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Posts about Development


When the Metro first arrived in Shaw and Columbia Heights, they were far different than they are today

During rush hour, northbound Yellow Line trains need to reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there isn't enough capacity for all of them to run to Greenbelt. That's because when Metro designed the Yellow Line, it was hard to imagine neighborhoods like Shaw and U Street developing as rapidly as they did.

This pre-2004 map shows original full-time Yellow Line service. Image from WMATA.

Why can't Yellow Line go farther north full time?

For the Yellow Line to operate north of Mount Vernon Square full-time, there would need to be a pocket track somewhere between that station and Greenbelt, so that Yellow Line trains could turn back towards Virginia without impeding Green Line trains at rush hour. (Right now, a few Rush+ Yellow Line trains do go all the way to Greenbelt, but usually only about four per hour during peak periods).

The tunnel that carries the Green and Yellow Lines under 7th Street and U Street NW opened in two stages: from L'Enfant Plaza to Gallery Place in April 1983, and from Gallery Place to U Street in May 1991. These tracks initially only provided service for the Yellow Line, but the Green Line would soon utilize the tunnel when it began operation from U Street to Anacostia in December 1991. Check out the Evolution of Metrorail graphic below, which we initially ran two years ago to see how service has changed:

The tracks running through the 7th Street tunnel had always been intended to be shared by the Green and Yellow Lines, but only for a short portion. Although it was intended for the Green Line to operate along the entire length of the tunnel - continuing onwards to Petworth, Fort Totten, and northwest Prince George's County - the Yellow Line would short turn at a pocket track somewhere along the route, so as not to overwhelm operations at Greenbelt (as I discussed in my first post on this topic).

Metro's planners opted to build the necessary pocket track at Mount Vernon Square station, which meant that Yellow Line trains would have to end their route and turn back towards Virginia without serving neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Petworth. Except for the brief six-month period between the opening of Mount Vernon Square, Shaw, and U Street stations in June 1991 and the commencement of Green Line service that December, the Yellow Line has always terminated at Mount Vernon Square in regular rush hour service.

Off-peak Yellow Line service all the way to Fort Totten began in 2006. This has certainly been a first step towards meeting the increased demand in DC's Mid-City area (generally thought of as the neighborhoods served by the Green Line from Shaw to Petworth). However, these areas have now grown enough in population that full-time Yellow Line service is warranted, despite the significant obstacles that stand in the way.

The growth of Mid-City has led to a need for increased Metro service

Massive redevelopment in Mid-City began around the turn of the century, and has continued at a frantic pace to the present day. That's meant increased demand for service along the Green/Yellow Lines at all hours.

When the Mid-City section of the Green Line opened in 1991 (between Gallery Place and U Street) and was completed in 1999 (from U Street to Fort Totten), the area was still reeling from the destruction caused by the 1968 riots. Shaw and Columbia Heights were still plagued with empty storefronts, and the landscape was pockmarked with empty lots where incinerated buildings had once stood.

Aftermath of DC's 1968 riots. Image from the Library of Congress.

The corridor has since benefitted from an incredible amount of reinvestment since the opening of the new Green (later Green/Yellow) Line stations in the 1990s. New construction has ranged in scale from projects like Progression Place, a huge mixed-use center that was recently built directly atop Shaw Metro, to smaller infill developments aimed at repairing the urban fabric.

Apartments at the Columbia Heights station. Photo by Alice Crain on Flickr.

A problem inherent in the system's design

Unfortunately, plans for Metro service patterns in Mid-City didn't anticipate the future growth that these neighborhoods would face. The Yellow Line was designed to provide a direct connection from Virginia to downtown for the commuting crowd; it travels express between Pentagon and L'Enfant Plaza, then provides a connection to each of the other Metro lines downtown before turning back at Mount Vernon Square.

The system's planners didn't predict that a significant amount of Yellow Line passengers would desire to travel past downtown, to neighborhoods like Shaw and Columbia Heights. Thus, it was assumed that the Green Line would provide adequate service for this portion of the line. Hence the pocket track going in at Mount Vernon Square, rather than at a more northern station like U Street.

So, could Metro build a new pocket track to account for the development spree?

Unfortunately, because this service pattern is cemented by the chosen location to build a pocket track, any attempt to correct this past oversight will be very laborious and costly.

It would be extremely difficult to add a pocket track to the Green and Yellow Lines anywhere between Mount Vernon Square and the District line because the tracks run almost entirely underground all the way to West Hyattsville. It would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive to excavate along the existing route and construct a pocket track between the mainline tracks—a WMATA study placed the cost of a Fort Totten pocket at $150 million.

Although the lower platform at Fort Totten is mostly built in an open cut (a shallow excavation that puts the tracks slightly below ground level), the tracks emerge directly from tunnels on both sides. The necessary location for a pocket track - the east side of the station, on the far side of the platforms from the city - is also the location of the B&E Connector track, a non-revenue link between the Red and Green Lines. The combination of these factors would make the construction of a pocket at this location very complex.

The track layout at Fort Totten. Light-colored tracks are below ground. Graphic by the author.

The next logical place to build a pocket track beyond Fort Totten is in Prince George's County, at the point where the tracks emerge from underground near West Hyattsville station. However, while construction of a pocket here wouldn't require excavation, it would still be extremely difficult and disruptive because the tracks are side-by-side on an elevated viaduct.

