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Development


Not building enough housing is morally equivalent to tearing down people's homes

According to the California housing champion who's suing communities that don't allow enough new development, not building needed density is morally equivalent to tearing down people's houses.


Photo by .Martin. on Flickr.

Sonja Trauss, founder of the SF Bay Area Renters' Federation sums up the housing problem affecting nearly every growing American city today:

"Most people would be very uncomfortable tearing down 315 houses. But they don't have a similar objection to never building them in the first place, even though I feel they're morally equivalent. Those people show up anyway. They get born anyway. They get a job in the area anyway. What do they do? They live in an overcrowded situation, they pay too much rent, they have a commute that's too long. Or maybe they outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."
Trauss hits the key points: The population is growing, and people have to live somewhere. If we refuse to allow them a place to live, that's just like tearing down someone's home.

Someone else is displaced

Trauss' last sentence is particularly important. It explains how the victims of inadequate housing often are not even part of the discussion. She says "Or maybe [home buyers] outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."

Here's how that works: One common argument among anti-development activists is that new development only benefits the wealthy people who can afford new homes. That's wrong. It's never the wealthy who are squeezed out by a lack of housing. Affluent people have options; they simply spend their money on the next best thing. Whenever there's not enough of anything to meet demand, it's the bottom of the market that ultimately loses out.

Stopping or reducing the density of any individual development doesn't stop displacement or gentrification. It merely moves it, forcing some other person to live with its consequences.

Every time anti-development activists in Dupont or Georgetown or Capitol Hill reduce the density of a construction project, they take away a less-affluent person's home East of the River, or in Maryland, or somewhere else. The wealthy person who would have lived in Capitol Hill instead moves to Kingman Park, the middle class person who would have lived in that Kingman Park home instead moves to Carver Langston, and the long-time renter in Carver Langston gets screwed.

As long as the population is growing, the only ultimate region-wide solution is to enact laws that allow enough development to accommodate demand.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Transit


NoMa has a new, transportation-themed restaurant

A new NoMa restaurant celebrates transportation, from drinks named for train travel to multimodal options for getting there.


Inside Union Social, you'll find a list of all the cities with a Union Station. All images by the author.

Union Social sits at the base of Elevation at Washington Gateway, a new mixed-use development across Florida Avenue NE from the NoMa Metro station. Elevation opened in late 2014 with 400 units on 14 floors, and Union Social opened in October.

The property abuts the Metropolitan Branch Trail and parallels the rail tracks that run toward Union Station, just one Metro stop away.

Union Social's interior design reflects its transit-oriented environment. A chalkboard names all the cities with a Union Station and a traffic light adorns the wall. A familiar M denotes the men's restroom, and it's inverted on the women's room door. Green and yellow lines snake along the restroom walls.


The drink menu honors transit, too

Union Social did extensive historical research to conceive its cocktail menu, steeped in allusions to trains and their mid-century glory days.

The Redline is a tequila sour with Fresno pink peppercorn and a red line of Angostura bitters atop meringue.

The Third Rail is a gin fizz with both literal and symbolic meaning. It refers to the electrified third rail that carries voltage and powers a train. This being DC, the cocktail also denotes the "third rail of politics" and its implied dangers. The drink gets color from blueberries and bubbles from "charged water," yesteryear's name for club soda.


A Third Rail.

The Angel's Seat is a whiskey smash with Angel's Envy bourbon, citrus and rosemary garnish. In the rail world, the angel's seat is raised observation seating in a caboose.


An Angel's Seat.

The Gandy Dancer is a champagne fizz modeled after the French 75, but made with vodka. Traditionally, a gandy dancer is an early 1900s railroad construction worker who laid tracks manually.

If you order a spirit plus soda or just a soft drink, you'll get a retro eight-ounce glass bottle. Beer comes only from the tap, like it did during the heyday of train travel in the mid 1900s.

Happy hour at Union Social brings the bygone train-centered lifestyle into modernity. A bustling, cosmopolitan vibe pervades the glassy space. Evoking the train café cars, two bars bookend the rectangular dining room. The dining room is laid out like a standard Amtrak car, with a row of tables on each side and a center passageway. On any given night, a private party might enliven the second bar down at the far end.

Union Social is a marker of NoMa's rapid expansion

In developing Union Social, owner Reese Gardner set out to recreate the historic role and atmosphere of the train station. "It was the hub where people socialized in the 1940s and '50s," said Gardner. "The best bars and food were at the train station because so many people were passing through or waiting for trains."

