Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Economic Development


What would taller buildings mean for DC's architecture?

Would lifting the height limit lead to better architecture? It's not that simple, say architects. There are many people and forces, both cultural and economic, that shape the built environment, not just height.

The Cairo Apartments. Photo by David on Flickr.

Proponents of relaxing the height limit say that it would improve the quality of architecture, but they usually mean that new buildings will be less boxy if there's less pressure to maximize floor area. Yes, this might encourage more setbacks, deeper walls, more varied patterns, and richer textures. It might also lead to buildings that are just taller versions of the same boxes.

We asked several experienced architects to weigh in on the topic. Some oppose revisions and others support them. But they all note how aesthetics, human comfort, and building performance get trapped in between money and the law, and offer tangible ways to improve the urban environment with or without relaxed height restrictions.

Form follows finance

It may be helpful to think of a speculative office building as a machine for making money. In order to provide a very high level of service to a large amount of floor space, modern office buildings are packed with mechanical equipment and consist of highly engineered assemblies from structure to skin. We can see when money has been spent on high-quality finishes and beautiful details, but the real luxury is empty space.

Given the demand for space downtown, developers want to maximize revenue. The high rents enable them to finance the construction of multistory buildings to multiply the rentable floor area. In any location, physics, human needs, and legal restrictions constrain the design of buildings. Since you can't go beyond a certain height, there's a perverse incentive to use every square inch of the zoning envelope, an effect noted by several of the architects we asked.

Marshall Purnell notes that this pressure encourages facades with no depth. A four-inch-thick glass curtainwall assembly opens up a lot more space than a foot-thick cavity wall with insulation. Large windows can make smaller perimeter offices feel bigger. Flat and glassy looks modern, maximizes space, and carries a dubious aura of sustainability. It works well enough for owners, but produces a thin public realm.

Matt Bell of Perkins Eastman notes that the worst offenders in terms of boxiness suffer from bad proportioning and composition. Relatively modest setbacks and architectural texture, combining patterns, recesses, and different materials, can make a world of difference. The Investment Building and 1999 K Street both show how minor massing details can significantly diminish bulkiness.

Left: Photo of 1999 K Street NW from Jahn Architects. Right: Investment Building by NCinDC on Flickr.

In order for greater height to enable better architecture, it would have to change the value proposition of those architectural features. Niches reduce revenue and flexibility, so there is a disincentive to use even little recesses for office buildings. With less of a need to maximize every square inch, developers might agree to increase the facade depth and reduce setbacks. The equation for finishes and detail, which cost the same amount for each floor, would remain unchanged.

Revised limits could make for more sustainable interiors

Robert Peck, who works on office design at Gensler, notes that the height limit contributes to "unusually low ceilings" in Washington. Buildings, he argues might be more efficient with higher floors to let light penetrate deeper into the building. Light enters a window at an angle, so a ray entering higher up goes deeper, especially if it can be reflected with a light shelf.

Shalom Baranes argued a related point a few months back: greater floor-to-floor heights allow ducts to be more efficiently shaped and routed. The efficiency of ducts depends on the directness of the route and the ratio of duct surface to volume. A circular or square cross section is best. But in cramped ceilings, flattened ducts and circuitous routes require air to move at faster speeds. Not only does this waste energy, it's noisier.

Section through One Bryant Park, showing floor heights from CookFox Architects.

I'd also add that higher floor heights allow heat to move away from human bodies. Designers can further this by distributing air through the floor and returning it through the ceiling. Because the fresh air does not mix with the stale air, lower volumes of air can flow at slower speeds and warmer temperatures and still achieve the same level of thermal comfort. And there are still further techniques that can be used when ceilings are less congested.

Interestingly, these requirements suggest that building height might be better regulated by the number of floors, rather than by absolute height. The cost of higher floor heights would remove the incentive for outrageous floor heights in most cases, while reducing the pressure on building systems. Traditionalist architect Léon Krier has argued that this produces building heights that vary within certain limits, with extreme differences uncommon.

We could shape the height and density

None of the architects support unfettered height increases. Cities are more than just economic engines. Land use is deeply intertwined with transportation, community, and aesthetics, and the purpose of planning is to balance those interests to produce a thriving city. It's in the city's interest to promote a public realm that benefits citizens.

The official statement of the DC chapter of the AIA calls for "A thorough, in-depth study," of the city's height limit, arguing that "well-designed, taller structures will provide an interesting counterpoint and add visual interest and variety to the skyline." The authors, David Haresign, Mary Fitch, and Bill Bonstra, have been working with the Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission to discuss ways of managing the height limit.

They argue that the rationale behind the 1910 law is outdated, so new regulations that reflect modern building standards and aesthetic needs should be the beginning of any conversation. Outside of areas with federal interest, they point out that the DC government should be the organization to determine those needs.

Even if Congress were to change the height law, it would require revising DC's Comprehensive Plan, last changed in 2006. Roger Lewis, architecture columnist for the Washington Post, echoes the DC AIA's call for detailed planning. An insistence on transparent planning, he argues, is the best way to ensure equitable outcomes for a growing city. Analysis of geographical information could enable an approach that replaces a one-size-fits-all approach with one that carefully tunes height for livability.

The city might also look for more specific ways to shape the city's architecture. David Varner of SmithGroup points out that the comparative devaluation of existing buildings could lead to premature teardowns. To prevent this, he suggests a transfer of development rights system, where property owners could sell the windfall development rights to other landowners to offset the costs.

One Franklin Square, with setbacks and towers, by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The District could offer height in exchange for design review or mandate a set of design codes in exchange for greater height. Architect Travis Price looks to incentive zoning, allowing buildings to reach higher in exchange for architectural features. Combined with setbacks, buildings in his imagining would reach into the sky with sculptural features most analogous to the towers and setbacks of One Franklin Square, although he'd prefer to do without symmetry.

