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Development


Most of DC's new housing is in high-rises, which most people can't afford to live in

At first glance, the District's central-city housing boom might seem to be completely benign: as long as new housing is being built, does it matter where it is? But by funneling almost all new residences into central-city high-rises, the District is all but requiring that new housing be built with only the most expensive construction techniques, on the most expensive land. Potential residents need more choices.


Photos by the author.

Where housing is built influences how housing gets built. That, in turn, determines how much new housing will cost and thus, who can afford to live there. Given how the city is building high-rises, it's no wonder that the resulting housing is expensive: these buildings are expensive by their very nature, and far more expensive than what most of the District's new residents can afford.

High-rise buildings are built to last, with solid materials like concrete and steel plus expensive fittings like elevators and sprinklers. All of that heavy-duty construction costs a lot of money—up to twice as much as low-rise buildings, per square foot. Those fittings also cost more to maintain over the long run. And since these buildings aren't built on land that was cheap to begin with, it should be no surprise that high-rise apartments are expensive.

High-rises are too expensive to rent for anything but top dollar

How expensive are central city high-rises? The cost of just materials, labor, design, and appropriately-zoned land for a high-rise building in central DC amounts to over $400 per rentable square foot—and that's before its developer has made a single cent on her investment, much less paid interest to her investors, paid attorneys to get the site zoned correctly, paid for community improvements like transportation or affordable housing, or brought in the gimmicky amenities.

These high costs go a long way towards explaining why so little of the District's new housing is affordable to low and moderate income households. It's not necessarily because developers are greedy, but because developers can't afford to sell their products at a 50% loss.

For instance, take a theoretical two-bedroom, 1,100-square foot unit in a newly built high-rise building. The play-an-apartment-developer online game handily provided by New York City's nonprofit Citizens Housing and Planning Council, reprogrammed with DC's considerably lower costs for land, construction, and property taxes, yields a rent of $3,993 for that two-bedroom apartment.


Under HUD's standards for affordability and household size, this theoretical unit could house a three-person household earning $159,720 a year, or 163% of the Area Median Income for three-person households in this region (which is $98,253). Alternately, to make the unit affordable to a "low-income" household that can afford rent of $1,966 a month, the developer would have to lose (or the government would have to pay) over half of the monthly rental cost.

Requiring high-rises also affects the diversity of the new housing that's built. Building fewer but larger apartments in a central-city high-rise divides the building's high costs among fewer units, pushing per-unit prices up even further relative to cheaper low-rise buildings. A typical three-bedroom unit sold in DC this year had 1,336 square feet; the CHPC's calculator indicates such a unit would be affordable only to a four-person household earning more than twice the Area Median Income.

Wages in the region aren't keeping up with rent costs

All of this would be fine if the new jobs that this region is creating were all high-paid, but they're not. A June report by Jeannette Chapman from George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis forecasts that only 37% of the new households that will settle in the District from 2011 to 2023 will earn middle or high incomes (120% or more of Area Median Income). That leaves 63% of all new households, and 73% of new renter households, earning low or moderate incomes.

Most of DC's new households, then, will be priced out of most of DC's new housing. 30,000 new households of more moderate means, who can't afford fancy new high-rise apartments, will instead have to compete with existing households for existing housing, pushing prices up across the board.


High-rise apartments under construction near the Navy Yard.

The District could step in and provide tremendous subsidies to pay the high rent on high-cost high-rises, which is sort of what inclusionary zoning does on a very small scale. Or it could acknowledge that while luxury high-rises have their place, they cannot meet everyone's housing needs, and that new housing is also needed that's intrinsically more economical—built using less-costly low-rise and mid-rise techniques and on less-expensive land.

That would be possible if more housing were being built outside of the central city, which is exactly what the Comprehensive Plan calls for.

Development


The lion's share of DC's new housing is only going in one part of the city

Over the last decade, DC has built 13% less housing than its Comprehensive Plan calls for. Of the new housing that is going up, most of it is confined to the central city even though the plan recommends only 30% go there. Meanwhile, most parts of the District are building little or no new housing.