Today, NoMa is considered a textbook example of successful transit-oriented development. Since the NoMa Metro station opened in 2004 as DC's first infill station, NoMa has seen exponential growth, and national and international officials tour the area to study its development.

Partying in the house that transit built, Union Social patrons prove the development theories true. NoMa resident Rocio Acevedo Medlin has eyewitnessed the neighborhood's transformation and planted her flag at Union Social, visiting regularly from the day it opened.

"It's really different from anything else in NoMa," said Acevedo Medlin, who has frequented the area since 2000. "It's the kind of place you keep coming back to because it just feels good. You can be inside or out on the sidewalk and you see other people through the glass. It's not like it's walled off from the rest of the neighborhood. Everything about it is open and inviting."

NoMa Business Improvement District President Robin-Eve Jasper puts the new restaurant in context. "Union Social and all of NoMa is an amazing demonstration that a great development plan can truly have extraordinary impact," said Jasper.

While NoMa's growth was methodically charted, some elements weren't in the initial blueprints. Case in point: restaurants, which weren't on the drawing board.

"The original thought was not mixed use, so there was no forethought to build space for restaurants," said Jasper. "The Elevation building was the first with a restaurant. Now all upcoming residential buildings will have restaurant space."

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Development


2015's greatest hits: South Park weighs in on gentrification with "SoDoSoPa"

To close out 2015, we're reposting some of the most popular and still-relevant articles from the year. This post originally ran on October 5. Enjoy and happy New Year!

As more people seek urban living, communities around the country are trying to meet the demand. That even goes for fictional places like South Park, which skewers gentrification this season with a new neighborhood called "SoDoSoPa":

In last week's episode, the town decides to redevelop the poor part of town into a trendy arts and restaurant district called "SoDoSoPa" in order to attract a Whole Foods. This fake ad for the community, complete with shots of sleek lofts, fancy restaurants, and bearded hipsters, could pass for lots of places in our region.

The episode also looks at how revitalization projects impact the people who already live there. South Park's mayor reassures Kenny's blue-collar family that she'll listen to their worries about the development. Instead, SoDoSoPa uses Kenny's blue-collar family as a marketing tool, advertising its proximity to "historic Kenny's house." Kenny's little sister asks her dad why they can't go outside to enjoy the cleaned-up neighborhood, and he replies that they can't afford to.

The video inspired a lengthy thread on Reddit's South Park board asking commenters to name their city's "SoDoSoPa" neighborhood. Naturally, one commenter suggested NoMa for the DC area, in addition to other redeveloping areas, including downtown Silver Spring, Bethesda Row, and Tysons Corner.

What depictions of urban issues on TV have you enjoyed recently?

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Development


Benning Road's building boom begins

While H Street NE has boomed in recent years, nearby Benning Road has lagged. That's about to change, with at least two big Benning Road redevelopments coming down the pipeline.


The proposal at 17th and Benning. Image from Capital City Real Estate.

Benning Road NE is, for all intents and purposes, an easterly extension of H Street. East of Starburst the name changes, but Benning more or less functions as the same road, streetcar and all. Except that while H Street has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years, Benning Road has not.

But now it appears the H Street boom is jumping to Benning.

On December 17, developers officially filed plans to build a 180-unit multifamily building at the northeast corner of Benning Road and 17th Street NE, across 17th Street from Hechinger Mall.

It's the first big, H Street-style proposal to see the light of day on Benning Road.

But it's not the only one. Half a block away and across the street, near 16th and Benning, another developer is proposing a 250-unit building. There are no renderings yet, but rumor purports it will be similar to The Maryland at Maryland Avenue and 14th Street NE.

Together, these developments show how the impending Benning Road boom isn't a matter of if, it's a matter of when. Properties along Benning are too enticing, demand for new housing in DC is too ravenous, and the streetcar, for all its faults, is too much of a draw. Benning is about to boom, and it won't be the same.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Development


Dupont Circle leaders reject neighborhood benefits to tilt at windmills over development

A new church and housing will almost certainly rise where a church burned down 45 years ago. The church and developer worked with neighbors to cut down on the impact of both construction and the eventual new building, but the deal failed to win key neighborhood approval last week.


Photo by Michael Gray on Flickr.

The Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B) voted not to support a zoning variance for St. Thomas' Parish at the corner of 18th and Church Streets. St. Thomas burned down from arson in 1970, and since then, the Episcopal congregation has met in what used to be the fellowship hall next door, while the land the church was on has been a park.

