Posts about Housing
Last month, downtown Wheaton got a new Safeway, complete with 17 floors of apartments on top. While the new building gives Wheaton a skyline, it also has a lot of above-ground parking and blank walls, making the surrounding streets less inviting to pedestrians.
The Exchange, a new apartment building with a ground-level Safeway, towers over downtown Wheaton. All photos by the author.
Downtown Wheaton is having a residential boom, with 900 apartments in various stages of construction. Over half of them are in the Exchange, which is located across from the Metro station at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive and has a Safeway on its ground floor.
It's one of several residential projects with supermarkets being built around the region. Representatives from developer Patriot Realty says they were inspired by the Safeway with housing above at CityVista in Mount Vernon Square. There's also a Safeway with apartments above being built in Petworth, and a Giant with housing recently opened at the old O Street Market in Shaw.
Wheaton is one of the highest points in Montgomery County, and placing an 17-story building on top means it can be seen for miles in each direction. The county's plan for Wheaton calls for many more buildings like the Exchange, but for now it towers over the downtown's one- and two-story strip malls. And it fills most of a city block, meaning it faces not one, but three streets.
Seen from Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the Exchange (left) looks like three smaller towers. The Computer Building is on the right.
Baltimore-based architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht tried to visually reduce the building's mass by making each wing look like a separate "tower." From many points in downtown Wheaton, it actually does resemble a cluster of small, thin towers.
It works well with the other buildings on Georgia Avenue that are being built or were built a few years ago. The Exchange's "towers" pair nicely with the Computer Building, an office building one block away that's being converted into a 14-story apartment tower. Together, they create an interesting rhythm with the two other mid-rise buildings on the same block, which were built in the mid-2000's, and the six-story Solaire Wheaton across the street, which will open later this month.
Of course, the Exchange also has ground-floor retail, unlike all of those other buildings. The Safeway and an attached Starbucks have lots of big windows facing Georgia Avenue and even an outdoor patio with seating, which will likely attract people and make the sidewalks active when it's warm out.
But the building's structured parking garages threaten to undermine all of the good design features it has. The "towers" sit atop a podium containing several stories of parking for residents. The Safeway sits below that, at street level, and below it is another parking garage for grocery shoppers. Together, the parking garage and Safeway are about as tall as the mid-rise MetroPointe apartments next door.
Montgomery County's zoning code requires lots of parking in new apartment buildings, even when they're literally across the street from a Metro station. Underground parking can be really expensive to build and the foundation could have impacted the Metro station, even though it's one of the world's deepest. So the developer chose to put some of it above ground, and some below.
That means if you stand in front of the Safeway and look up, you see several floors of dark "windows" meant to make the parking garage blend with the apartments above. Around the corner on Reedie Drive, people leaving the Metro pass blank walls. The building's on a steep hill, so you're walking next to the parking garage, not the Safeway. If there wasn't so much parking, there could have been some small shops here instead.
Turn the corner again to Fern Street and there's basically six stories of blank wall facing Veterans Park: loading docks and shopper parking at the street level (it's set into the hill, so you can't see it from Georgia); the double-height windows of the Safeway, all of which are papered over; and three stories of resident parking.
Urban parks should have buildings with entrances and windows and storefronts facing them, which give people a reason to visit the park and provide "eyes on the street" that make it safer. There's already a public parking garage on one side of the park, and it's disappointing that the designers and developers didn't take the opportunity to do something different, or that Montgomery County didn't make them.
It's likely that many residents won't bring cars to the Exchange given its proximity to Metro and location in a walkable neighborhood. If the developer had been able to build less parking, there may have been more opportunities to shape the building's mass to make it feel even less bulky. And there may not have been as many blank walls. There could actually be apartments and shops looking out onto Veterans Park.
Montgomery County's working on a new zoning code that would demand less parking near transit, but it's too late for this building. It's unfortunate, because the Exchange sits on a really prominent site in downtown Wheaton. It's also the first high-rise to be built there, meaning it will set the tone for decades of future development.
In some ways, the Exchange is a good precedent for the projects to come. But it may also be a cautionary tale, showing developers what not to do.
