, the lion's share of local and state funds continue to flow to expensive road widening, interchanges and other facilities that chase sprawl.

The county has won a state commitment to spend $150 million on an interchange at Suitland Parkway and MD-4, and a new interchange for MD-210 (Indian Head Road) at Kerby Hill Road for $100 million. The Suitland and MD-4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) interchange feeds develop­ment at the 6,000-acre greenfield Westphalia project, which is a bad deal for the county.

The county's top request from the state this year is to fund another interchange for MD-210, which could cost close to $100 million. The complete plan for 7 interchanges along MD 210 prices at more than $600 million. Those numbers dwarf the $26 million the state committed last year for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

Rushern Baker's administration's pledges to help spur development at priority Metro stations are very welcome. Residents are hoping to see them follow through.

Development


Fairfax City is starting to lay down a strong foundation for smarter growth

The City of Fairfax has long struggled to establish a clear vision for future development. Despite a strong master plan for Fairfax Boulevard, the town hasn't established strong guidelines for revitalizing its central commercial corridor. While nearby areas such as Merrifield and Fair Lakes have flourished, Fairfax City's commercial tax base has been stagnant.


Photo by the author.

But the tide has started to turn. Since a new mayor was elected in 2012, Fairfax City has approved 250 new apartment units near its downtown and has started to rewrite its zoning code. Two major redevelopment projects on Fairfax Boulevard are in the queue. The city has also made pedestrian and bicycle projects a higher priority.

Supporters of smarter growth in Fairfax City should be encouragedand press for more. With elections for mayor and all six city council seats scheduled for May, Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth has released a progress report on the performance of the current mayor and council. They have gotten some important things done, including:

Expanding housing near downtown: Last June the city council approved a pedestrian-friendly redevelopment of Layton Hall apartments. This will bring more residents near downtown and better connect downtown businesses with the apartments and nearby neighborhoods. The project also prompted difficult decisions about housing affordability, which the city is grappling with.

Zoning overhaul: The city has commissioned Duncan & Associates to review and thoroughly update its zoning code. In March the consultants released their initial report, including strong recommendations for enabling mixed-use development.

The redevelopment of Fairfax Circle Plaza is moving through the city's land use review process. The proposal would add 400 apartment units and new retail to the eastern end of Fairfax Boulevard near Vienna, and improve pedestrian and bicycle access between the property and nearby neighborhoods, trails and the Vienna Metro station.


Image from the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan.

The mayor and council have been laying the foundations, but the heaviest lifting still lies ahead. The city has a lot of catching up to do after allowing the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan to lie idle while nearby communities, such as Merrifield, built on their foundations of solid planning to spur revitalization. The retail and office markets are extremely competitive. How will the City attract and guide quality redevelopment?

A big part of the answer lies overhauling the city's zoning code. Excessive one-size-fits-all parking standards and the lack of any mixed-use categories are among the vexing elements of the current ordinance. The city will also need to focus on the redevelopment of Northfax at the intersection of 123 and Fairfax Boulevard. Both the zoning rewrite and Northfax are extremely complex processes that will require a lot of political will to see to a successful finish.

The next month is a good time to influence the conversation about future development in Fairfax City. Along with our progress report, Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth has sent a questionnaire to the mayoral and council candidates to gauge their support for smart growth priorities.

Mayor Silverthorne and City Council members are signaling a new receptiveness to compact, walkable, mixed-use development. City voters who want more walkable communities and vibrant public spaces can send their own signal by attending upcoming candidate forums, going to the polls and making informed choices on May 6.

Preservation


To preserve or redevelop? One man will soon decide for a key Anacostia site

DC's housing agency wants to develop a long-vacant site in Anacostia with affordable housing and retail, but residents and the city's preservation officials say it is incompatible with the neighborhood. The choice between the two hangs on one last appeal.


Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

The city's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has owned the "Big K" site on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue since 2010. It includes the abandoned former "Big K" liquor store and two historic, yet blighted, houses next door.

DHCD has been working with the Chapman Development company to plan an affordable apartment building on the land. Chapman wants to demolish the liquor store, built in 1906 but just outside the Anacostia Historic District, and move the two houses to a nearby city lot where the former Unity Healthcare Clinic has sat vacant for nearly two years. Chapman would pay for the relocation, while DHCD would renovate the homes with a fund of $750,000.

Chapman also plans to acquire the adjacent Astro Motors to assemble the entire Big K site and build a building of 114 apartments over a retail ground floor. The apartments would be affordable housing for people making 60% of Area Median Income, or about $58,000 for a family of 3. The original proposal was 6 stories and 141 units, but Chapman shrank the project in response to community pushback.


Rendering of the original, larger proposal.

The revised version maxes out at 5 stories, but each of the upper two stories would be set back so they do not occupy the whole footprint of the parcel, forming an "E-shaped building" as seen from Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. DHCD would transfer its ownership of the Big K lot to Chapman for $1, while low-income tax credits and government transfer rent payments would help finance the building.


Top: Elevation of the original proposal. Bottom: The new proposal. Renderings from a community presentation by the development team.

However, at community meetings about the project, residents have opposed the plan. They do not want to see so much new affordable housing, saying that Anacostia already has more than its fair share. Others said that the building's scale is incompatible with the historic district, which mostly comprises lower and smaller buildings.

Residents also opposed the name Cedar Hill Flats. Cedar Hill is the name for the home of legendary civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, and community members wanted to keep that name linked solely with Douglass. Chapman has agreed not to use the name.

The Historic Preservation Review Board "denied the concept for new construction as incompatible with the character of the historic district because it is too large in height and extent relative to the historic buildings in the commercial corridor and out of scale with the historic district" in October. Then, at the end of February, Chapman brought its revised, shorter version to HPRB, which again denied the application:

It is too tall relative to the district's historic buildings and too extensive, to occupy half the square and crowd the narrow sidewalk. It would also destroy the unusual topography of the site. ... The Board recommended that a permit not be issued to move 2234 and 2252 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue because the move would diminish the buildings' integrity and harm the character of this corner of the historic district, and because the houses could be rehabilitated and reused in place.
The preservation staff and board were also skeptical that the $750,000 earmark would be enough to properly relocate the homes without damaging them.

Project goes to the Mayor's Agent

HPRB's charge is only to look at the historic preservation issues in an application. But when a property owner believes the "special merit" or public interest value of a project should outweigh historic concerns (or if there is a financial hardship involved), there is an appeals process to an officer known as the Mayor's Agent. Currently, that agent is J. Peter Byrne, a Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Chapman has appealed to the Mayor's Agent. At a hearing yet to be scheduled, Byrne will review the application to move and rehabilitate the two houses and, will consider the purposes and benefits of the entire Big K project. DHCD and Chapman Development will likely argue the "special merit" of different components of the project, its amenities, and talk about how they help achieve objectives in DC's Comprehensive Plan.

At February's HPRB hearing, staff from DHCD, including Director Michael Kelly, Chapman Development and a consultant from Streetsense, argued that economic development was a key component of the project. Although members of HPRB contended that economic development was not under their purview, it is possible that argument will meet the special merit standard for the Mayor's Agent to rule in favor of the project.

After four long years of debate, the long path for Anacostia's most infamous vacant property may finally be coming to an endor if this proposal fails, could continue for years more to come.

Development


See where property in Tysons grew much more valuable

Between the years 2000 and 2014, assessed land values in Tysons rose from approximately $4.3 billion to over $11.8 billion in value. These maps show you where:

Assessed values in 2000 (left) and 2014 (right) in Tysons Corner.