After an earlier abortive attempt to build a low-scale new church which turned out to be unaffordable, the parish partnered with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church on part of the land and housing on the rest. (Disclosure: I live on this block.)

Many nearby residents have organized to fight the project, which led to a fairly incoherent resolution from the ANC, simultaneously admitting that a small amount of extra height, set back from the street, would not affect the perception of the building that much, but vociferously opposing the proposed height anyway.

The ANC lost that battle in the historic preservation process, as DC's Historic Preservation Review Board approved the building. The next step is a zoning variance, where the church and developer are seeking permission to fill up 86.7% of the lot instead of the normally allowable 80%. That hearing is Tuesday, December 15.

Meet the MOU

In the months leading up to the zoning hearing, CAS Riegler and church officials met with neighbors to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a contract which specified things like limits on construction hours, protocols to minimize dust and rats, and ongoing discussions between neighbors and the developer during the construction process. There were also some restrictions on amplified music on the residential building's roof deck and the hours when the church would rent its roof deck out for events.

I participated in the negotiating committee, and while nobody got everything they wanted, the MOU included some meaningful measures which would improve the quality of life for neighbors while also letting the church get a new building and adding new housing in this area right near a Metro station.

In exchange, St. Thomas and CAS Riegler wanted to gain ANC support for the zoning variance. The 6.7% extra lot coverage would almost surely be along the alley behind the building, meaning it wouldn't affect the public's interaction with this building, nor would it create or remove any meaningful "green space."

The ANC's Zoning, Preservation and Development Commitee chair, Daniel Warwick, led the MOU negotiating process, which spanned multiple long meetings. The newly-elected commissioner who represents the St. Thomas area, John Kupcinski, decided at the end of the negotiation process to not support the MOU, and on December 9, ANC 2B voted not to sign the MOU either.


Rendering of the proposed church building.

Are MOUs enforceable?

Complicating the situation was a last-minute legal opinion from Joshua Turner, an Assistant Attorney General in DC's Legal Counsel Division. Turner raised doubts about whether the ANC could be a party to such an agreement, since among other things, DC law does not allow ANCs to bring legal action.

This MOU was modeled on a similar one the Philips Collection, an art museum, signed 15 years ago, when it expanded in the district Warwick now represents. That MOU has functioned effectively, but Turner's emails to ANC 2B seemed to question the possibility of using this tool at all, or at least the ANC's role.

These questions over enforceability led at least two commissioners, Nicole Mann and Michael Upright, to change their minds and oppose the MOU at the ANC's vote.

There are residents who think developers shouldn't have to negotiate any concessions with neighbors at all, and on the flip side, there are also people, including some ANC commissioners, who don't want to accept any deals and want to just oppose any zoning relief requests outright.

But most pro-more-housing neighborhood leaders see MOUs as a good tool to build community support for development projects. They add needed housing, but also concentrate impacts on immediate neighbors. Good negotiations can mitigate those impacts without taking away opportunities for new housing.

From "height-itis" to "width-itis"

There's a good chance this project will win its variance—similar projects have many times. The DC Office of Planning supports the variance, as does the District Department of Transportation.

Even if it doesn't, something will get built which is marginally, if at all, different in terms of open space; the application packet says that the only alternative to the variance is to leave the parking ramp uncovered—not a big win for anyone. (Meanwhile, several people will be deprived of an opportunity to live in the Dupont neighborhood.)


Floor plans of the proposed building (top) and without the variance (bottom). Is there any neighbor benefit here?

Yet for many residents and at least some commissioners, it seemed from the debate, no amount of concessions around construction, noise, operations, etc. would suffice; many people simply wanted to continue taking a stand against the whole idea of a building of this size.

Most people who spoke against the variance didn't draw any distinction between the 80%-coverage version of the building and the 86.7%-coverage version; rather, they wanted to continue to battle over decisions that had been long since made in historic preservation about the building in the first place.

In July, I said the ANC had caught "height-itis" for its monomaniacal, and counterproductive, fixation on the height. Now, it's simply shifted to a fixation on the building's width.

Neighborhoods engage most successfully with development when they identify concrete elements they care about and advocate for those. To simply draw lines in the sand and refuse to budge from them, even when the conflict has moved far beyond that line, is ineffective and gives up the chance of actually helping neighbors.

It's like this amusing Improv Everywhere video, where an actor pretends to be Gandalf, impotently shouting "you shall not pass!" at tourists.

The consequences of the ANC's poor judgment in this case, unfortunately, will be that either the variance goes through and neighbors don't get what they asked for in the MOU, or the variance doesn't go through, a building still gets built, neighbors get little in return, and still don't get what they asked for.