Even without a formal system of incentive zoning, the regulations could be better tailored to architectural content. The NCPC's modest revisions allow people to occupy penthouses, currently used mainly to store mechanical equipment, and at best hidden by a setback. This might encourage more exciting roof structures, adding interest to DC's skyline.

Architecture isn't determined by economics alone

Residential blocks, the other major kind of multistory building, face slightly different restrictions. Zoning is more restrictive than the height limit in most places. Revising the height limit wouldn't have an effect on the sense of the city for many years. Before any changes actually happen, there will be time to fine-tune plans and settle on an effective regulatory method. DC will never look like Manhattan.

Defenders of the Height Act accurately say that the current law has benefits, such as encouraging developers to build to the lot line. We are fortunate that the height limit discourages the shattered streetscapes of some cities. But it's a side effect of a rule that has many negative side effects, namely increased cost of living. If the city needs strong streetwalls, then those should be required. If a low roofline gets more sun to the streets, then regulation based on solar exposure would be more precise.

The height limit, as it is currently structured, is too crude of a tool to encourage the built environment most people want. Horizontally, the building regulations may permit too much, but vertically there's no flexibility. A careful revision of the height limit could resolve much of the blockishness of DC's architecture, but absent more effective guidelines, there's no guarantee the public realm will reach a higher quality with more height.

One thing the architects reiterated is that good design requires clients to desire it. As Marshall Purnell notes, his ability to realize good design depended on having the good fortune to find clients who want it. No matter how talented an architect is or how much design review there is, the quality of the environment depends ultimately on an owner's desire to contribute to the public realm.

To read the full comments of the architects, click here.


More roads won't solve traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia

I-95 in Northern Virginia is already one of the nation's most congested corridors, and forecasts predict it will only get worse. A new study by the GMU Center for Regional Analysis lays out the difficult decisions area leaders face regarding the corridor's future land use, economy, and transportation network.

Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.

At present, the I-95 corridor in Fairfax and Prince William counties is mainly a low-density suburban area. Most residents work in DC, Arlington, or Alexandria, and existing transit such as the Blue Line and VRE only serve inside-the-Beltway locations. The area's lone major employment center is Fort Belvoir, which is spread out and has limited bus service.

Traffic volume and congestion along I-95 are already very high, and major road investments are not expected to reduce congestion. Furthermore, job growth in the region has been occurring in areas like Tysons Corner and the Dulles Corridor, which are hard to reach from the I-95 corridor, especially by transit.

Development plans along the corridor envision a series of dense urban nodes around transit in places like Springfield, Huntington, and Woodbridge. But the success of those areas depends on carefully planned, and expensive, transportation investments both within the corridor and to other areas.

The situation is already problematic

The 21-mile stretch of Interstate 95 that connects the Capital Beltway and Quantico is one of the busiest highways in the eastern United States. The most heavily traveled segment of the corridor, located just south of Old Keene Mill Road, carries an average of 231,000 vehicles per day. This count includes about 30,000 vehicles per day in the corridor's reversible express lanes and about 14,000 tractor-trailers.

Traffic volumes along the corridor tripled between 1975 and 2000, but have flattened out since then. That's due to the expansion of transit and, more recently, the rerouting of through traffic around the "Mixing Bowl" interchange in Springfield.

All images from the GMU Center for Regional Analysis unless noted.

Transit ridership in the corridor has increased dramatically over the past 15 years, with the average number of daily boardings on the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) tripling and the number of boardings at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station increasing by 48 percent. The corridor also contains more than 15 express commuter bus routes that connect it to the Pentagon, downtown Washington, and Tysons Corner. In total, about 27,000 transit riders per day make use of these rail or bus options to travel to work each day.

Surveys by transit operators show that the majority of these riders work for the federal government and routinely commute by transit four or five days every week. These transit options are becoming increasingly congested: VRE reports that its trains operate at as much as 20 percent over capacity during peak times.

Increased traffic in the corridor has been a function of commuting patterns. Since 1990, the number of people who live in Fairfax or Prince William and work in DC, Arlington, or Alexandria has remained flat, while the number who work in other locations increased by more than 100,000 people.

Nearly all existing transit in the I-95 corridor serves employment hubs located inside the Beltway, so few options exist for these commuters. Traffic has also increased due to additional commuting activity from Stafford, Fredericksburg, and points south.

Lots of growth, little land

The areas of Fairfax and Prince William around I-95 are primarily residential: the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) reports that the corridor contained 566,000 residents and 187,000 jobs in 2010. Most corridor residents live in low-density, single-family areas, and there is little undeveloped land remaining in the area. MWCOG forecasts that the corridor will add another 126,000 residents and 85,000 jobs by 2030. Where will they go?

MWCOG Traffic Analysis Districts (TADs)

A look at the Comprehensive Plans for the two counties provides some clarity. Each county has designated a small number of areas located directly along I-95 and/or around transit stations for mixed-use development.

Fairfax anticipates high-intensity residential and commercial development around the Huntington and Franconia-Springfield Metro stations. Meanwhile, Prince William is planning intensive growth around the Woodbridge VRE station and a potential future VRE station at Potomac Shores, north of Quantico.

But the county also wants growth at the more auto-dependent Parkway Employment Center, north of Potomac Mills, and Neabsco Mills, south of Woodbridge along Route 1. Since VRE has no immediate plans to expand service on the Fredericksburg Line, additional growth in these areas would further strain the already-crowded system.