Capitol Riverfront cranes
New high-rises under construction in the Capitol Riverfront. Photo by the author.

Besides forecasting how much growth the city would need to accommodate, the comp plan also identified where new residents would go. The plan included estimates of how many new households would settle across its 10 planning districts (policy 215.20), the conclusion being that every part of the city would gain new households and thus need to add new units.

The allocations ranged from a 6.8% increase in households in the "Rock Creek West" area, west of the park and above Georgetown, to a 116% increase along the Anacostia waterfront.


Graphic by Peter Dovak.

One part of town is building far more than its share

The comp plan identified a then-emerging trend towards living in the central city, and assumed that a substantial share of the District's future population growth would occur in and around downtown. Its policy 304 states that "approximately 30 percent of the District of Columbia's future housing growth and 70 percent of its job growth will occur within the urban core of the city and adjacent close-in areas along the Anacostia River."

But in the decade since, DC has been too successful at steering development toward downtown.

Instead of 30% of DC's housing growth, the "Central Washington" and adjacent "Lower Anacostia Waterfront/Near Southwest" planning districts are seeing the lion's share of both new housing and new jobs. According to counts provided by economic development officials and local business improvement districts, two-thirds of the building permits issued for new housing in the entire District have been for this central area.

The waterfront planning area, which includes the Capitol Riverfront (Navy Yard) and Southwest Waterfront, along with Poplar Point on the east side of the Anacostia River, was assigned the highest housing-growth target in the comp plan. It would receive 9,400 additional households by 2025, or 1/6 of the entire city's housing growth—a goal it's on track to substantially exceed. As of 2016, the waterfront area will have already met 73% of its 2005-2025 housing goal, compared to 46% for the entire District.

The Capitol Riverfront area alone accounted for nearly half of the new housing permitted in DC last year. There, 4,874 units were built or under construction as of last year, and another 1,249 units broke ground in just the first few months of 2015. Another 1,407 units will be under construction in Southwest Waterfront at the end of this year, and nearly 2,000 additional units have already been planned.


DC's two central planning districts. Image by the author.

Many thousands more units will be built before 2025; a total of 11,978 units have been proposed so far just in Capitol Riverfront. Plans have yet to emerge for large sites like Greenleaf Gardens, Buzzard Point, and Poplar Point.

Meanwhile, the Central Washington planning area—which encompasses the swath from the Capitol to the Kennedy Center, between Massachusetts Avenue and I-395—has almost met its 8,400-unit goal. Just two of its neighborhoods, Mount Vernon Triangle and NoMa, have added 7,300 units in the past decade. Together with 674 units at CityCenterDC, that means the area has built 95% of its projected new units, in half the time.

As with the waterfront, there's more to come: redevelopments at Northwest One like Sursum Corda, residential conversions of existing office buildings, the Southwest EcoDistrict and nearby sites like the Portals, and a few more infill parcels

Central city housing growth has a lot of advantages, as the comp plan points out: "Absorbing the demand for higher density units within these areas is an effective way to meet housing demands, create mixed-use areas, and conserve single-family residential neighborhoods throughout the city."

Yet this one strategy was always meant to be one way to meet housing demands, not the only strategy. The District's other policies to "conserve single-family residential neighborhoods" are doing too good of a job at keeping new housing out of the neighborhoods that were supposed to accommodate 70% of future housing growth—and keeping the District as a whole well below its housing growth projections.

Bicycling


Lousiana Avenue could get a protected bikeway

What's next for protected bikeways in DC? A few sections are in the works, including a connection from NoMA to Pennsylvania Avenue, a north-south bikeway downtown, and several other small connections as well as the next piece of the Metropolitan Branch Trail.


Area around Louisiana Avenue from the DC Bicycle Map.