Because a pocket would have to be built between the existing mainline tracks, Metro would have to reconstruct a roughly 600-foot section of this elevated viaduct in order to pull the tracks apart and create space for a third track in between. This would be comparably disruptive and expensive to constructing a pocket track underground near Fort Totten. What's really required is a section of track that is at-grade, e.g. resting at ground level rather than underground or on a viaduct.

The Green Line viaduct and platforms at West Hyattsville. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The next feasible place to build a pocket track would be at the above-ground embankment behind Home Depot on East-West Highway near Prince George's Plaza station (although that, too, might be difficult due to the curve at that location).

Of course, a pocket track gets less and less useful the further it is from downtown. The next possible location for a pocket would be near College Park, at which point Yellow Line trains might as well continue all the way to Greenbelt.

It looks like for now, stations north of Mount Vernon Square will have to make do without full-time Yellow Line service. Until WMATA can procure $150 million to add an expensive new underground pocket track at Fort Totten, as well as $100 million for new rolling stock (plus millions more in annual operating funds), rush hour Yellow Line trains will have to continue to terminate at Mount Vernon Square. But the temporary terminus at U Street offers us a glimpse of what could have been if Metro had built a pocket track there back in 1991.


An old power plant in DC's Ward 7 is ripe for redevelopment. Let's not make it a trash and recycling plant.

Between the Anacostia River and I-295, a defunct power plant stretches along the north side of Benning Road. A plan for how to put the space to use just came out, and while some of the ideas could bring jobs to the community, others threaten to perpetuate a history of communities east of the Anacostia getting the short end of the stick.

Pepco's Benning Road site is desolate now, but it could turn into something great. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

The Benning Service Center is a 77 acre industrial campus located on the eastern bank of the Anacostia River. In 2015 Pepco demolished its 100-year-old oil fired plant on the site and after decades of community advocacy led by leaders such as George Gurley. Following the demolition Pepco began a DC Department of Energy and Environment supervised cleanup of PCBs and other contaminants in the soil and neighboring Anacostia River.

In the last decade the Kenilworth-Parkside community has seen the construction of 400+ homes, two schools, and significant reinvestment in the historic Mayfair Mansions Apartments. In the next decade the community is anticipating the construction of 1300 more homes, retail, an education campus and office space. Nearby Minnesota Avenue has seen the construction of Park 7 Apartments and the District Department of Employment Services building. To the south, River Terrace is increasingly drawing the attention of developers looking to capitalize on the extension of DC's streetcar.

Given the considerable investment going into the community, the Pepco site is looking increasingly anachronistic in its current state, but its proximity to Metro, the streetcar, and I-295 give it incredible potential. With the right changes, it could provide much-needed economic opportunities to Ward 7 residents and become the economic and social center that Ward 7 has long lacked.

The Pepco site and surrounding developments. Red highlights denote developments are completed or near completion. Blue highlighted areas denote proposed projects. The green line illustrates the route of the streetcar extension. Map by the author, using Google Maps.

In November 2015, DC's Office of Planning partnered with the Urban Land Institute to form a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) on the future of the Benning Service Center with the goal of improving transportation access at the site, creating new community amenities, and providing economic opportunities for Ward 7 residents.

ULI forms TAPs to assist cities to come up with unique ideas on difficult sites, and the Benning Road panel brought together experts in from the fields of urban planning, design, transportation, real estate development, as well as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

ULI recently released the TAP's recommendations. The panel issued short, interim, and long term recommendations based on a tour of the site, discussions with community leaders, and an analysis of similar brownfields in other cities. Short term proposals were primarily those that could be implemented immediately without altering the site itself, and interim proposals focused on temporary land uses. The long term proposals spoke to permanent changes in land use.

The TAP looked focused on the 19 acre site once occupied by the coal and oil fired powerplant. The remaining 58 acres was not considered. Photo from the Benning Road Service Center.

Changes in the near future could include better walkways and more recreational activity

The panel's short term recommendations for the site are largely uncontroversial. They focus on adding connections to the Parkside neighborhood by extending Anacostia Avenue around the site and linking it to River Terrace. Other recommendations focused on making the site more friendly for neighbors by improving the surrounding streetscapes with broader sidewalks, tree plantings, and public art.

Public art like "The Lego Bridge" could soften highway and other transportation infrastructure like this WMATA viaduct. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Pedestrian infrastructure has long been neglected at the site. Despite these formidable barriers and high speed traffic, residents use this sidewalk everyday. Photo by the author.

The panel's Interim recommendations focus on engaging the community by partnering with an organization like Arcadia Mobile Market to bring a farmers market's to the neighborhood, as well as hosting events like BBQ battles.

The space would also be available for athletic events like Tough Mudders, paintball, and even an outdoor roller rink. Other uses focused on providing creative "maker" spaces for industrial arts and crafts.

The long-term recommendations focus on job creation

The TAP's long term recommendations were the most interesting and potentially controversial.

One thing the planners aimed to address were the community's concerns about the fact that there aren't many opportunities for blue collar employment in the area. The TAP made three suggestions for the site with that thought in mind:

  • First is an Industrial Business Incubator that would offer space to light manufacturing businesses.
  • The second, an "Eco Industrial Park," would feature recycling, composting, and bio fuel generation facilities.
  • The third proposal focuses on an energy research and design facility that would design and test new electrical generation and distribution technologies.

The first and third proposals would have a natural synergy with the District Department of Employment Services offices on Minnesota Avenue. Both facilities could form partnerships with community organizations and schools focusing on vocational training. A research and development facility could offer students in Ward 7's HD Woodson High School STEM program co-op and internship opportunities.