Investment in roads and highways isn't enough

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is in the midst of completing a slate of "megaprojects" in the corridor. Two of these are already in place: the widening of I-95 between Route 123 and the Fairfax County Parkway, and the completion of the last segment of the Fairfax County Parkway, encompassing a network of new roads, interchanges, and trails around the Fort Belvoir North Area.

VDOT reports that these new facilities have slightly reduced congestion in this segment of the corridor. But these investments have not reduced congestion in adjacent areas and may have even worsened it by allowing more vehicles to enter and exit the highway.

Construction on the I-95 express lanes. Photo from VDOT.

VDOT's most ambitious project in the corridor is a $1 billion expansion of the I-95 express lanes. This project will extend the express lanes nine miles into Stafford County, add a third lane north of Prince William Parkway, and connect the express lanes with the I-495 express lanes. It will also convert the express lanes from HOV to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes from Stafford County to Edsall Road, just inside the Beltway. The express lanes will remain as HOV-3 lanes along I-395 north of Edsall Road.

The express lanes project will unquestionably add highway capacity, but will it actually reduce congestion? A serious concern is that converting the existing HOV lanes to HOT lanes will very likely reduce carpooling activity, as people driving alone will be able to pay to use the express lanes. A reduction in carpooling translates to needing more vehicles to move the same number of people, contributing to additional congestion.

VDOT's own Environmental Assessment of the I-95 express lanes concluded that, while the project would improve the overall situation, several currently failing road segments would remain at failing levels. It further concluded that, after completion, the merge areas at the northern and southern ends of the HOT lanes would still operate at failing levels.

Clearly, even this billion-dollar project will not solve the traffic woes faced by I-95 corridor commuters. Additionally, this project is primarily aimed at moving commuters through the corridor, and does not address the need to better connect the emerging urban nodes in the two counties to each other or to the surrounding region.

So what can be done?

To their credit, both Fairfax and Prince William counties have committed to focusing future development around existing infrastructure. However, successfully clustering new development in this manner will create a complex set of challenges.

Improving transit connections to far-flung employment centers can reduce traffic. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The counties will need to provide transit that serves private-sector workers, particularly those with irregular hours and/or in dispersed locations. They will also have to improve access to existing and planned transit hubs from nearby neighborhoods and employment centers.

It's also necessary to attract the high-paying office jobs that planned suburban employment nodes will need, and to provide housing that matches up with those jobs' earning potential to allow for shorter commutes.

Once those jobs are in place, Fairfax and Prince William need to create new incentives to encourage carpooling, and to add capacity to the I-95 corridor's already strained and crowded transit systems. The counties will also have to work regionally to help address transportation problems that originate elsewhere but affect the corridor.

Continued congestion of highways, roads, and transit in the I-95 corridor threatens its prosperity. Public and private sector leaders at both local and regional levels will need to understand and address the above issues in order to achieve their bold visions for future development.


Long-awaited redevelopment in Anacostia could begin soon

Plans to redevelop a large swath of land along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia are finally moving forward after a 5-year delay.

A plan to develop multiple parcels along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia is moving forward. Photos by the author.

Developer Four Points LLC seeks to replace 5 blocks of surface parking, vacant lots and industrial buildings with new homes, shops and offices, including space for several DC government agencies. Meanwhile, DC is preparing other nearby lots for additional redevelopment.

If Four Points' plans are approved by the Zoning Commission, the neighborhood could see nearly 500 new homes, 144,000 square feet of retail, and 900,000 square feet of office space. The developer has already had public hearings for the project, said principal Stan Voudrie earlier this month. Next, they'll submit designs for each individual building for neighborhood groups to review. Since the development falls outside of the boundaries of the Anacostia Historic District, it will not need approval from the Historic Preservation Review Board.

The former MPD Evidence Warehouse will be redeveloped over the next year.

The project's first phase will be to renovate the former Metropolitan Police Department evidence warehouse, located at 2235 Shannon Place SE. In the coming months, construction will transform it from a "white brick building to a building that is wrapped in glass," according to Voudrie.

When completed, it will house the DC Taxicab Commission, the DC Lottery and the District Department of Transportation's Business Opportunity and Workforce Development Center, according to the Washington Business Journal.

DHCD readying "Big K" lot for future development

Meanwhile, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development is preparing land for future development. In 2010, the agency acquired 4 properties across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue from Four Points' site, including 3 historic homes and a former liquor store, which together are known as the "Big K" lot.

While the 19th-century home at 2228 MLK Jr. Avenue has been demolished, the other 2 homes, within the boundaries of the Anacostia Historic District, have been stabilized.

The 2 historic homes on the "Big K" lot could be on the move.

To make room for new construction, DHCD bought several properties at the corner of Maple View Place SE and High Street SE, 3 blocks away. Today, it's a cluster of 4 brick abandominiums that have sat vacant for more than a decade. Tax records show that the agency paid $918,000 for the properties in April 2012.

According to Mayor Gray and others familiar with the ongoing development process, the plan is to relocate the remaining historic houses to a nearby lot. It looks like the city will tear down the abandominiums on High Street and move the "Big K" houses there.

"I suspect the [High Street SE] structures will go down very shortly," a city official familiar with the application said. "The District's DHCD office seems interested in moving quickly on this project."

A raze application has been submitted for 2352-2360 High Street SE.

Last week, DHCD submitted an application to raze the structures to the DC Historic Preservation Office.

Meanwhile, DHCD is planning to dispose of the "Big K" lot within 18 months, according to a presentation Denise L. Johnson, project manager of the site for the Department of Housing and Community Development, gave in March. Chapman Development LLC, which developed The Grays, an apartment building on the 2300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, was the only qualified applicant who responded to last fall's request for proposals to redevelop the property.

In the coming years, something in Anacostia will have to give and redevelopment will begin. The potential development of the "Big K" lot and Four Points' proposed new office, residential, and commercial space on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE will test the market.