At a recent meeting of the Bicycle Advisory Council, representatives of the District Department of Transportation announced that DDOT is working with the Architect of the Capitol and the ANC to extend the soon-to-be-completed protected bikeway on First Street NE from Union Station to the bikeway on Pennsylvania Avenue NW via Louisiana Avenue NE/NW.

The First Street NE extension to Union Station is almost done. Resurfacing will begin soon (if it's not already underway). After that, DDOT will install concrete blocks similar to those farther north.

When done, First Street will become a one-way street with a two-way protected bikeway where today motor vehicles are allowed to drive two directions for part of the road's length. The bikeway on this block will be two feet wider (10 feet) than on the sections farther north, as DDOT now views 10 feet as the minimum for such facilities. There will be a loading zone on the opposite side of the street.

DDOT has been meeting with the Architect of the Capitol, local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, and Councilmember Charles Allen's staff to discuss extending the bikeway further south, along Louisiana Avenue, where it would connect to Pennsylvania Avenue via either First or Third streets.

Discussions are preliminary and no alternatives have been defined yet, but the response has been mostly positive. One potential roadblock is that the design will likely require removing parking along Louisiana. Parking is under the purview of the Senate's Sergeant at Arms, not the AOC, and they are concerned about the loss of parking. But if all goes well, work could begin next year.


Senate parking on Louisiana Avenue. Image from Google Maps.

A north-south bikeway through downtown

The East End Bikeway would be a mile-long north-south bikeway on the east side of downtown. Studies are continuing for this project. DDOT planners have collected data on traffic volume, parking, transit use, land use etc. They have also been reaching out to stakeholders, especially churches, to address concerns early.

They'd like to have a public meeting on it soon, perhaps September, and present alternatives. There will be choices about designs and about which street(s) to use.


Area around downtown from the DC Bicycle Map.

4th and 8th have been ruled out, but they may get bike lanes. On other streets, the options are a one-way protected bikeway on each side of the street; a bi-directional bikeway on one side; or a pair of one-way bikeways on adjacent streets such as 5th and 6th.

They hope to have the 30% design completed by the end of the year, with installation to start next spring.

What else?

DDOT has only installed about two miles of bike lanes so far this year. Bike planners have been busy filling small gaps. Those are nearly as much work as longer lanes, but with less mileage. Still, DDOT planners think they're critical pieces which will pay off.

They've installed a couple of small bike lane sections on 2nd and 3rd streets NE near Rhode Island Avenue; bike lanes and sharrows on 49th street NE; a pair of one-way bike lanes on Galveston and Forrester Streets SE; and one-block sections on 4th and 6th NE near Stanton Park. They plan to do the same thing on 11th and 13th near Lincoln Park too.

19th Street NE/SE on Capitol Hill got a bike lane and sharrows. This project was originally going to be a complete rebuild of the street, but became restriping only.


Area around the northern Met Branch Trail from the DC Bicycle Map.

Design and community outreach is underway on the north section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail. DDOT planners are meeting with community groups, taking soil borings near the trash transfer station and the Metro tunnel, and working on the 30% design, which they hope to complete this year. The stickier sections are where the trail crosses Riggs Road and the area near the Brookland Metro entrance. They hope to start construction in 2017.

Finally, DDOT and DPW are creating a snow clearing plan for bridges for next winter. Last year no one was responsible for the 14th Street Bridge so it wasn't cleared. They are trying to prioritize bridge sidewalks for clearing and then DPW and DDOT are dividing up responsibilities, so that every bridge will eventually get service.

A version of this post was originally posted on TheWashCycle.

Bicycling


Commutes become hazardous when people don't respect bike routes

Two short videos show how difficult people in cars can make it for those on bikes to use the bike lanes on New York Avenue NW and L Street NW.

Video by Peter Krupa. Thanks to Rob Pitingolo for bringing to my attention.

The first video is a great example of how bicycle infrastructure needs to be protected if it's really going to be effective.