As housing demand continues to outstrip supply, housing prices keep rising in neighborhoods where lower-income renters and seniors on fixed incomes can ill afford the extra cost. DC's zoning update could help make a small dent in this problem, just as a single environmental protection can slightly blunt climate change. But that will only happen if the zoning update doesn't get blocked or delayed.
At Monday's zoning update hearing, Zoning Commission Vice-Chair Marcie Cohen, who spent much of her career on affordable housing and community development, asked whether those who outright oppose changes to DC's zoning, without proposing alternative solutions to our problems, are akin to those denying global warming: problems are coming, and they'd ignore them rather than deal with them.
Cohen asked some of the witnesses,
I know you said that we should not rely on some of the policies that are in vogue today. However, I don't believe that we also have the luxury of ignoring what's happening. So there has to be a balance.
I'd like for you to at least describe to me some of the areas that you think we should be looking at, so that we do continue to have a city that is livable. If we don't do some of the things that the zoning rewrite is doing, I think
— maybe some other people may think — that we are becoming like the deniers of global warming.
Maybe global warming won't happen if we wave around big clocks?
A group of people were outside the hearing protesting. They weren't shouting about problems with the specific proposals, like letting people rent out their basements and garages, or allowing more corner stores, or letting property owners decide how much parking they need. Instead, they want to delay the zoning update beyond the 5-plus years it's already taken.
Photo by the author.
This is misguided. In fact, it's not even clear that the group, calling itself DC Zoning Changes Network, actually opposes the core ideas of the zoning update. On policy, they have little in common with the upper Northwest "change nothing" opposition we've generally heard. The group wants to lower the income threshold for affordable housing and create an extra review step for any big box stores.
The protestors are holding up clocks to argue that the process, which has been dragging on for 5 years, still hasn't given community groups enough time to respond. They argue that because the DC Office of Planning (OP) submitted the latest version of the text on September 9, about 2 months ago, that's too short a timeframe, and there needs to be another 6-month comment period.
But the date of the last version of the text means nothing. The fundamental changes behind the zoning update were the subject of public working group meetings in 2008 and 2009, Zoning Commission hearings in 2009 and 2010, and more public meetings in 2012, task force and community meetings in between. Those haven't changed, except to get weaker over time as OP backed down on some ideas.
There are always people who haven't been following any particular issue and weren't aware of it, but it's hard to credibly say that the OP hasn't given people a lot of chances to weigh in.
The latest draft is just a little different because OP made changes based on the community input. If there has to be a 180-day comment period on this version, then what? If OP makes no changes, then one could argue it hasn't listened to anyone. If it makes some changes (and there are always small technical tweaks to make), then do we need another 180-day comment period because there's a new version?
Whether you agree with the Zoning Changes Network group or not, their policy suggestions could be evaluated on their own merits. Those don't have to be part of the zoning update right now, and shouldn't, because they are totally brand-new ideas that weren't part of this 5-year discussion. But the zoning update isn't the last time we will change zoning. New ideas for zoning changes can become reality at any time through "text amendments."
Even if everything in the zoning update goes forward, it will only make at best a small dent in this problem. The Office of Planning needs to soon turn its attention to doing more analysis and crafting more policy approaches to deal with skyrocketing housing costs. The sooner we get the zoning update over with, the sooner our planners can move on to the next, necessary steps.
If, instead, we wait, the water levels will keep rising.
Are you getting priced out of being able to live in the kind of neighborhood you want? Do you wish your neighborhood had more local stores and other amenities in walking distance? Please tell your story below.
At recent hearings on planning and zoning issues, we've been hearing from a lot of activists who say that everything is just perfect now, so nothing should ever change.
Next week, DC's Zoning Commission will hear testimony on parts of the zoning update including accessory apartments (which would let a homeowner rent out a basement or garage) and corner stores. There will be a lot of people testifying there, too, that their neighborhoods are perfect just the way they are, and zoning needs to block any new people or stores.
But everything is not perfect and we can't simply ignore the skyrocketing costs of housing for people across the income spectrum.