"We have arrived," said resident Reverend Oliver "OJ" Johnson upon hearing of Voudrie's plans at last month's meeting of the Historic Anacostia Block Association. Johnson has lived in Anacostia for 60 years and is known for his decades of activism, from opposing a concentration of drug clinics locating in the neighborhood and advocating for economic development.

"I want to thank those who have always believed in this neighborhood and welcome those who are now pitching their tents here," he said. "We will continue to work and fight together."


Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls

The city routinely bids public land out to private companies. Instead of money, the city demands amenities like affordable housing, workforce development, or a library. Sometimes, these deals work well. Sometimes, they're just a bad deal, or developers renege on promises.

Minnesota-Benning project. Image from DMPED.

WAMU reporters Patrick Madden and Julie Patel have been delving into this issue in a series this week. Their Tuesday and Wednesday installments look at the ways public land deals and subsidies can go wrong.

Their week-long series frames the issue around the inappropriate influence of money in politics. If campaign donors get a leg up in the competition for deals, that is a serious problem, and good for Madden and Patel for giving it attention. However, campaign cash is only one of several possible reasons these deals can turn out bad. At the same time, they can also bring valuable benefits as well.

Land deals aren't just a giveaway

The Tuesday headline was "Million-Dollar Properties, $1 Deals." The lede talks about 5 projects that went to Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Construction. "The appraised value of all this public land, according to city records: $17.5 million. The price paid by the developers to the city, a little more than a parking ticket: $88."

Sounds like a massive handout! Where can I get a few acres for a buck? But later, Madden explains that it's not quite so simple. The deals come with big strings. In particular, they often have to build affordable housing.

Certainly there's some profit in these deals, and if that profit goes to the biggest donors, that's a big problem. However, Donatelli's profit isn't anywhere close to the $17,499,912 that the intro might lead people to believe.

Madden gives a table of the top 5 land deals:

ProjectPayment to DCValue of landContributions
by dev. team
Hine Jr. HS$21,800,000.00$44,700,000.00$194,045.00
West End (Library & Fire Station)$18,000,000.00$30,018,000.00$127,295.00
The Wharf$1.00$95,000,000.00$126,732.81
Capital Fire Station$15,000,000.00$40,300,000.00$123,646.00
Minnesota-Benning (Phase 2)$10.00$13,176,000.00$122,076.00

This table isn't really, complete, however, without factoring in what the development teams have to spend on the public amenities that go into the buildings.

ProjectPmt. to DCValue of landPublic amenities
Hine Jr. HS$21,800,000.00$44,700,000.0020% affordable housing
C Street & plaza
West End$18,000,000.00$30,018,000.00New library, fire station
The Wharf$1.00$95,000,000.0015% affordable housing
Capital Fire Station$15,000,000.00$40,300,000.00(can't find this)
Minnesota-Benning$10.00$13,176,000.00100% affordable housing

What makes a good deal?

Figuring out how much those public amenities are worth, however, is the tricky part, and whether the government is getting a good deal. People often disagree about how much affordable housing is fair. In the West End, DC is giving Eastbanc two parcels, which now contain a library and fire station. Eastbanc can build housing, but has to also build a new library and fire station.

Eastbanc is also building 52 units of affordable housing with an additional $7 million subsidy from the city. DC's zoning commission then let Eastbanc out of the Inclusionary Zoning affordable housing requirement on one of the two parcels, after the developer and officials argued that the value the city is getting from the new library and fire station uses up all the value of the property.

Cheryl Cort thinks that despite the IZ exception, this is probably the best deal we can get. A library advocacy group Ralph Nader founded, the DC Library Renaissance Project is suing to stop the project, arguing that DC should have held out for more affordable housing. Many neighbors want the library, already and think the Nader group is going too far. There's no definitive way to know who's right.

Under the current leadership of DMPED's Victor Hoskins, the city has been seeking less affordable housing from its public land deals, and more direct revenues.

Sometimes public officials don't push for important amenities

DC economic development officials are often quite eager to get a deal done, even at the cost of important amenities. At Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, a DDOT plan for the area recommended a new road connection to expand the grid around Minnesota Avenue Metro and a highly congested intersection.

One of the two bidders included the connection, while the winner, Donatelli, did not. Representatives of Mayor Fenty's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) then joined Donatelli in lobbying against the concept or even reserving the right of way for a future street. Maybe it was too expensive or difficult, or maybe it was an important amenity that officials just didn't bother to push for.

Madden and Patel discusses some other problems with public land development deals like this. A law requires the developers to hire small and minority-owned businesses. Sometimes they don't. (Other times, those companies are just shells that give a payout to owners while a larger firm actually does the work.)

Patel writes,

A WAMU investigation of 110 D.C. developments that received $1.7 billion in subsidies found:
  • Flaws with benefits pledged for about half
  • A third missed requirements on hiring local businesses, or the city didn't have paperwork for them
  • Another 15 percent downsized or delayed benefits, costing the city millions in lost revenue and others arguably didn't need the subsidy in the first place
  • Less than 5 percent of the subsidies approved were for the city's poorest areas, wards 7 and 8.
The series has an overarching thesis that much of this comes about because the developers are dishing out campaign cash. That certainly may be part of it, but it's not the only reason. Plus, Aaron Wiener plotted donations against the size of deals and found only a weak correlation.

Cash probably does have an effect. So do other factors. Sometimes economic development officials or politicians just want to get the deal done because a ribbon-cutting is appealing while a project sitting unfinished is a hassle.