While paint does help make drivers aware that they aren't the only ones using the road, it doesn't accomplish much if those drivers don't respect the space designated for vulnerable users like people on bikes.

Here, hostility indicates irreverence

Video by DCMuppetDrivers.

A more peaceful move for this "peace officer" would have been to park the vehicle he was guarding in a designated parking space. From there, he could have escorted whoever he was protecting a few extra feet to and from the front door of the building they were visiting.

For bike infrastructure to work, cities have to take it seriously

If DC (and any other city) is going to make cycling a truly viable form of transportation, they need to realize that induced demand works for all modes of transportation.

In other words, build a smooth, wide highway, and drivers will change their route to use it. Conversely, paint a dinky bike lane in a bunch of parked cars' door zones and fail to build loading zones for deliveries, and cyclists will be forced to weave around traffic in the other travel lanes.

To make a place safe for cyclists, enforce rules against using it as loading zone and make sure it's not somewhere the connected and privileged can use without regard for everyone's safety.

Bicycling


CaBi cures downtown dockblocking with new bike corrals

One of the biggest problems limiting growth of Capital Bikeshare in DC has been that downtown docks fill up early in the morning rush hour. That won't be a problem after Thursday, when two new bikeshare corrals open, offering unlimited bikeshare parking.


Bike corral at the 2013 Obama inauguration. Photo by jantos on Flickr.

The two parking corrals will be at 13th and New York Avenue near Metro Center, and at 21st and I near Foggy Bottom. Once the regular bike docks fill up, a Capital Bikeshare staffer will be on hand to accept bikes and log out riders.

The bike corrals will be open every weekday morning this summer, beginning Thursday, May 14, and ending in September. If the service proves popular, CaBi may extend it into autumn.

Corrals will only be open during the morning rush hour, and only at those two locations.

Bigger redistribution truck

The corrals aren't the only Capital Bikeshare improvement coming this week. The agency has also acquired a larger redistribution van, allowing them to move bikes from full stations to empty ones more quickly.

There's no word yet on just how big the new bigger redistribution van is, but check out what Montreal uses:


Montreal redistribution truck. Photo by the author.

Hooray for more reliable bikeshare!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Pedestrians


Walkblock of the week #1: 16th and I

In a booming city, construction is part of life. But when construction closes sidewalks it makes walking more difficult and dangerous. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has a policy requiring that construction closures keep a safe path open for pedestrians and cyclists, but that often doesn't happen in reality.


Is this a "safe and convenient accomodation"? All photos by the author.

This new series, in collaboration with pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC, will examine one sidewalk closure each week. I'll look at why the sidewalk is closed and how it fits with the city's policies on paper.

Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to allwalksdc@gmail.com or tweet with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.

Location #1: The former Third Church at 16th and I

Our first location is on the west side of 16th Street NW, north of I Street. This is the site that formerly held the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, a Brutalist building that stirred up a major historic preservation fight when the church asked to demolish it. The building is gone, and a new building will rise in its place.

Meanwhile, the sidewalk is closed in the heart of downtown, two blocks from the White House, in an area with many people walking on the street.


The red line on the left shows the closed sidewalk on 16th St NW. Base map from Google Maps.

DDOT granted permission

I checked the online permits, and it appears that the construction company got the permits and signage from DDOT necessary to close the sidewalk.

Even though DDOT granted permission, this might not comply with the agency's own policies. The policy on closures, which dates to 2007 and was updated in 2014 to include bicycles, requires construction sites to maintain "a safe and convenient route for pedestrians... that is equal to the accommodation that was provided... before the blockage of the sidewalk." Despite this policy, we continue to find sidewalks closed throughout the city, making walking inconvenient, putting people on foot in serious danger, and eroding the city's image as a world-class multimodal city.