Width-itis and height-itis can be crippling afflictions.

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Development


Starting a business in the region just got easier

It used to be that owning part of a small business or development project was only for well-heeled investors. But thanks to a recent legal change, it's easier for people with more average incomes to own part of a neighbor's plan to turn blighted property into the next coffee shop, brewery, or restaurant.


The building at 906 H St NE is a real estate project that used equity crowdfunding.

On October 30th, the Securities and Exchange Commission changed the rules on equity crowdfunding, which is a way for small businesses to raise cash in exchange for offering individuals minority ownership opportunities. It used to be that you had to have a net worth of at least $1 million (not including your house) to participate in an equity crowdfunding campaign, but that's no longer the case.

As a result, there are now fewer barriers to investing in local and small businesses in Virginia, Maryland, and DC.

Here's how equity crowdfunding works

Most of us are familiar with websites that focus on donation crowdfunding, such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or GoFundMe. Multiple individuals donate to a specific project in exchange for non-monetary rewards.

Prior to the rule change, financing development projects often meant needing to rely on bank loans, real estate investment trusts, and other institutional funds like private equity or venture capital.

Now, using equity fundraising, entrepreneurs can ask anyone to invest in their idea or startup business opportunity.

In other words, if you have an idea for a project to turn a vacant or blighted property into a new neighborhood hangout, or you want to support someone who does it's now a lot easier.

For example, do you know a craft brewing operation looking to expand into a new facility and needs to raise cash? Before, the expanding brewery would need to self-finance, secure a bank loan, or ask a high net-worth individual to invest. Now, the brewery can use a crowdfunding platform to raise the money it needs to fund its expansion while issuing securities to eligible family, friends, and others who want to own a small piece in a local brewery.

Equity fundraising is changing DC

DC is home to the country's first real estate project that utilized equity crowdfunding. 1351 H St NE was a vacant building in 2012 when WestMill Capital used Fundrise, a DC-based real estate equity crowdfunding platform, to raise money for the building's renovation (WestMill got special permission from the SEC for this project.) Today, 1351 H St NE is home to Maketto and Westmill Capital is returning cash to the project's investors.


1351 H Street NE. Image from the developer.

To date, 15 projects in the DC area have used Fundrise. These projects range from commercial opportunities such as 1351 H St NE to residential developments all across the district. With the new rule change, it is reasonable to assume development projects utilizing equity crowdfunding will increase in number.

Equity crowdfunding increases an individual's ability to be financially involved in the development of their neighborhood. This democratization of real estate development financing has the potential to increase citizen engagement and social cohesion that creates a more empowered neighborhood. Anyone who has yet to amass a net worth of $1 million (particularly millennials) are now eligible to financially contribute and own a local business without transferring funds through a middleman or institutional investor.

Equity crowdfunding will not completely replace traditional forms of business financing. But it does offer more options for local businesses or promising ideas to access much needed cash for building better neighborhoods.

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Development


H Street's sprawling Hechinger Mall is a sleeping giant, waiting to boom

The redevelopment boom on H Street NE hasn't yet transformed Hechinger Mall, the big suburban-style strip mall where H Street meets Bladensburg Road and Benning Road. But someday, when it inevitably does, there's enough land for an entire neighborhood.

By superimposing a map of the Hechinger Mall area on top of other parts of DC, one can see just how great a change is on the horizon.


Hechninger Mall and surrounds by the author using Mapfrappe and Google.

In the above image, the blue line outlines Hechinger Mall plus several surrounding properties with similar car-oriented retail. The mall and its surrounds beat as the commercial heart of multiple Northeast neighborhoods, including Trinidad, Carver-Langston, and Kingman Park.

It's not unused land; there are plenty of stores, and they do robust business. But it's definitely underused. Vast acres of parking sit mostly empty. Single suburban-style stores take up entire blocks. Internal streets look like highways, despite low traffic.

Someday it is going to redevelop. When that happens, it's going to be as much a big deal as redevelopment in Columbia Heights or Union Market.

Compare the land

Let's compare the amount of land we're talking about.

Using a neat tool from Mapfrappe, it's possible to superimpose that blue Hechinger Mall outline on top of other parts of DC, at the same scale.

Here's Columbia Heights:


Columbia Heights comparison by Dan Malouff using Mapfrappe and Google.

As you can see, the blue Hechinger Mall outline is almost exactly the same size and shape of the center of Columbia Heights. You could almost pick up 14th Street and plop it down at Hechinger, and it would fit.