Public land deals, though often bungled, are still necessary

Madden says, "Activists and even some council members have asked why the city just doesn't hold a public auction for these properties and award them to the highest bidder." That's an option, but then there would be no amenities. Where would the new library go? Making it part of a larger mixed-use project is probably the best way to use the land, since a library doesn't need to take up an entire building. Wouldn't we be better off with a broader mix of uses that maximize the value of this site?

DC could just rent space in an office building for a library, perhaps, but is that space going to be well-suited for a library and in the right location? Plus, that would mean library rent goes up as neighborhoods become more desirable, creating a risk that future budget cuts imperil libraries entirely instead of just shortening their hours. Meanwhile, there's definitely no spec building out there that can fit a fire station.

Others, like Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, feel that public land should never go to private uses. She'd like DC to keep all of the publicly-owned land for schools, libraries, and so on. Many other activists also view any public-private partnership deals with suspicion, and don't want a private company building a library.

These public-private deals, imperfect as they are, seem to be a compromise between these two views. The public gets something for its land, but the land can also accommodate housing and offices when the public doesn't need every square foot for public use.

Still, it's important that public officials push to get the best deal for the city, and ensure that winning bidders keep the promises that helped them win bids in the first place. When officials don't, sometimes it's because of campaign cash, but there can be many other reasons as well, which are just as important to combat.


Will economic renewal reach Anacostia in 2013?

Farm vehicles no longer have their own parking privileges in Historic Anacostia. A weathered sign offering them special treatment is now gone; a new perimeter fence and fresh asphalt recently appeared on a site where, in 2008, a developer envisioned a $500-700 million mixed-use project.

The 2200 block of MLK Jr. Ave SE. Photos by the author.

Vacant storefronts, social service providers, treatment centers, art galleries, city government agencies, carry-outs and liquor stores, barber shops and beauty salons, cash checking spots and branch banks, small contractors and creative class incubators, a coffeehouse-bar hybrid and a progressive radio station roughly define Anacostia's commercial strip. A flower shop and faded grocery store recently shuttered.

By spring, new management plans to open a restaurant in former Uniontown Bar & Grill space. The Anacostia Playhouse, leaping across the river from H Street NE, will pull back its curtains in a former training center on Shannon Place SE.

Through fits and starts, more than 5 years after President Obama spoke nearby on his way to becoming the first black President (although widely reported as being in Anacostia, Obama spoke at THEARC, a short walk from the Southern Avenue Metro), Ward 8's Anacostia remains on the periphery of the city's economic renewal.

Will the neighborhood, more than 2 decades after its own Metro station opened, finally begin to attract sustained investment this year?

Can new retail take root?

A sleepy Sunday morning in Anacostia.

What happens to the former Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket at 14th and Good Hope Road SE will demonstrate if the neighborhood economy can move from government-subsidized service delivery, such as a dialysis center and childcare, to support places of commerce such as a restaurant, bookstore, hardware store and grocery.

The former Yes! Organic Market, now the Fairlawn Market, over on Pennsylvania Avenue SE in Ward 7, has endured many struggles, perpetuating the perception of the area as being a difficult market for retail. (Chipotle turned down free rent in 2010 to serve as the anchor tenant on the ground floor of The Grays, where the Fairlawn Market is.)

The corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, July 2011.

Ground zero in historic Anacostia remains Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, the same corner where John Wilkes Booth met Davy Herold on his escape to southern Maryland. In the summer of 2011, renderings were released that teased at the intersection's potential. Since that time, despite the backing of Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and other city agency heads, no development of note has happened at the corner.

A public art installation has been planned for nearly a year; it would replace an art installation that was previously torn down. The waiting game continues.

Stanley Jackson, now head of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, predicted in 2005 when he was Mayor Williams' Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development that Anacostia would be "one of the hottest markets in the city" by now. Not yet.

In 2008 the Department of Housing and Community Development, whose signs adorn dozens of vacant properties in the neighborhood, moved into the $18 million Anacostia Gateway development at the northeast corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Initial plans were to relocate the city's Department of Transportation here but that did not materialize.

Across the street from Anacostia Gateway, the iconic "ANACOSTIA" neon sign continues to light up a corner that at night is an economic dead zone.

Anacostia's Business Improvement District is slowly coming to life; the pop-up arts festival LUMEN8Anacostia will return this June and storefront renovations are planned to begin in the coming months. In December of this year will Anacostia's BID have more members than it does now?

1300 block of Valley Place SE; preservation and demolition by neglect

To walk the residential streets of the city's first sub-division is to see up close and personal a shining example of preservation and regeneration next-door to an eyesore of demolition by neglect and neighborhood decay. On the 1300 block of Valley Place SE five homes remain that were developed in the mid-1880s by real estate investor and president of the local streetcar line, Henry A. Griswold.

1300 block of Valley Place SE in Historic Anacostia.

Over the past few weeks the exterior of 1328 Valley Place SE has been fully renovated, in part through a popular grant program coordinated by the Office of Planning that targets 14 Historic Districts citywide. Next door, 1326 Valley Place SE, is one of the properties DHCD owns. The crumbling building is literally going to seed, as nature attempts to reclaim what's left.

According to tax records, 1326 was sold in 2005 at a foreclosure auction for a throw over $2,000. Local residents provided documents in 2011 from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs indicating that Darwin Trust Properties, LLC acquired the property at that time.

Darwin Trust's CEO was incarcerated while the city pursued legal action against the company under the demolition by neglect statute. Through the litigation, the city was able to get a court order to let DCRA abate the property. After half a decade of further deterioration, the city finally bought the property in a November 2011 foreclosure sale for just under $12,000. According to a 2013 preliminary tax assessment, the land is worth $116,410 and the total value of the property is $118,520.

Based on the valuations alone, the city got a steal, purchasing the property for less than 10 percent of its assessed value. But the time to take advantage of this bargain is running short. The 2013 assessment is down nearly 15% from the 2011 value of $135,900, as the building continues to crumble.