Either DC plans a way to keep up with its housing demand (which still outstrips the new units getting built), or it sees the city become out of reach for many people, from young professionals starting their careers to fixed-income retirees and legions of lower-income residents.
Adding housing doesn't have to mean skyscrapers or 6-story density everywhere or anything in particular, but it does mean finding places to put the 122,000 new units DC needs (and the same for walkable places in other inner jurisdictions like Montgomery and Arlington) somewhere, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and thinking that if we don't change a thing, then our current housing problems won't get any worse.
What about you? Are you finding that housing prices keep you from being able to live where you would like to? Or do you wish that you could have more corner stores or other retail walking distance from your home?
I'd like to collect stories about what residents and prospective residents want, beyond just the same voices that show up at hearing after hearing. A lot of you can't go to all of these hearings because you have day jobs, families, and/or things to do. But your experiences matter as well.
Please fill out the form below. I will forward your stories to NCPC and the Zoning Commission. It asks for your real name and address, because these decision-makers want to know the real people sending the opinions. In addition, the text you write will get posted to this article as a comment, but it won't include your real name or your address.
DC has a rich history of housing cooperatives, in which each resident owns a share of the entire property, not just their unit. While relatively unknown, there are at least 120 co-ops in DC, many of which are a great source of stable, affordable housing.
In a cooperative, each resident owns a share in the corporation that owns their property, entitling them to reside in a specific unit. The corporation has a board of directors and a management company, which maintains the property, screens new residents, and determines monthly fees or carrying charges.
Nationally, cooperative housing began in the late 1800s, but contemporary co-ops first appeared here in 1920. Banks would not finance the purchase of co-op units and condominiums did not yet exist, so early co-ops were a way for wealthy urban dwellers to own their homes and have control of their buildings. DC's earliest cooperatives were built along Connecticut Avenue, and the most famous example may be Watergate East, built in the 1960s.
Today, the creation of a co-op in DC usually takes a different path. Empowered by the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, many residents of low and moderate incomes consider cooperative ownership when their apartment building goes up for sale.
The DC government supports some tenants who choose this route by committing public funds for the purchase and rehabilitation of these buildings to make them affordable to the current tenants. Previously, federal Community Development Block Grants were a major source of funding for co-op development; now, the most likely source is DC's locally-funded Housing Production Trust Fund.
The cooperatives created with public funds are limited equity co-ops, meaning that there are restrictions on the price and resale value of a membership share. This ensures that cooperative units remain affordable in the long term.
Public investment in co-ops makes ownership available to low-income residents and helped maintain a much more diverse group of co-op residents. Today, there are co-ops in every ward of the city, with 3,000 residents living in 86 limited equity cooperative buildings.
Co-ops are tucked into neighborhoods around the city: garden apartments like Brightwood Gardens in Ward 7, an eight-story building in Logan Circle, a cluster of apartments in Columbia Heights named after civil rights worker Ella Jo Baker. These housing co-ops were created to preserve affordable housing and provide opportunity for residents of low and moderate income around the city.
Although many are skeptical that these tenants can own and maintain their own properties, 61% of DC's limited equity co-ops have been around since before 2000. This proves that co-op residents can own, maintain, and revitalize homes and communities.
On Saturday, organizations that support DC's co-ops will hold a DC Co-op Clinic to help strengthen the internal functions of DC's housing co-ops. Workshops will focus on how to be strong stewards of a collective property for this unique form of home ownership. For more information, check out this flyer.
Many DC renters can't access the tax benefits, stability and capital that a limited equity co-op provides, and traditional homeownership may not be possible either. Cooperative housing started as an option only for the wealthy, but today it's a gateway to homeownership and financial stability for those who need it most.
Sunday's Washington Post Magazine asks the question, "What kind of city does DC want to be?" Unfortunately, it doesn't get at a core issue that is determining what kind of city the District is: the question of who is able to live and flourish there.
Through a series of articles, the magazine considers the issues surrounding how DC is built, connected, and moved. The articles talk about the history of divestment and decay in the District. Starting in the 1970's, DC faced falling population, loss of retail, and rising crime.