Both of these facilities could be a long term investment in the skills, creativity and talent of Ward 7's residents. They would create a one-of-a-kind destination for innovation unmatched in the District. They would create new businesses and opportunities that would have impacts far beyond the site.

Jobs are great, but this shouldn't become a trash-processing site

The second option, creating the Eco Industrial Park, has a lot less to offer for the community, and ignores a century of environmental racism inflicted by decisions to locate powerplants, dumps, garbage incinerators, highways and other undesirable infrastructure in Ward 7.

By its own admission, the TAP acknowledges that such a facility would face stiff resistance from the surrounding community. The proposed facility would be essentially be an expansion in the scope and scale of operations of the current Benning Trash Transfer station, which the surrounding community has rallied to oppose as recently as 2000.

The surrounding communities fought for positive change for decades and have gotten real traction with the numerous new developments in the area. Placing another trash handling facility prominently along its prime transportation corridor on riverfront property would be a step backwards for a community that has disproportionately borne the costs of facilities intended to benefit The District.

While the facility would potentially generate several hundred jobs, it is unlikely they would be the long term or high paying. In discussions TAP planners noted that growing automation would reduce the demand for low skilled labor over time undercutting any long term employment benefits that might be achieved by going with a low skilled, high employment option.

Does TAP make the most of a once in a lifetime opportunity?

The demolition of the Pepco plant is an opportunity to fix decades-old economic and transportation challenges. The report offers innovative and creative ideas to make the Benning Service Center a better neighbor, but is it an ambitious enough goal?

The TAP focused on only the westernmost nineteen acres of the site, leaving the remaining fifty-eight acres closest to the surrounding communities unaddressed. A process that included the entire site could offer much better solutions while working with Pepco to improve the efficiency of its operations. A more ambitious plan could have included a new Metro station, the restoration of the street grid between Parkside and River Terrace, as well as many more job opportunities for the community.

Despite its limits the report marks a seachange in thinking about the Pepco site. Previously there had been little serious discussion of the Pepco site that hadn't included a powerplant. The discussions started in the TAP should be revisited as the Pepco-Exelon merger continues and new investment facilitates the modernization of Pepco operations. The Mayor's office and the new Ward 7 Councilmember should be on the lookout for opportunities to use land swaps and other incentives to achieve the goals outlined in the TAP plan.


It's time to build housing at the Takoma Metro station

Metro has been trying for over a decade to spur development around the Takoma station in DC, but in the past, opposing neighbors and their elected officials have created years of delay. The project is ready to move forward again, and hopefully the cycle won't repeat itself this time.

The parking lot at the Takoma station, where WMATA and EYA plan to move forward with plans to build townhouses. Image from Google Maps.

What's the problem?

Since before the turn of the millennium, Metro has planned to redevelop an underused parking lot next to the Takoma station, where parking usage is less than 50% most days. Housing developments on top of or adjacent to Metro stations is hardly controversial; it's a logical idea and part of Metro's development policy to promote them at or near Metro stations in order to make it easy for residents to get around.

In 2000, Metro selected EYA to develop the Takoma station's parking lot, and the first plan developed in 2006 called for the construction of 90 townhouses. Some local neighbors in Takoma, DC, as well as elected representatives of Takoma Park, MD, opposed the first plan, with groups like Historic Takoma saying the proposal was "too dense." They also argued that the two-car garages in each townhouse would bring too much traffic.

The Takoma Metro station today. Image from Google Earth.

Some smart growth supporters didn't think townhouses were unreasonable for an area right by a Metro station, but many did feel such large garages were unnecessary. EYA's original plan got sidelined by a combination of opposition and the recession, but in 2013 the company drew up a new plan to build a medium-density apartment building between five and seven stories high (but scaling down to four stories at Eastern Avenue) instead, with about 200 units and with fewer parking spaces per unit.

EYA's revised plan to build apartments by the Takoma station. Image from EYA.

Many neighbors again opposed EYA's plans, but this time, they had a much more effective online campaign, building and maintaining two separate opposition websites as well as both a Facebook page and Yahoo group. The neighbors also managed to garner support from elected officials this time around.

Complaints about EYA's proposal are varied, but the theme is evident: "it's too big and has too much parking."

The neighbors' petition cites their concerns over the size of EYA's proposed building, the loss of green space, and EYA's use of an above-ground parking garage with the building wrapping around it (rather than underground parking). ANC4B also raised concerns about traffic and said the size of the proposed building violates DC zoning rules for being higher than 50 feet.

Meanwhile, elected officials of Takoma Park also raised concerns about the size of the proposed building, the location of a loading dock for apartment residents, too much parking and that the plan steals public parking spots for the benefit of apartment residents.

Don't let perfect be the enemy of good

The latest development isn't perfect, but it's not terrible either. Looking first at the size, even if the neighbors are technically correct that the proposed building is greater than the underlying zoning, a four-story apartment building abutting Eastern Avenue and adjacent to a Metro station is hardly out of character for the neighborhood. DC law does allow projects (like this one) to go through a process called a Planned Unit Development, which can give a project some latitude, such as to increase density near a Metro station or for affordable housing. That seems like good policy.

The argument that this development will increase parking and traffic is wrong-headed. This development is adjacent to the Takoma station, where people will have to drive less, not more. It does shift a significant number of parking spaces from public to private use, but will retain the number of Metro parking spaces for riders and expands the number of bus bays serving Metro and Montgomery County's RideOn.