Given the home's historic character, we can hope the city finds a way to restore what's left and continue to rejuvenate this old street in Historic Anacostia.

Abandominiums abide

Keeping a watchful eye on the vacant properties around her youth center, Hannah Hawkins has seen hundreds of squatters come and go in and out of the surrounding abandominiums over the 2 decades she and her volunteers have supported the community from 2263 Mount View Place SE. On a recent morning Hawkins caught a woman going into the Southeast Neighborhood House. Hawkins asked what she was doing. "I'm looking for artifacts," the trespasser announced before Hawkins chased her off.

The Southeast Neighborhood House, organized to combat poverty is now an "abandominium."

The portfolio of abondominiums in the neighborhood is well-known both throughout circles of the city's chronic homeless as well as real estate agents, developers and city officials. While housing prices continue to rise across the city, in Anacostia they have remained flat. Abondominiums shelter the homeless and criminal class for free while suppressing property values and property tax revenues for the city.

Big K site, 2234 & 2238 MLK Jr. Ave SE.

After demolishing 2228 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE last year, DHCD selected a developer for the Big K site. According to a press release, plans are to "construct a new office building that features commercial and retail space, as well as restore the existing historic houses on the site." Time will tell when this block, first developed by coach painter James Beall in the early 1880s, finally comes back to life.

The real estate site DC Curbed recently featured listings for 8 condos, townhouses and single family homes in the neighborhood and nearby. Asking prices topped out at $229,000 with a low of $43,000 for a condo in Barry Farm.

On the fringes of each end of the Anacostia Historic District are multi-unit residential complexes, the Bruxton Condos and a cluster of 3 vacant apartments on High Sreet SE, whose development has been too long in coming. While most eyes are focused on Anacostia's exterior, its commercial strip, the interior, the integrity of its housing stock, continues to be endangered.

Based on responses the city received at a handful of Ward 8 summits and town halls in recent years, cleaning up existing vacant residential and commercial properties is a top concern of citizens, taking precedent over new development. Multiple reports released over the years by city government and think tanks list strategies to deal with the area's blight, but if there's been any implementation of these methods, the blight largely remains. A 2004 study noted, "The area's combination of natural beauty, waterfront access, transportation resources and cultural heritage is unrivaled in the city, however, it is important as well to note challenges in existing conditions."

Now that the days of old Anacostia's farm vehicles are bygone, can the neighborhood move beyond the limitations of its past and attract new residential and commercial investment?


Gray sets out solid vision for economic development

Yesterday, Mayor Gray released an economic development strategy for DC, to create 100,000 jobs over the next 5 years and beyond. The mayor deserves kudos for a strong and thoughtful report.

Photo by libertygrace0 on Flickr.

The administration partnered with DC's strong academic sector on the plan. Instead of paying millions of dollars to consultants, they reached out to the business schools of Georgetown, George Washington, American, and Howard Universities.

That paid off with report that doesn't simply rehash the same old ideas that one might have found equally in a 1965 plan for suburban Atlanta. For example, it says that in interviews with area businesses, it's clear that the future of the District is in walkable, transit-oriented commercial and office areas.

On retail, for example, the report says that "Most interviewees stated that the District has great potential to become a model for the future: a vibrant and walkable city. The majority said traffic congestion will become less relevant to the retail sector in the future." (page 78)

This is a refreshing change from the tired trope from the economic development transition team, which we still hear today from some business groups, who say that one of the most important steps they want DC to take is to time all of the traffic lights to make streets high-speed for cars into the District in the morning and out at night.

Plan is sector-specific

Some jurisdictions try to build jobs by indiscriminately throwing money at any company in any sector that is willing to come into town for a tax break. It's far more effective to develop clusters of related companies. That makes the city a generally attractive place for someone in that field, and the strong supply of labor in the field then attracts employers in a mutually-reinforcing cycle.

This plan seriously analyses key clusters that DC can reasonably hope to developed: technology, hospitality and retail, professional services and government contracting, real estate and construction, higher education, and health care. It lays out strategies for each that consider the particular needs of that sector. We commended Gray's emphasis on sector-specific economic development in an article earlier this year.

For example, this plan envisions a world-class medical center at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, which is right next to a cluster of hospitals. The job growth in health care and higher education has exceeded all other sectors in DC in the past decade.

Here are some of the many recommendations which jumped out:

Build a tech hub at Saint Elizabeths. The plan calls for creating a technology center at the Saint Elizabet's campus. It also recommends finding ways to offer tech startups lower-cost office space and connecting tech entrepreneurs with established leaders in their sector. These are all recommendations from the letter from tech executives, which we organized with InTheCapital.

Strategically relax height restrictions. While Mayor Gray emphasized at today's press conference that he's not counting on any changes to federal law, the plan contemplates raising height limits near the Anacostia River. This is similar to Paris's approach to their height limit, and is a good compromise between the economic value of more growth and federal aesthetic concerns.

Change zoning to allow retail in more areas. Commercial space in most parts of the District is very limited. This makes retail space more expensive and contributes to "retail leakage" to the suburbs, which is where many residents leave the District to spend their shopping dollars.

The plan calls for expanding the supply of low-cost retail space while respecting residential impacts and allowing residents to walk for as many of their shopping needs as possible. In particular, it suggests making retail more continuous along commercial corridors. When there are gaps of residential zoning, especially at prominent corners, it stops many shoppers from continuing along the street.

Promote hospitality and tourism. The proposal for the hospitality sector is particularly thoughtful and detailed. The plan envisions "delivering the highest standards in hospitality and service," creating a Hospitality Program at DC Community College, setting up a culinary incubator, and expanding tourism. These will all grow service sector jobs, and good service sector jobs are one of the best paths to the middle class in today's economy.

