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Posts about Economic Development

Development


This rule scattered "parking craters" around DC, but they're steadily disappearing

I recently wrote that a healthy downtown office market, plus a federal rule that has pushed offices outside downtown, have combined to fill in all of the "parking craters" in downtown DC. That doesn't mean they're totally gone, though. They've just moved to other places in the city.


Parcel A at the Yards, the largest "parking crater" in DC. Photo by Payton Chung.

Over the years, DC noticed the success it found in broadening the federal government's definition of the Central Employment Area, the space eligible for federal government offices. The District successfully lobbied the General Services Administration to widen the CEA further to encompass not just downtown, but also NoMa, much of the Anacostia riverfront, and the former St. Elizabeth's campus. Because the latter areas have much cheaper land than downtown DC, and lots of land to build huge new office buildings, federal offices are now drifting away from the downtown core.

A developer with a small site downtown usually won't bother to wait for a big federal lease, as the government wants bigger spaces at cheaper rents. It's easier to just rent to private-sector tenants. However, a developer with a large site within the CEA and next to Metro, but outside downtown, has a good chance of landing a big federal lease that could jump-start development on their land—exactly the formula that can result in a parking crater while an owner waits for a deal.

One recent deal on the market illustrates the point: the GSA recently sought proposals for a new Department of Labor headquarters. GSA wants the new headquarters to be within the District's CEA, within 1/2 mile walking distance to a Metro station, and hold 850,000 to 1,400,000 square feet of office space.

The kicker is the timeline: GSA wants to own the site by April 2018, and prefers if DC has already granted zoning approval for offices on the site. It would be difficult for a developer to buy, clear, and rezone several acres of land meeting those requirements within the next two years, so chances are that the DOL headquarters will be built on a "parking crater" somewhere in DC. Somewhere outside downtown, but within the CEA, like:

High-rise residential seems like it would be an obvious use for land like the Yards, which is outside downtown but atop a heavy-rail station. Yet even there, where one-bedroom apartments rent for $2,500 a month, it's still more valuable to land-bank the site (as parking, a small green area, and a trapeze school) in the hopes of eventually landing federal offices.

Many federal leases are also signed for Metro-accessible buildings outside the District, which helps to explain why prominent parking craters exist outside of Metro stations like Eisenhower Avenue, New Carrollton, and White Flint. (For its part, Metro generally applauds locating offices at its stations outside downtown, since that better balances the rush-hour commuter flows.)

One reform could fix the problem

One esoteric reform that could help minimize the creation of future parking craters around DC is to fully fund the GSA. Doing so would permit it to more effectively shepherd the federal government's ample existing inventory of buildings and land, and to coordinate its short-term space needs with the National Capital Planning Commission's long-term plans.

Indeed, GSA shouldn't need very many brand-new office buildings in the foreseeable future. Federal agencies are heeding its call to "reduce the footprint" and cut their space needs, even when headcount is increasing. Meanwhile, GSA controls plenty of land at St. Elizabeth's West, Federal Triangle South (an area NCPC has extensively investigated as the future Southwest EcoDistrict), Suitland Federal Center, and other sites.

However, ongoing underfunding of GSA has left it trying to fund its needs by selling its assets, notably the real estate it now owns in now-valuable downtown DC. GSA does this through complicated land-swap transactions, like proposing to pay for DOL's new headquarters by trading away DOL's existing three-block headquarters building at Constitution and 3rd Street NW.

In theory, it should be cheaper and easier for GSA to just build new office buildings itself. In practice, though, they've been trying to do so for the Department of Homeland Security at St. Elizabeth's West, and Congressional underfunding has turned the process into a fiasco.

Parking craters will slowly go away on their own

In the long run, new parking craters will probably rarely emerge in the DC area. Real estate markets have shifted in recent years: offices and parking are less valuable, and residential has become much more valuable. This has helped to fill many smaller parking craters, since developers have dropped plans for future offices and built apartments instead.


This now-closed parking lot in NoMa will soon make way for apartments. Photo by Payton Chung.

Even when developers do have vacant sites awaiting development, the city's growing residential population means that there are other revenue-generating options besides parking. "Previtalizing" a site can involve bringing festivals, markets, or temporary retail to a vacant lot, like The Fairgrounds, NoMa Junction @ Storey Park, and the nearby Wunder Garten. This is especially useful if the developer wants to eventually make the site into a retail destination.

Broader trends in the office market will also diminish the demand for parking craters, by reducing the premium that big offices command over other property types. Demand for offices in general is sliding. Some large organizations are moving away from having consolidated headquarters, and are shifting towards more but smaller workplaces with denser and more flexible work arrangements.

Unlike the boom years of office construction, there's now plenty of existing office space to go around. Since 1980, 295 million square feet of office buildings were built within metro DC, enough to move every single office in metro Boston and Philadelphia here. While some excess office space can be redeveloped into other uses, other old office buildings—and their accessory parking lots—could be renovated into the offices of the future.