Now Union Market:


Union Market comparison by Dan Malouff using Mapfrappe and Google.

Again, it's almost exactly the same size as the entire Union Market neighborhood.

Let's keep going. NoMa next:


NoMa comparison by Dan Malouff using Mapfrappe and Google.

And now, City Center DC:


City Center comparison by Dan Malouff using Mapfrappe and Google.

NoMa is bigger. But Hechinger Mall is about the same size as the others. That's the scale of redevelopment that could—that probably will—come to H Street.

And that's great. There's nothing wrong with the stores at Hechinger; DC needs shops like Safeway, Ross, and Dollar Tree. But DC also needs places to put more housing, and football field-sized parking lots a mile-and-a-half from the Capitol are exactly the right place.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Development


Suburban North Arlington is going to develop. Let's make sure it works.

Lee Highway is the main street through north Arlington. While other Arlington streets like Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike have grown more urban, Lee Highway has remained car-oriented. But the landscape is starting to change, and there's a big effort underway to ensure residents play a role in shaping the details.


Lee Highway and Spout Run Parkway. Photo from Arlington County.

Arlington is famous in smart growth circles for its walkable Metro station neighborhoods, and the sleek urban development there. But there's more to Arlington than Ballston and Crystal City.

North of I-66, where Metrorail has never reached, Lee Highway is Arlington's main road. It runs through leafy suburban neighborhoods filled with single family homes and low-rise garden apartment buildings. Its abundant surface parking lots, clutter of roadside signs, narrow sidewalks, and speeding traffic combine to make Lee Highway a fairly typical car-oriented suburban road.

Lee Highway is changing. The community is shaping how.

It's been that way for over 50 years, but as urban growth demand has skyrocketed, land values have shot up, and as land has become more limited in the nearby Rosslyn-Ballston corridor over the past ten, a few redevelopment projects have started to pop up along Lee Highway in areas that haven't yet been planned. Rosslyn, Courthouse, Columbia Pike, Clarendon all have adopted plans guiding growth and change within their boundaries.


Recent new development along Lee Highway. Photo by Google.

The community steps up

In response to that changing reality, north Arlington's civic associations and community groups formed the Lee Highway Alliance (LHA) in 2012, as a grassroots coalition to plan for the future.

Between 2012 and 2014, the LHA connected with hundreds of residents, businesses, and property owners in the Lee Highway community through a listserv. LHA organized walking tours and monthly forums on issues ranging from affordable housing to streetscape improvements to retail, and even conducted a targeted survey for Lee Highway businesses and property owners.

In the fall of 2014, they hosted a series of five community meetings spread along the corridor, to raise even broader awareness about Lee Highway and hear the local perspective on Lee Highway's strengths and weaknesses. The rooms were always full. Both LHA and Arlington County host webpages that document these forums and the community meetings that followed.

One of the key results of all these early efforts are guiding principles that set the stage for the community visioning effort soon to unfold.

In a time and place where citizen input is essential to get buy-in, LHA has become a model for planning from the ground up.

It's time to create the vision

After three years of grassroots background work, it's now time to start figuring out what the community's vision for Lee Highway will actually look like.

This weekend, November 6-9, a community design workshop, or charrette, will take place to develop a community-based vision for the future of the corridor.

Anyone who's interested in Lee Highway can attend the charette, where an army of planners will sit down with small groups of residents to hear ideas, put pens to paper, and mark-up maps.

By the end of the weekend, hopefully, the community will have hashed out the beginnings of a grassroots plan. Not imposed from officials, but built from the ground-up by the people who will live with it.

From there, the Lee Highway Alliance will deliver its vision to the Arlington County Board. The county will then consider how it can help the community realize their vision through formal planning efforts.

Plenty of challenges, but strong opportunities

Inevitably, Lee Highway won't end up looking the same as Ballston, Columbia Pike, or Crystal City. It's built to be a different type of place.

There's no Metro line on Lee Highway, and along most of the corridor the commercial buildings are only a single block deep, with neighborhoods of single-family detached houses immediately behind.

But people want to be on Lee Highway. Shopping centers are overflowing, and demand for new housing keeps rising. And though there's not as much land as on other streets, there are plenty of large properties that could become civic amenities.

The opportunities are there, and the charrette will begin to chart that new path. Attend it, and help create the vision.

The charrette will run from November 6-9, at the Langston-Brown Community Center, 2121 N Culpeper Street, in Arlington. You can attend for all or part.

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