Much of the change occurred in redeveloped properties and new commercial headquarters such as Capital One, Freddie Mac, Hilton, Gannett, and Northrup Grumman. New residential neighborhoods such as Park Crest, homes along Gosnell, and the Gates of McLean also increased the overall value of the region.

The images above are looking from the south side of Tysons. The Beltway is the large gap to the center right of the image. Route 7 intersects from the lower right and runs to the upper left of the image. Route 123 is farther in the background running near parallel to the horizon.

What do you notice that's interesting?

Development


Takoma Metro development proposal is a real compromise

For more than 10 years, we've discussed what kind of development at the Takoma Metro station would make this station a lively, safer place. A new plan for a residential building does just that, while offering a compromise to neighbors concerned about open space and parking.


Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Since 2000, WMATA has attempted to develop the area around the Takoma station. Last year, developer EYA proposed building about 200 apartments on a surface parking lot. The building would have 3 stories on Eastern Avenue and step up to 4 toward the train tracks. It would replace most of the parking, only about half of which is used at one time.

The plan keeps the existing 2.5 acre green space open, and offers some enhancements to make it more usable. The proposed building and residents overlooking the site will help foster a safer, more pedestrian-friendly environment by orienting the building to the bus drive, with entrances and windows facing the lane. Previous plans for live-work units or retail space have been dropped because of the weak market for retail at the site.

A 2006 plan that later stalled out offered about 90 townhouses and a one acre village green, but no replacement for the Metro parking, which is only for short term use. While the attractive townhouse and inviting village green were worth pursuing, I always thought this site would be better for an apartment building.


Image from EYA.

Then and now, some neighbors in both Takoma and the adjacent city of Takoma Park, which sits across Eastern Avenue, have opposed the project. In 2006, both supporters and opponents gave the developer grief about building homes with 2-car garages at a Metro station. But many critics also said that WMATA should replace all of the existing parking, in addition to preserving the whole 2.5 acre open space in front of the station and adding more bus bays.

The new plan responds to nearly all of the major criticisms, while at the same time more than doubling the amount of housing originally proposed. Now, opponents mostly object to the potential building's height, even though it is on a block with other 3-story apartment buildings, all of which face single-family houses.

The proposal's modest scale is in sync with the downtown district's eclectic variety of buildings. EYA has already agreed to make the building shorter and reduce the number of units from 266.

At a March 13 WMATA committee meeting about the project, the board members incorporated amendments that the city of Takoma Park requested into its resolution to move the project forward. This Thursday, the WMATA Board will vote on an agreement with EYA to pursue the project, and to hold an official public hearing.

If WMATA approves the project, it will go to the DC Zoning Commission, which will have an opportunity to refine the design in its review process. Neighbors will have ample opportunity to raise their concerns about any aspect of the proposal then.

Like with any proposal, there is room for more improvement. The proposal offers much less parking for residents than before, which makes sense for a site next to a Metro station. But it could be lower still, since this is the transit agency's land and the point is to build housing for more transit customers.

The new proposal offers residential parking at about 0.7 spaces per unit, down from 1.5 to 2 spaces per unit in the townhouse proposal. It would be sensible for WMATA to require that developers on their property to build less parking and offer their residents incentives to ride transit and use carsharing. That makes it easier to market the building to transit-oriented households who rely much less on personal cars.

The other important way the WMATA Board could improve this project is to honor the DC Council's 2002 request that 20% of any housing at this site be set aside for households making 30%, 60%, and 80% of the area median income. This is still the right commitment for a property that the public transit agency and District of Columbia control, and our need for more affordable housing has only grown in the intervening years.

It's been a long time coming, but this proposal for the Takoma Metro station will make downtown Takoma a better place for everyone. It will help a greater number of people use transit, have daily access to local shopping, and live with a lower carbon footprint. This is exactly where our region should be growing, and where we can accommodate more people who seek a transit-oriented lifestyle.

If you agree, ask the WMATA Board to move ahead with this project. Click here to let them know.

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