Former Takoma Park Councilmember Seth Grimes represented Takoma Parkers, who border the site and led the charge opposing EYA's proposal. He told me that Metro and EYA's motives are good with this project, as he fully supports development around the Takoma station, but he echoed what other neighbors have said: that EYA's plan is still too focused on parking and encourages car ownership and driving. However, the number of parking spaces has dropped from two per unit in the original plan to 0.7 per unit, and at the same time, the housing that would be available would increase from 90 to 200 homes.

Grimes opined that the size issues could be remedied by either building the parking below ground or by greatly reducing it. "EYA designed a building for 10 years ago as opposed to 10 years in the future," he remarked.

You can't always get what you want

The irony to all of this is that the neighborhood is struggling to attract businesses to its commercial street where the Takoma station is located. There is some good news in that Starbucks is opening a store in Takoma; even if it does upset some anti-corporate locals, many see it as a positive sign for the neighborhood's business climate. Heck, despite the announcement by Starbucks to open a store in Takoma, a new local coffee shop announced plans to open nearby too.

But if you walk around Takoma's main street (i.e. Carroll and 4th Streets, DC and Carroll Avenue, MD) you'll find plenty of empty space for lease, including the old Takoma theater, a grand property ripe for reuse. Given Takoma's reluctance to supporting chain businesses, such a result is not unforeseeable. Additionally, Takoma's historic districts may dissuade developers and businesses from wanting to build and invest here.

As an aside here, it's richly ironic that Takoma was founded by B.F. Gilbert, a "New York venture capitalist" who is beloved by many of the same neighbors that are leading the charge against EYA. Meanwhile, people in Takoma are clamoring for more shops, restaurants and services. Look here to see how excited the community was for the startup of a local food truck! Gilbert would have probably supported an even larger mixed-use development than what EYA has proposed.

Personally, I think Metro could do even more development at this site by rerouting the buses to the Silver Spring transit center and developing the entire parcel into a larger mixed-use space, but I doubt that the community would support the loss of neighborhood bus service or the loss of the greenspace, even if it is never used. Still, there is a housing crisis in DC and Takoma has a lot of crime that could be decreased with more "eyes on the street." If only Metro was more ambitious.

More development is coming to Takoma, so let's stop fighting already

With the recent opening of two new apartment buildings on Willow and Maple Streets, Takoma, like the rest of DC, is growing. Does this mean that we should start building skyscrapers adjacent to the Takoma station? Of course not, but Takoma residents cannot claim to be "progressive" and concerned about gentrification while simultaneously opposing new housing developments around a Metro station on the basis of zoning technicalities.

The effects of such diametrically opposed views results in pushing new development outside DC, which increases traffic and sprawl, and only isolates lower-income people from the jobs they need to make a living. While opposing activists may have slowed this development, with the support of other neighbors, the WMATA board approved it so it is now a question of when, not if. I spoke with Jack Lester from EYA and he confirmed that the project is still moving forward as EYA and WMATA work out some of the finer details.

But how do we thread the needle so that Takomans get more shops, restaurants and services while retaining the small-town feel (i.e. no significant traffic increase)? It's not rocket science and a lesson for all business districts: increased density = more people living in the area = more demand for more local shops and services = more supply of local shops and services.

What is most perplexing to me is that much of the opposition to this development appears to be coming from Takoma Park even though the development sits in Takoma, which, again, is in DC. Takoma Park is an extremely progressive community that has laws protecting trees and bans on styrofoam containers and is the only rent control municipality in Maryland.

How can a community that cares so much about the environment and those who are less fortunate be so opposed to increasing the amount of available housing (some of which will be reserved for people who are at or below the poverty line), increasing the number of people who live close to public transportation (which supports Metro's future) and are thereby unlikely to drive very much (which is better for the environment)?

In a Washington City Paper article about this whole ordeal, there was an interesting comment that may provide some insight. It reads:

There's an in increasingly common NIMBY strategy to pretend that what you're really fighting is evil developers. Complaining about the future residents can come off too classist or racist, but complain about the developers who enable those "others" to move in is supposedly going to convince us that the NIMBYs are pure hearted.

Developers wouldn't be interested if they couldn't find a buyer. They are merely agents for the future residents. There is no isolating your objections against "developers' greed" and your objections to the people that simply want a place to live near where you have found a place to live.

What do you think? Does this sounds like what is happening in Takoma or does the opposition raise some valid concerns?

Cross posted at Takoma Talk.


Laurel nearly became a pro sports metropolis. Hereís how it dodged the Bullets (and some other teams).

The city of Laurel prides itself on its small town charm and historic areas, but during the 1980s and 1990s, multiple sports owners made plans to build stadiums there. Fortunately for Laurel—and the region—it didn't become home to all of the region's professional sports teams.

Baltimore's Memorial Stadium during its eventual demolition. Photo by Mark Plummer on Flickr.

Early 1980's: Three teams, one dome

In 1981 the Baltimore Colts and Orioles were playing in an outdated Memorial Stadium. Originally constructed in 1922 and later renovated in the 1950's, the stadium had outlived its useful life and both teams were looking for a new home.

Forty miles south was RFK Stadium where the Washington Football Team was locked into one of the worst leases in the league, at least from the team's perspective, as almost all of the money that now goes to teams was going to the DC government.

Team owners hatched an idea to build a $125 million domed stadium halfway between Baltimore and DC, adjacent to the Laurel Park Race Track. Combining the two cities would create the 4th-largest TV market in the country.