Transit


These two Prince George's neighborhoods show how bike trails help neighborhoods

Riverdale Park and East Riverdale are two neighboring communities just east of Hyattsville in Prince George's County. One is thriving while the other has struggled. One reason could be that the Riverdale Park is near bike trails, while East Riverdale is blocked from them.


Riverdale Park and East Riverdale. Image by Dan Reed. Base map from ESRI, with boundaries from the Census Bureau.

As part of an effort to extend the WB&A Trail south toward DC, Bike Maryland and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association studied property values and housing patterns in several Prince George's county neighborhoods. The large differences in property values between neighborhoods with close proximity to bike trails and other nearby communities with few non-car transport options was striking.

As part of the study, the organization divided whole communities into those that have good access to trails (Hyattsville, Riverdale Park, Edmonston) and those that have poor bike access or are otherwise "carlocked" by major uncrossable roads (Woodlawn, East Riverdale, Landover Hills). They also looked at properties within 200 meters of a bike facility and those beyond 200m of a bike facility, both within communities and overall.


A heat map of bike infrastructure in Prince George's County. The area where Bike Maryland and WABA want to expand the WB&A Trail is circled in yellow. Image from Bike Maryland.

Two neighboring communities highlight the contrasts

For example, let's compare East Riverdale, where there is no safe place to bike or walk, either for recreation or for commuting and utility, with Riverdale Park, where there are far more options.

Riverdale is a burgeoning community with a lively farmer's market, a nascent craft beer scene, a weekly blues jam, and easy walking and bike access to the new Hyattsville Arts district and a revitalized Route 1, which has several new restaurants. A trendy new development anchored by a Whole Foods market is under construction just north of town.

But East Riverdale, which is just across Route 201, has been designated as a Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative community, meaning it faces "significant economic, health, public safety and educational challenges."


Riverdale Park. Base image from Google Maps.


East Riverdale. Base image from Google Maps.

Median housing values are more than $30,000 higher in Riverdale Park ($246,200) than in East Riverdale ($215,500), and assessments are about $50,000 higher ($215,800 in Riverdale Park vs. $163,700 in East Riverdale). Riverdale Park's value per acre ($995,000) is nearly 10 percent higher than East Riverdale's ($908,000).

Houses in East Riverdale are actually newer and larger than those in Riverdale Park. East Riverdale also has more single-family housing and fewer buildings with large numbers of units, there's more owner-occupied housing, and its houses have more rooms; all of these things are often associated with higher home values.

The demographic characteristics of the residents in Riverdale Park and East Riverdale are similar, with approximately half of the residents of Hispanic of Latino heritage (48% in Riverdale Park vs. 53% in East Riverdale). Downtown Riverdale Park has a MARC commuter rail station with some charming pre-WWII homes and cottages nearby, although the commercial area around it seemed relatively lifeless and contained several abandoned buildings until recently. On balance, looking at individual street views of East Riverdale's and Riverdale Park's housing stocks, it is certainly not obvious that East Riverdale would have dramatically lower housing values.

It's quite possible that the reason Riverdale Park is being revitalized while East Riverdale has struggled economically goes back to basic community design: East Riverdale's layout forces residents to drive everywhere, and residents can't easily walk to the market or ride their bikes to work.

Meanwhile, as younger residents who are not particularly attached to driving look for affordable place to live, Riverdale Park is a more attractive choice. The new energy attracted to the neighborhood creates an upward cycle of renovation.

To note: The comparison data on the housing characteristics and demographics of households in East Riverdale and Riverdale come from the US Census American Community Survey (ACS) for 2009-2013. Tax valuation data are from PG Atlas, gathered in June and July of 2015.

Can transit turn East Riverdale around?


Caption: East Riverdale is Blocked from the Anacostia Tributary Trails by a Major Highway, MD Route 201; map by Google maps.

It's possible that the Purple Line, which will affect East Riverdale more than Riverdale Park, may switch economic momentum back to the east over the next 10 or 20 years. The Purple Line and its feeder walks and bike routes (if any) should make it easier to get around without a car.

Granted, a more desirable neighborhood layout, with more transportation options, will attract higher income residents, who, in turn, attract more businesses and amenities, making the neighborhood even more desirable in an self-reinforcing cycle. It is very difficult, and can be a fool's errand, to try to accurately say that any one item makes a neighborhood more or less desirable when every contributing factor is related to every other!

But we certainly want to make county leaders aware of the fact that the carlocked neighborhoods in Prince George's County contribute much less per acre to county's tax rolls than trail-accessible neighborhoods. We hope our county will agree to build more great bike trails in the county and thereby test our hypothesis that unlocking carlocked neighborhoods could lift whole communities!