At the 16th Street site, I have routinely seen people walking in the roadway, adjacent to moving traffic. George Branyan, DDOT's Pedestrian Program Coordinator, said that sidewalk was closed because the building was being demolished. According to Branyan,

The developer expressed the need to keep the sidewalk and parking lane closed on 16th Street for unloading and deliveries. At the time, we did not see placing pedestrians in the roadway a viable option, and we considered it safest to direct pedestrians to the opposite sidewalk.
While we agree that pedestrian safety is paramount, the prevalence of pedestrians walking in the street shows that the sidewalk closure is neither safe, convenient, or even well-respected. It clearly fails to meet DDOT's own policy to maintain safe and convenient access.

Both lanes of car traffic on 16th Street, however, remain open as usual; the burden of construction falls exclusively on those on foot and not at all on those in cars.


People in cars move as normal, while those on foot take a detour.

What does the future hold?

After the building's construction is complete, the church and developer plan to rebuild the sidewalk, expand the tree boxes, and plant a double row of trees where now there is just a single row. This was part of the project's zoning approval.

For this streetscape work, the sidewalk will again close, but this time there will be a barricade to let pedestrians walk in the lane next to the curb. According to Branyan, "With such heavy pedestrian traffic in this location, it was appropriate to maintain pedestrian access."

This solution provides a reasonable accommodation that is both safe and convenient. One just wonders why this wasn't part of the current construction phase as well. DDOT's policy is good; its leaders just need to take it seriously all the time and be consistent in enforcing it.


A New York sidewalk scaffold. Some DC construction projects also build these, but many don't. Photo by Matt Green on Flickr.

Where the policy works: New York

DC is a great place to walk, but sidewalk closures make walking less safe and send a clear message to people walking that they are not a priority in DC. New York City, on the other hand, has made a clear and visible policy to keep sidewalks open during all stages of construction, including demolition. That sends an explicit message that walking is a top priority there.

Let's learn from another world class city, and make DC an even better place to walk.

Transit


Here's what will (hopefully) happen in DC transportation over the next two years

DC will have more sidewalks, bike lanes, bus signal priority, real-time screens, many more finished studies, and other changes two years from now, if the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) follows through on a strong new "Action Plan" released today.


Photo by AJC1 on Flickr.

The moveDC plan is a forward-thinking, ambitious, and comprehensive vision for transportation across the District over the next 30 years. But will this become reality? Will DDOT start making significant progress on the many recommendations in the plan, or will this sit on a shelf and just be something we look at 28 years from now and lament how little got done?

To put some weight behind the plan, DDOT officials have now created a document that lists projects, studies, and programs they expect the agency to complete in two years.

Some points give very specific, measurable targets. For example:

  • Add sidewalks on at least 25 blocks where they are missing today
  • Improve pedestrian safety at 20 or more intersections
  • Build 15 miles of bicycle lanes or cycletracks
  • Complete Klingle and Kenilworth Anacostia Riverwalk Trail projects
  • Get Rock Creek and Metropolitan Branch Trail projects at least to "advanced stages of design"
  • Install bus lanes on a small piece of Georgia Avenue from Florida Avenue to Barry Place and signal priority on 16th Street
  • Put real-time screens in some bus shelters citywide
  • Work with WMATA to find at least 10 key spots that delay high-ridership buses and modify the traffic signals
  • Finish a project to better time traffic signals for pedestrian, transit, and traffic flow
  • Begin the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) bridge construction.

Others call for a number of studies to take place on topics such as:

  • Transit improvements, possibly including a bus lane, on 16th Street
  • North-south bike routes between 4th and 7th Streets NW
  • The 22-mile streetcar system (detailed environmental studies still need to be finished on many of the lines)
  • Commuter and freight rail between DC, Maryland, and Virginia
  • Dynamic parking pricing downtown
  • Roadway congestion pricing
  • Transit "brands" (i.e. what is the Circulator, and what is something else?)