The proposal, however, came at a time when the trend of shared professional stadiums was about to start being replaced by more lucrative single sport stadiums throughout the country. In Minnesota, for example, a similar stadium (the Metrodome) was built to house professional baseball and football teams. Within a decade of opening the baseball team was suing to get out of their lease based on the lack of profitability by the shared stadium.

Plans for the shared stadium were halted when the Colts owner, Robert Irsay, reached an agreement with the City of Indianapolis for a dome of his own. Fearing they would lose their last professional team, Baltimore began negotiations with the Orioles that would lead to the construction of their current stadium, Camden Yards.

Early 1990's: Capitals and Bullets (Wizards) look at Laurel

Abe Pollin, the owner of the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) and Capitals, also had toyed with the notion of putting a team in Laurel when he was looking for a site for the Capital Centre in the 1970's. He ultimately chose Landover for his arena to house his NHL and NBA team that opened in 1973, but in the 1990's he began to look again at the idea of placing a team in Laurel.

The Bullets had a built-in Baltimore fan base since they had played in the city for a decade prior to the opening of the Capital Centre. But the flaw in Pollin's plan is that it came at a time when sports stadiums were being moved from the suburbs into city centers to spur economic growth and revitalization.

The proposed arena would be located in a largely suburban area and only served by MARC. Fortunately for DC, nothing came from the flirtation with Laurel, and the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) served as the catalyst for revitalizing Chinatown neighborhood.

The MCI Center, which is now the Verizon Center. Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

In 2002, the Capital Centre was demolished and replaced with a new mall called the Boulevard at Capital Centre.

1993: The Washington Football Team tries to unite two cities

In 1993, the Washington Football Team's billionaire owner, Jack Kent Cooke, began looking at Laurel again as a possible stadium site. With the Colts in Indianapolis, Washington's team would have two markets' worth of fans if it were closer to Baltimore.

The challenge the team faced was that in the decade since it last looked at Laurel, the area around the proposed stadium location had been developed, leaving less than 100 acres for the new stadium. In order to cram as many cars onto the site as possible. the team proposed making spaces smaller and removing most of the greenery around the stadium.

Laurel's stadium would have gone here, between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and I-95. Image from Google Maps.

The stadium site was also located outside of the reach of Metro and only served by MARC. As a result this would lead to massive congestion at the site on gameday, a problem that would have taken $186 million in infrastructure improvements to solve.

Despite these drastic measures, the team still fell well short of the number of parking spaces the county required, and neither the team nor the state was willing to pick up the transit costs. Despite the project having the backing of the governor, County Zoning Official Robert Wilcox effectively killed the project calling the team's data "high selective and self-serving" while the impact of traffic was "vastly understated".

In this case, Laurel escaped a would-be traffic nightmare.

Without a stadium, Laurel emerged victorious

Stadiums represent massive expenditures from both public and private funds. While they can mean the opportunity for teams owners, municipalities, and states to be successful, it's good that none of these ideas came to fruition.

The three team stadium would have failed because it would have been built at the tail end of the era of shared stadiums, dooming it to a fate similar to that of the Metrodome: a relic financed with state funds looking to be replaced shortly after opening.

The would-be Capitals and WIzards arena, which would have gone up in the early 1990's, would have come at a time when suburban arenas fell out of favor in comparison to those that were reinvigorating downtowns throughout the county.

And the Washington Football Team's proposed stadium in 1993 would have been a nightmare for local traffic as the team would try to cram a stadium on half of the needed land.

Not building any of these proposed stadiums was a win for Laurel.


Houston took this winning approach to adding housing. Could DC do the same?

Though DC has been adding lots of housing, new development is concentrated in large, expensive buildings in neighborhoods that are running out of empty lots to build on. Houston's approach to densification—replacing detached single family homes with townhouses—offers some important lessons for DC's long-term growth.

This type of infill is illegal in DC's low-density neighborhoods. All images from Google Maps.

DC set a record last year when it permitted nearly 5,000 new housing units, the most ever in recorded history. Looking at the breakdown of new units permitted, we see a striking pattern: almost all new housing is in large multifamily apartment buildings.

Chart by the author.

Because high-rises cost more to build than smaller buildings, they come with high price tags once completed. That means that new construction in DC is concentrated at the luxury end of the market, which is far too expensive for most households to afford.

All this new housing is geographically concentrated, too. Neighborhoods like Navy Yard and Southwest Waterfront have added the lion's share of DC's new housingplaces where there are many open lots to build on and few neighbors to complain. Meanwhile, DC's single family residential neighborhoods have largely avoided change.

While this has been an effective strategy in the last few years, it can't continue forever. There are only so many liberally-zoned former industrial sites and parking lots that we can build on. If DC is to continue to grow, areas that contain primarily single family homes will need to densify.

The Houston approach

Houston is famous for its car-oriented sprawl. Though it lacks a zoning code, the city has historically mandated low-density development through non-zoning regulations, like minimum lot sizes and stringent parking requirements.

But in 1999, Houston enacted sweeping land-use reforms: it decreased the minimum residential lot size from 5,000 square feet to 1,400 in close-in neighborhoods. In effect, this reform legalized townhouses in areas with suburban-style houses on huge lots. Two or three houses could now take the spot of one.

The political significance of these reforms cannot be overstated. Single family zoning is somewhat of a third rail in American local politics; it's exceptionally rare for residents of suburban-style neighborhoods to allow denser development. Urbanist commentators have noted that "missing middle" housingforms like duplexes and small multifamily apartments—has been regulated away in most American cities. Houston represents an important dissent from the notion that single family neighborhoods are to be preserved at all costs.