On the other hand, a few elements of the plan miss the mark or could go farther.

No new workforce development initiatives. Who will fill these 100,000 new jobs? Only 27% of DC jobs go to by DC residents, so adding more jobs won't address the unemployment rate east of the Anacostia river, which is one of the plan's stated goals. There isn't much in the way of new workforce programs beyond the administration's existing initiatives, One City One Hire and the Workforce Intermediary.

The only new initiative in the plan is to post new university and health care jobs on the DOES web site. What the District needs to do is use data-driven methods to steer the $100 million that DC spends on job training where it will do the most good, at training providers that produce validated results.

Tech tax incentives still lack focus. The report continues to promote Gray's plan for broad tax breaks for tech investment. An incentive for new angel investors in technology is a good idea, but any tax break needs to specifically target the District's goals of building a strong base of tech firms that actually create new technology and workers with software development and other skills.

DMPED could work with all stakeholders to properly design this tax break, but instead is choosing to shut out discussions of how to best tailor it. On LivingSocial's $32 million tax break, DMPED and LivingSocial mutually agreed not to negotiate on any terms ahead of time, the Washington City Paper learned.

The mayor wants to pass a tax break for tech investors, which the Council removed from a recent bill. DMPED refused to negotiate with opponents on that bill as well. That left the tax break's primary Council advocate, David Catania, bewildered that there was no discussion of a smaller reduction, which he would have gladly agreed to.

If DMPED can seriously think about what it needs to achieve and tailor the break to those goals with a spirit of collaboration, instead of letting tech executives and investors design their own tax cuts, it should be able to devise something that can win broad support.

Hospitality job growth significantly underestimated. Hospitality jobs are the 2nd fastest growing job segment in the District, having grown at a 28% clip and added 14,200 new jobs in the past 10 years. But they are only a small fragment of the 100,000 new jobs projected in the plan, which forecasts only an 8% growth in hospitality jobs from 2008 to 2018.

That disconnect resulted from the misuse of DOES labor market data by the report's authors, according to DOES Chief Economist Dr James Moore. The labor market data and projections used by the report's authors are not meant for economic development analysis, as they fail to factor many drivers of job growth and thus understate job growth.

This plan includes some of the best initiatives for improving hospitality jobs and workforce readiness in the nation, but it must be grounded in accurate data on job growth in the sector and its sub-sectors.

There's much more in the 116-page document. It shows that, as with the sustainability strategy, one legacy of the Gray administration will be a set of excellent plans that can guide the District through the rest of his mayoralty and beyond.


One City plan sets ambitious goals, and some feebler ones

Mayor Gray released a "One City Action Plan," a year in the making, which lays out goals and objectives for his administration across almost many areas. It pushes for serious and challenging improvements in education, while in other areas such as transportation, it doesn't reach as high.

Photo by clydeorama on Flickr.


Education has always been a top priority for Mayor Gray, and this plan shows it. It sets some ambitious goals, such as:

  • Raise DCPS's 4-year graduation rate from 53% to 75% by 2017
  • Increase reading and math proficiency from 43% of students to 70% by 2017
  • Have 60% of youth get a college degree or an industry certification by 2014 (up from 35% today)

These goals seem lofty, and it's good to set aggressive goals. At companies I've worked, employees and managers regularly set and reviewed goals for each employee and division. The better places pushed everyone to set "stretch goals," ones which take some extra effort to meet. Managers shouldn't expect employees to achieve every piece of every goal; if they do, the goals are probably too conservative. But if they meet none, the goals are too tough or the employee not performing.

With education, no kids should fall short of proficiency or drop out, and almost everyone needs a college degree or vocational certification to get jobs in the modern economy. But we know that not everyone will. Nevertheless, it's critical that leaders aim high and push hard to get there.

The report cites a study by IFF on improving schools, which many, including Steve Glazerman, have criticized as fatally flawed. District education officials can give parents and potential parents the greatest confidence in the schools' future by moving beyond that study soon and finding better metrics for judging the performance of schools.


The transportation section lays out some meaningful priorities but also sets a much lower bar. Its objectives:

  • 84 new Capital Bikeshare stations in 2012
  • 5 new miles of bike lanes by 2014
  • Opening the first streetcar line in 2013
These are all extremely important priorities, but they just recite what DDOT is already doing in the short term, not stretch for the future.

Opening the streetcar line is a "stretch goal" on its own for DDOT, since there's still a lot to do to open the line by 2013—especially if "opening" the line means having enough cars to run a reasonable headway. Many people, including Councilmember Tommy Wells, fear that they will end up starting up the line with only 3 cars, force riders to wait too long, and give the streetcar an early reputation for uselessness. It would be nice if this goal mentioned the headways.

The other goals are more conservative. The plan notes that there is already federal funding (likely CMAQ) for the 84 CaBi stations, and even counts 37 that DDOT has already put in, meaning there are 47 to go. This is great, and very important, but not news.

Growing bike lane miles from 56 to 61 is also welcome, but not very significant, especially since Gabe Klein's 2010 DDOT Action Agenda set a goal of 80 miles of bike lanes by 2012. The One City plan specifies putting in the L Street cycle track, but why not include its M Street companion, without which we'll only have a one-way cycle track?

The fact that bike lanes are one of 3 transportation goals in the plan shows that they're a priority, and we shouldn't discount the fact that even one mile or a single block can be a lot of work, but if this wants to be an ambitious vision, it needs to aim higher.

The transportation goals are also very short-term. Each looks no farther out than 2014. It would be great to include higher numbers of CaBi stations, bike lane miles, cycletrack miles in particular, and streetcar lines a number of years out into the future. The education section and others set goals for dates like 2017; why not here?