Other prongs involve setting up programs and systems of communication, like:

  • Working with a BID to set up parklets
  • Working with MPD on more and better traffic cameras
  • Working with neighborhoods (starting with three) to plan better parking rules
  • Working with regional governments to find long-term funding for Metro and other needs
  • Setting up more dashboards and releasing more data sets publicly, like public space permits and street trees.
And finally, while actually getting things done is most critical, transportation departments can also lay the groundwork for better decisions in the future by writing manuals and training their staffs about the best practices for pedestrian safety, bicycle infrastructure, transit, and other elements of making a truly multimodal, complete street.

The plan includes a few elements to advance this:

  • Revise the Design and Engineering Manual to include new "tools and techniques for multimodal street design"
  • Train all DDOT staff on multimodal design using the new manual and "national best practices."
This is a great set of projects and while every group will likely find something they wish were in here or where the target were more aggressive, if DDOT can actually complete these and the other items in the action plan, DC will move meaningfully toward being safer and more accessible to people on all modes of travel.

What will the next mayor do?

Of course, a lot will depend on whether the next mayor and his or her appointee to head DDOT stick with the plan. They could ensure these projects get finished, slow some down, or abandon this altogether.

Gabe Klein's DDOT put out an action agenda in 2010 (which, admittedly, was very ambitious); Mayor Gray generally kept up the same initiatives and projects that the previous administration had begun, though many moved forward more slowly than advocates would like.

For example, WABA sounded the alarm in 2011 about the slow pace of new bicycle lanes. The 2005 Bicycle Master Plan called for new bike lanes that would have averaged about 10 miles per year. The 2010 Action Agenda called for adding 30 in just two years. But in 2011, DDOT planned 6.5 miles, designed 4.25 miles, and installed zero, WABA's Greg Billing wrote at the time.

Since then, the pace has picked up. Since Mayor Gray took office, DDOT has added or "upgraded" 19 miles, said DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. This counts new striped bike lanes or cycletracks and any places where painted lanes turned into cycletracks. This year, Zimbabwe said, they've done 9 miles.

The Action Agenda sets a goal of 15 miles over two years, for an average of 7.5 per year. That's more than the recent average, but less than this year, and less than in the 2005 or 2010 plans. Which means it's probably an okay target as long as DDOT sees it as something to actually achieve rather than a stretch goal where it's okay to come in close but well under target.

When businesses set goals, they vary on whether the goals should be "stretch goals" where you don't expect to achieve them all, conservative goals where you need to achieve almost all of them to get a good performance review, or goals so conservative that they don't mean much because people are afraid to set any target they don't hit.

Ideally, the next DDOT director will treat these goals as the middle category: tell each department that he or she expects them to actually achieve what's in this plan. Certainly some things here and there will run into unexpected obstacles, but this plan should be something everyone takes seriously and feels some pressure to achieve in the two-year timeframe.

Bicycling


15th Street cycletrack gets s*** on ... literally

Bicyclists can often feel like people treat their infrastructure like crap, such as parking in the lanes on a regular basis and construction closing them without offering an alternative route. But now, people are literally moving their bowels instead of their bicycles on part of the 15th Street cycletrack:


Photo by @KG_DC on Twitter reposted with permission.

This portable toilet appeared astride the cycletrack on Vermont Avenue near H Street this morning, next to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. After Twitter user KG posted the photo, Darren Buck at DDOT sent a permit inspector to deal with it.

This isn't the first time bike lanes have encountered the brown stuff, but thus far it's been from animals: Horses occasionally drop manure in the cycletracks.

One common response to things like this is to suggest cyclists "just go around" the offending obstacle. But each incident forces people on bikes to ride into a space that either a driver or pedestrian thinks is "theirs," creating opportunities for anger and for dangerous crashes.

As Shane Farthing from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association said at a DC council hearing yesterday,

Despite progress in infrastructure, enforcement, and other protections, the DC bicyclist still, on a daily basis, faces the conundrum of the angry motorist shouting at her to get off the street and the angry pedestrian shouting at her to get off the sidewalk.
And even when cyclists get a small space of their own, some people treat it like a toilet.
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