The results of these reforms have been remarkable. Areas that were once made up entirely of ranch-style houses, McMansions, and underused lots are now covered in townhouses:

The Rice Military neighborhood.

Shady Acres.

The infill process is typically incremental, with detached homes being replaced one at a time. This often leads to a diversity of housing styles on a single block:

Other blocks are unrecognizable in their transformation:

And in some parts of the city, this redevelopment process has gone hand-in-hand with light rail expansion:

(There are so many striking before-and-after images that I programmed a twitter bot, @densifyingHOU, that tweets one out every day.)

One major benefit of these townhouses: they're cheap! Development at this scale uses cheaper construction methods than those of large buildings, and Houston's straightforward permitting process reduces regulatory uncertainty and thus financing costs. A cursory search on real estate websites reveals luxury townhouses a mile from downtown from the low $300s.

Now, Houston's approach does have its flaws. Parking is still mandated, setback requirements and inward-facing homes make for a lousy pedestrian experience, and some new houses are, frankly, ugly. In some areas, unhappy homeowners have lobbied successfully for block-level regulations that re-outlaw townhouses.

But the key insight here is that piecemeal densification is possible, and it works. Houston has found a way to add significant amounts of housing without sprawling.

Planners in cities like DC should take note: the status quo, where we protect the low-density character of leafy neighborhoods and funnel development into a small portion of the city, needs a thorough rethinking.


Does DC want boring architecture? Sort of.

DC has a lot of boring architecture, and that's no mistake; a cheap federal government and a bevy of paper pushers keep the District that way. At least that's what a few experts on architecture and development in DC had to say at a panel last week.

Is DC architecture inherently boring? Photo by Bossi on Flickr.

Turncoats, an urbanist debate group, hosted its first DC debate last week on the question of whether or not the District wants boring architecture. The organization works to encourage provocative discussion, fueling everyone—including audience members—with a shot of liquor before things get started and only assigning the panelists sides after they've taken the stage.

Payton Chung of the Urban Land Institute (and a member of Greater Greater Washington's editorial board), Brian Miller of Edit Lab at Streetsense, Nooni Reatig of Suzane Reatig Architecture, and Mina Wright of the General Services Administration and National Capital Planning Commission (who was careful to stress that all of her statements were hers alone and not those of her employer) participated in the panel.

Initially, Payton and Nooni were assigned the position that DC does indeed want boring architecture, while Brian and Mina had to argue that isn't the case.

Despite their supposed sides, the panelists coalesced in agreement that DC architecture is boring... they just differed on the reasons why. For example, Payton argued that it is the embodiment of DC's culture of middle-management paper pushers while Mina said it was simply the result of a cheap federal government keen to maximize usable space in its office buildings.

We (Edward and Joanne) attended the panel and discussed our thoughts in a chat format.

Edward Russell (ER): It was clear to me that the panelists, whether they took the pro or con position, feel that DC's architecture is boring. I do wish those who argued that DC does in fact want boring architecture had said more about why boring architecture can still be interesting.

Joanne Pierce (JP): I expected the panelists to discuss DC's architecture as it is now, why it appears to be boring, and whether they agree (since boring is relative). "City architecture is boring" is a popular opinion. You can google any city and "boring architecture" and get dozens of articles decrying NYC, Boston, LA, etc., for being filled with boxy, glass buildings.

ER: Exactly. I felt that some were a bit of tongue-and-cheek, especially on the con side—though the two blended together a bit—with Nooni arguing that multiple streets lined with "Soul Cycle, Chipotle and Starbucks" made her feel comfortable, which was clearly a dig at the homogeneity of it all.

JP: There were lots of zingers, which were fun and spirited. I think everyone truly enjoys living in DC, and they can still poke fun at its stodgy reputation. That was an interesting comment on the sameness of our streets, which Mina echoed with her comment about Federal Triangle being lovely, but "you don't want to live in a city of Federal Triangles." I appreciated that comment because Federal Triangle happens to be that prime example of DC federal building run amok. It's just federal building after federal building. But it can be lovely!

Federal Triangle. Photo by Irakil on Flickr.

ER: It can be lovely. There is certainly a grandeur of the federal DC, with the ordered avenues and the neo-classical buildings.

JP: I'm a little biased because I work in the Ronald Reagan Building.

ER: One thing that surprised me was how the height limit only came up once, and it was an audience member saying they didn't think that is the issue holding back DC architecture. I expected it to be discussed more.

JP: I did, too. I think that's owing to the structure, where the panelists didn't bring it up, except to say that we don't need skyscrapers. The discussion seemed to be more about the overall uniformity that exists in DC. I was also surprised that the discussion focused mostly on public or semi-public buildings, and not much at all on residences.

ER: Yes, I think that was the result of, as Payton put it, the fact that DC is a city of "middle class, paper-pushing bureaucrats." A lot of the speakers built off that. I agree that the federal government has had an outsize impact on DC architecture for decades—centuries even—but the panelists took it a step further and argued that we're a city of bureaucrats who ultimately want an unadorned box (or row house) rather than some limit-pushing designed residence, whether in a tower or a house.

JP: There's some historical connection with that comment. Lots of our boxy tan buildings are brutalist, and a lot of those came about because of the federal government. For instance, the Weaver building, which is where Housing and Urban Development is now, was built according to President Kennedy's architectural initatives. So if we think the Weaver's big, boxy (it's actually kind of curved) look is unattractive, it is because Kennedy wanted it to represent the strength of America.