The sutainability plan set a goal for 2032 of having 75% of trips use biking, walking and transit. It's now about half for commuting trips, and likely lower for other trips. To get there will require more aggressive progress on transportation than this plan sets out.

Economic Development

The mayor makes clear in this document his commitment to a technology innovation hub at St. Elizabeths, which we have discussed recently. That could be a real game changer for the District if it can succeed.

The plan isn't as clear on how to attract more technology jobs; it only cites recent efforts to give money to LivingSocial not to leave and to give a tax break to "tech companies." Ken Archer has argued that both miss the point, and won't create enough incentive for the really important jobs that innovate, create new value, and build "knock-on effects" for the long term.

Another good goal is one to reduce DC's dependence on government jobs. Today, 66% of jobs are in the private sector, and the plan targets 68% by 2013 and 70% by 2021. We should also think about what kind of private sector jobs those are. Government contractor jobs are okay, since if the federal government downsizes it will have to hire more contractors, but tracking and growing the percentage of jobs that aren't even in the government ecosystem, outside of defense contracting and lobbying and all of that, is even better.

The plan calls for a new task force to look at ways to streamline regulations and help businesses; this has the potential to do a lot of good if it gets good people who can think comprehensively about the biggest obstacles for businesses.


One of the relatively few disappointing pieces of the mayor's budget was the way it raided the Housing Production Trust Fund, which funds loans and other programs for building new affordable housing, to pay for Local Rent Supplement, another important program but one which just gives people money to offset rent. The plan reiterates this as if it were a good accomplishment.

A numerical goal calls for 900 new units of affordable housing by 2014, which DC needs. However, the plan also notes that 1,114 units are in the pipeline, which makes it sound like the goal is already probably in the bag, and if not, there's little the DC government can do at this point. This is another place that could use a stretch goal farther out into the future.

The plan calls for growing DC's population by 3%, about on par with the last year. We can compare this to the sustainability plan, which targets 250,000 new residents by 2032. 3% of our current population is about 18,000; add that number each year and we get 960,000, which beats the goal; with compounding, it's even more (1.09 million).

The question, though, is whether we can just add that many new residents each year without other policy changes. There is a lot of developable land in the pipeline, but it's finite. Without zoning changes to add housing opportunities, DC may have a harder time sustaining that growth.

And much more

There are many more goals in the plan, some excellent, some poor, some just vague. It's great that the Gray administration put together this plan, and set some ambitious goals in some very important areas. Just enumerating priorities matters as well, even when the goals are softer, but future plans would do well to set stretch goals and longer-term metrics for all areas.


What is a tech company? How do you build a tech sector?

How do you build a tech sector when there is no such thing as a tech company or tech sector anymore? That's the challenge that DC faces as it seeks to support the recent rise of a tech sector in the District.

Photo by dzingeek on Flickr.

There is unquestionably a cluster of related technology firms growing organically in the District. The challenge is to find ways to support them that are targeted to this cluster. If governmental support for this cluster isn't targeted, we risk wasting money, thus undermining our ability to invest in this sector.

For example, the DC Council is considering sweetening the tax incentives offered to tech companies in DC in order to build a tech sector. The DC CFO, however, says that companies will simply reclassify themselves as tech companies to access these incentives. How can we design incentives that are more targeted?

At the recent DC Tech Meetup forum on government support for the DC technology sector, David Zipper from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, said that "the city sees this as mostly a semantic distinction". But how can we target precious dollars for a sector that we can't define?

Matthew Yglesias recently claimed that "there's no such thing as a 'tech' company and no such thing as a 'tech' sector" and makes a good defense of that claim. Is Amazon a tech company? Then why isn't Best Buy, the largest online electronics retailer?

Does Starbucks not appear to be a tech company? They just appointed a Chief Digital Officer to consolidate all of their digital technologies, "web, mobile, social media, digital marketing, Starbucks Card and loyalty, e-commerce, Wi-Fi, Starbucks Digital Network, and emerging in-store technologies".

That's why Starbucks is 24th on Fast Company's list of the most innovative companies of 2012, right between Dropbox, Kiva, Genentech and LegalZoom. Should Starbucks qualify for tech tax incentives if they move their headquarters to DC?

It used to be that there were technology companies and companies with traditional business models, but now that innovation is becoming a necessity in all sectors, the line between a tech and non-tech company is becoming blurry. Any company that wants to survive in the future of their sector has to innovate.

Peter Corbett, head of the DC Tech Meetup, once responded to the question whether LivingSocial is a tech company by telling me that what really matters is not whether you sell a software product, but whether you innovate. And LivingSocial innovates.

I think Corbett is absolutely correct. Why is Tesla Motors in Silicon Valley and not Detroit? Tesla innovates. And innovation is what drives a tech sector.

What should DC do?

So what does this all mean for DC's strategy to target support for the tech sector? First, it means that the number of companies that we should target is much broader than it used to be. We should target companies that innovate.

Second, it means that the departments within those companies that we care about are likely to account for a small percentage of the company, like Starbucks' R&D Lab or Best Buy Online. And so incentives should (a) be structured to the size of those divisions, not the size of the entire company, and (b) be conditioned upon the location of those divisions in DC.

That's why it was so important for LivingSocial to commit to keeping its product development division in Washington, DC in return for $32.5 million in tax credits to stay in DC. Only 15-20% of their DC employees actually work in product development, and that's where the innovation is happening. Those are the employees who are likely to jump onto other innovative companies after LivingSocial.

DC can and should help the tech sector. When it does, officials need to first understand the actual benefits that will come to DC, and be careful to design incentives that attract those benefits and don't just throw money away indiscriminately.

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