Bicycling


Bike paths are good for business, says the president of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce

Some people were skeptical that Shortcake Bakery would succeed. After all, it's next to grungy strip of auto repair shops along Route 1 in Hyattsville. But David Harrington, the president of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce, whose wife opened the bakery, says the shop's location had an "unexpected asset": a nearby bike path.

David Harrington was the featured speaker at a economic development conference hosted by the Greenbelt Community Development Corporation last month. His personal experience with how bike trails can be advantageous for businesses was just one of the things he talked about.

"I can tell you one of the unexpected assets that we have at the bakery is that… it is near a bike path," said Harrington, referring to the Northwest Branch Trail, which is part of the Anacostia Tributary Trail system. "Cheryl and I always pray for good weather on Saturdays," he added, saying that when that happens "we may have 30 [cyclists] stop at Shortcake Bakery as they're going to Baltimore, going to College Park. It is a wonderful business asset."


Base image from Google Maps.

"If you create these bike paths and … create nice connectors for bicyclists to do commerce, that is an amazing business opportunity," he continued. "Walkability and bikeability are … strong economic tools that can help create entrepreneurship, and I think we need to look at that a lot closer than we are."

The Old Greenbelt Theater hosted the conference. Here's a link to the full video: http://greenbeltlive.com/greenbelts-economic-development/

Development


Good deal or not? DC will build a Wizards practice facility near Congress Heights Metro

Tens of millions of dollars in public money would pay for a pro basketball practice facility and small arena at the St. Elizabeths campus, under a deal reported Monday. Will it spur needed economic development or take away funds from needed public projects like schools?


Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr.

A recent candidate for public office said about sports subsidies, "We have to make the case that this is really going to generate the type of economic revenue that would make our up-front investment worth it. We still have a lot of capital needs in the District of Columbia, schools being really at the top of the list."

That was Muriel Bowser in 2014. Will she make a persuasive case for this one?

What's in the deal?

Under the deal, Events DC, the authority that runs DC's convention center, would pay up to $32.5 million toward building the facility, which it would own. The NBA Washington Wizards would use the complex as a practice facility, while the WNBA's Mystics would play games there instead of the Verizon Center. It would also host arts, cultural and community events.

The buildings could cost up to $56.3 million, and the difference could come from some combination of funds from the DC budget and from Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the entity that owns the Wizards and Mystics. The exact mix is reportedly still being negotiated, and would also need approval from the DC Council (not a foregone conclusion).

Monumental would also contribute $10 million for as-yet-undisclosed (or undecided) amenities for the nearby Congress Heights area, Jonathan O'Connell reported in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the District would provide the land gratis, along with roads, lighting, utilities, and parking lots.

Is this a good idea?

While its sports deals haven't come close to the ridiculous giveaways of some stadium deals, DC has still been willing to throw substantial public money at pro sports despite near-unanimity among economists that such deals rarely make fiscal sense.

If there is any good spot, St. Elizabeths isn't such a bad one. DC took control of the huge east campus, which abuts Congress Heights Metro, and the Gray Administration announced grand plans for a technology innovation center there, but progress has been very slow.

If this center actually kicks off economic growth at St. Elizabeths, that could be valuable, as could drawing people across the Anacostia River to a part of the city many never see. What we don't know, and have only heard snippets about secondhand, is whether the lack of change at St. Elizabeths is due to a lack of private sector interest or just government slowness; for example, most of the site still lacks power and roads.

DC will have to put those in as part of this deal; if it simply put them in anyway, would that be enough to trigger growth without a large sports subsidy? Economic development officials have not disclosed enough to answer that.

What would candidate Bowser say?

During her 2014 campaign, I interviewed Bowser along with her competitors, and sports subsidies were one of the topics. She said,

My approach is that there is economic development that it's okay for the city to incentivize... but it has to make sense for us. ...

We also have to make the case that this is really going to generate the type of economic revenue that would make our up-front investment worth it. We still have a lot of capital needs in the District of Columbia, schools being really at the top of the list, and other public buildings. So what are we going to get out of this investment?

Now having said all that, I think that this team has been a good neighbor in the District. There are a lot of District residents that support this team. And I hope they come to a deal that makes sense for us.

Bowser was talking then about the proposed deal for a soccer stadium at Buzzard Point. She primarily opposed a "land swap" where the District would give developer Akridge the Reeves Center at 14th and U in exchange for land in Buzzard Point, and she later followed through and blocked that piece of the plan.

But the soccer deal ultimately cost about $150 million out of the DC budget. Supporters said it would revitalize Buzzard Point and keep a beloved soccer team in the city, while detractors noted that the budget delayed many capital projects like school renovations.

Bowser added at the time, "I think when you know we have a billionaire owner, which we do, some people have to ask the question of why do we have to give them $150 million. We have a lot of priorities for DC."

Watch this segment of my interview with Bowser here:

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