The Weaver Building. Photo by Kjetil Ree on Flickr.

ER: Like Brian said: "DC has lots of cutting edge architecture, it's just from 100 years ago." Or 50 years ago in the case of President Kennedy.

JP: Concrete is wonderful! You'll see! Going back to your comment about wanting unadorned, big boxes—I'm no architect, but it seems like when your primary need is space to house many people (for housing or for work) your most logical shape is a square or rectangle, not a curve or a triangle. It seems like there should be a way to combine the two, but then you sometimes get the 20 Fenchurch building, which was Brian's example of ugly design.

20 Fenchurch Street in London. Photo by Matt Buck on Flickr.

ER: Yes, that is something DC architecture does well—maximizing the amount of space available for workers or for residents, within the limits that exist for buildings (height limit, plot size, whatever). As Mina put it, "I think the Feds are at fault. Why? They're cheap."

JP: The cheapness of government makes a lot of sense but I think it's more of a cultural cheapness. Maybe for a long time, we just didn't want to stand out. Or at least, the people in power who made the decisions didn't think the city needed to stand out. Except with The National Mall.

ER: Did you agree with the general conclusion that so much generally mediocre architecture will make the unique, interesting buildings in DC stand out? I agree with the premise but wonder how we get to the point where we have unique buildings to stand out from the crowd. Like Atlantic Plumbing (2112 8th Street NW), I do like it, it's more industrial then we generally have here, but at the same time it is still a steel and glass rectangular box.

Atlantic Plumbing. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

JP: I think that the question of what is boring should be reframed. Are we boring, or are we just not a place where we have singular, instantly recognizable buildings. Things that show up in magazines, like Brian pointed out, and things that wow people as they drive by. Is that what we consider to be the most important?

ER: We have a few remarkable buildings, but I'd say they're iconic more due to their historical significance than their architecture (the White House, the Capitol).

JP: Certainly, we have the White House and the Capitol and the monuments. But beyond that, when we talk about iconic buildings that aren't Federal... I think the premise of whether our uniformity allows the interesting buildings to stand out is totally right. The African American history museum stands out because it's brown and not in the same architectural style as many others.

ER: It certainly does, whether you like the design or not.

JP: Sometimes, you just need one bold idea to start things off.


What's so great about the Purple Line, anyway?

With a recent court decision from a group of opponents delaying the Purple Line once again, it's easy to forget how many people support it, from local environmental groups to Governor Hogan. Let's remember why they fight for this project, and why it will get built one day.

This will get built. Image from Montgomery County.

The Purple Line will be a 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It'll connect three Metro lines, all three MARC commuter rail lines, and Amtrak, as well as hundreds of local bus routes. It'll serve two of the region's biggest job centers, Bethesda and Silver Spring, as well as Maryland's flagship university. It'll give Montgomery and Prince George's counties a fast, reliable alternative to current bus service and Beltway traffic.

However, it'll do a lot more than that.

1) It'll make walking and bicycling a lot easier and safer. The Purple Line project includes rebuilding or extending trails across Montgomery and Prince George's counties, building on the area's growing bike network.

The Capital Crescent Trail, which ends two miles outside of Silver Spring, will get fully paved and extended to the Silver Spring Metro station, where it'll connect to the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The trail will get a new bridge at Connecticut Avenue and new underpasses at Jones Bridge Road, and 16th Street, so trail users won't have to cross those busy streets.

Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring will get a new trail. Photo by the author.

Streets in other parts of the corridor will get rebuilt with new sidewalks and bike lanes. University Boulevard in Langley Park will get a road diet. Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring will get a new, extended Green Trail.

2) It will let more people live and work near transit more affordably. Metro has its problems, but people still value living in walkable, transit-served neighborhoods. As a result, communities with Metro stations can be very expensive. The Purple Line puts more neighborhoods and more homes near transit, as well as more opportunities to build new homes near transit, helping meet demand and fighting spikes in home prices.

How far you can get by transit from Riverdale today and after the Purple Line is built.

3) It will improve commutes far beyond Bethesda to New Carrollton. The Purple Line will dramatically improve transportation access for people who live or work near one of its 21 stations. But even those whose homes or jobs aren't near the Purple Line may travel through the corridor, getting a faster, more reliable trip.

Right now, a bus trip between Silver Spring and Bethesda can take 20 minutes at rush hour (though in reality it takes much longer due to traffic). On the Purple Line, that trip would take just nine minutes. That's a time savings for anyone passing through the Purple Line corridor, like if you were going from Riverdale (which will have a station) to Rock Spring Business Park in Bethesda (which won't).

4) It's finally bringing investment to some of our most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Communities like Long Branch, Langley Park, and Riverdale have long awaited the kind of amenities more affluent communities take for granted. When Maryland and the federal government agreed to fund the Purple Line, people took notice. Long Branch businesses formed an association.

Riverdale residents and business owners are pushing for a more attractive station. A few blocks away, this ad for a new house being built lists exactly one feature: "located within steps of purple metro line's Beacon Heights Station (officially approved by state of Maryland for 5.6 billion)."

While the Purple Line can help meet the demand for transit-served housing, there are real concerns that home prices may still rise, resulting in gentrification and displacement. That's why residents, business owners, and the University of Maryland partnered on the Purple Line Community Compact, which creates a plan for ensuring that people can afford to stay.

5) We actually don't know everything the Purple Line will do. Transportation planners can estimate how many people will use a transit line, but we can't predict how it will affect people's decisions about where to live, work, shop, or do other things. That's the most exciting part.

Metro helped revitalize Silver Spring. The Purple Line can do this for more communities. Photo by the author.

Metro helped make 14th Street a nightlife destination. It turned Arlington into an economic powerhouse. It transformed Merrifield's warehouses into townhouses. Those changes weren't guaranteed, but as a region we took the risk and it paid off.

We're poised to do the same thing for a new generation of neighborhoods along the Purple Line.

While a recent lawsuit from a group of Chevy Chase residents will has halted the project, transportation officials seem hopeful that this will be a temporary delay. The facts remain that this is a strong project that has major benefits for Maryland.

That's why everyone from environmental groups to neighborhood groups to business groups support this project. That's why Governor Hogan agreed to build it, even if he did make some changes to save money.

And that's why, despite a small but vocal opposition, it will get built.


DC's Edgewood neighborhood is set to get more affordable housing and connections to the Met Branch Trail

Plans for a massive new development planned along Rhode Island Avenue NE include affordable housing, new connections to a large nearby apartment complex, and links to an important bike trail.

An elevation showing the first phase (completed, on the right) and later phases (outlined in white) of the planned Rhode Island Center development. Image by MRP Realty.

Rhode Island Center is a roughly 1,600-residential unit mixed-use development that will rise on the site of the Big Lots and Forman Mills between the Metropolitan Branch Trail and 4th Street NE.

This is the ideal transit-oriented development for the region: lots of housing, both affordable and market rate, a block from the Metro on a site that is currently a suburban-style strip mall. To top it off, it includes needed pedestrian and cycling improvements to the surrounding area.

Developer MRP Realty plans to include about 128 units in the District's Inclusionary Zoning program, build new stairways up to Edgewood Commons on the hill above it, make improvements to the MBT, install two new Capital Bikeshare docks and provide residents $225 in incentives towards alternative transportation options, like a bikeshare or carshare membership, a benefits package submitted to the DC Planning Commission on 1 August shows.

Affordable housing

The project will be built in phases, with the first two buildings fronting the MBT scheduled to open in 2019, confirms MRP's vice-president of development Michael Skena in an email. Phase one will include about 450 units, with 8%, or about 36 units, set aside for affordable housing.

Looking south at the first phase of Rhode Island Center from the MBT. Image by MRP Realty.

Half of the affordable units will be for households of four earning up to $54,300 a year, or 50% of the DC region's area median income (AMI), and half for similarly sized households earning up to $86,880, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development's (DHCD) 2016 inclusionary zoning schedule shows. Rents for two-bedroom apartments are capped at $1,222 a month and $1,955 a month, respectively, for the two income groups.

The affordable housing in Rhode Island Center's later phases will see slightly more units going to needier families, with 5% for those in the lower income bucket and 3% in the higher one.

The income levels for both the first and later phases of the development will be set if they are approved by the Zoning Commission on September 12, says Skena, even if the DC Council passes a pending change to the IZ program lowering the maximum household income level to 60% of AMI.

However, commissioners from ANC 5E, which oversees the area including Rhode Island Center, declined to support the development unless MRP includes nearly double the number of units, 14% of the total, in the IZ program at 60% of AMI, in a letter to the Planning Commission dated July 7.

While further changes to the affordable housing component in the development are possible before the September hearing, they are unlikely to include any units at the lower household income level sought by the ANC.

In July, the DHCD objected to a proposal that affordable units be available to households earning up to 60% of AMI in the Eckington Yards development. While the main objection was to a request by the developer to administer the units itself outside of the agency's IZ program, the agency emphasized a need for developers to be held to all the District's existing laws and regulations.

Current regulations require that units in the IZ program are available to households earning up to either 50% or 80% of AMI.

Stairways and connections

MRP promises to build two new stairways between Edgewood Commons and Rhode Island Center. This would provide residents of the apartment complex with a new direct connection to the MBT and Rhode Island Ave Metro station, eliminating the current about half-a-mile journey through the existing shopping center and up 4th Street.

The planned stairway connecting Edgewood Commons to the MBT. Image by MRP Realty.

The first stairway, which would be located in the northeast corner of the development adjacent to the trail, would be built with the first phase. The stairs would be closed between 1 am and 4:30 am on weekdays, and 3 am and 6:30 am on weekends.

Easier access to the Metro and trail would benefit residents of the mixed-income Edgewood Commons community. It would improve connections between the complex and the east side of the neighborhood, and potentially increase economic opportunities for residents. For example, the time it takes to walk to the shopping center with Giant Foods and Home Depot would be cut in half.

Connections to the MBT are a big part of the Rhode Island Center proposal. The central artery through the project will stretch from 4th Street NE to a new plaza where the trail and bridge to the Rhode Island Ave station meet, and include a new protected bike lane.

Looking east down the central corridor through Rhode Island Center towards the MBT. Image by MRP Realty.

The developer will realign the MBT so it passes under the stairs to the bridge to reduce pedestrian conflicts in the planned plaza, and make other signage, wayfinding, landscaping and lighting improvements.

The benefits package also includes $10,000 for the connection between the MBT and Franklin Street NE, which was included in the NoMa Business Improvement District's MBT Safety and Access Study earlier this year.

MRP will install two new bikeshare docks as part of the package. One next to the trail near the planned plaza and one on 4th Street NE between Bryant Street and Franklin Street.

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