As the magazine highlights, DC is clearly at a turning point: retail is returning to downtown, over 1,000 people are moving into DC every month, and people who are homeless are no longer highly visible downtown. What it misses is how the changes that have happened over the last decade have made DC a more difficult place to be poor.
For tens of thousands who lived through the bad times in DC, the good times are not looking much better. DC is one of the most difficult places to afford rent in the nation, so for many long-time residents, DC's boom means having to leave.
Since 2010, DC has lost half of its low-cost housing and the cost of homeownership has risen steeply. At the same time, services for homeless and low income people have been pushed out of easy-to-access areas like Franklin Shelter, and moved to cheaper, far-flung areas. The shelter and its legacy in serving people who are homeless, some of whom still congregate at Franklin Park, was not even mentioned in the article about the park's current and future use.
As the cost of housing rises, it is crucial that the District focus as much on making housing available to all as it does on transportation, green spaces, and retail. Talking about the District without raising the issue of where people will live is to forget that DC's pupusas, half-smokes, and jumbo slices are made by people who also want to live where they work and are vital to the District's success.
The kind of city DC will be rests on a core unexplored question: will we be the kind of city that keeps low income residents in the city, or will become a city solely for those who can afford to pay for it?
A long-awaited redevelopment could finally bring new housing and retail to Glenmont. But to create a urban, walkable environment around the Metro station, the Glenmont Metrocentre project needs to be designed for pedestrians, not cars.
Today, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved a preliminary plan for Glenmont Metrocentre, a 31-acre mixed-use development at the corner of Georgia and Glenallan avenues with 1325 apartments, 225 townhomes and 90,000 square feet of retail space. It would replace Privacy World, a 1960's-era garden apartment complex with just 362 units.
County planners first envisioned this project in 1997. Ten years later, the Planning Board agreed to let developer JBG build retail in addition to housing here, but the County Council refused to approve it until Maryland approved funding for an interchange at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road. With money in hand, the project can move forward. Next, JBG will need to submit a more detailed site plan.
The project is split into two phases. First, JBG will demolish 275 existing apartments and replace them with two apartment buildings and 4,000 square feet of retail. Meanwhile, partner Winchester Homes will build the townhouses. Later, two new buildings and more retail space would replace the remaining Privacy World apartments, but not until the interchange at Georgia and Randolph is fully funded, or the proposed Bus Rapid Transit lines along Georgia and Randolph have been built.
The developers will set aside 14.5% of the homes for low-income households, higher than the county's requirement of 12.5%. This will produce 225 affordable apartments, but it's not enough to replace all of the already-affordable units there are today.
They will also build new, wider sidewalks on Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road, and a 10-foot-wide "shared-use path" for walkers and cyclists along Glenallan Avenue. They can also pay for other improvements, like bike racks, signs that tell people when the next bus or train is coming, or a neighborhood circulator shuttle.
Plan creates great open spaces, lousy street network
JBG hired Baltimore-based architect Hord Coplan Macht, also responsible for the new Safeway and apartments in Wheaton, to design the project. On the west side of the site, closer to Georgia Avenue, are four apartment buildings with above-ground parking garages. The buildings will have between 5 and 7 floors; the tallest buildings sit along Georgia, and will also have ground-floor shops.
On the east side, closer to Layhill Road, are blocks of townhouses with rear-facing garages on alleys. Tying it all together are a network of new streets, giving residents and visitors alternatives to using existing arterial roads.
The design also creates a network of open spaces, including several pocket parks, a central lawn that serves as a community gathering spot, and a wooded area that will buffer the development from the railyard behind it.
However, the project's street network and potential architecture won't create the kind of walkable, urban environment that county planners and residents envision for Glenmont. Some blocks are really long, which encourage speeding and reduce the number of places where people can safely cross the street.
A "main street" parallel to Glenallan Avenue forms the development's spine and provides another connection between Georgia and Layhill. But according to the planning staff report, the State Highway Administration thought the intersection of the new street and Layhill was too close to Glenallan Avenue and would inconvenience drivers. Instead, the main street has been severed, forcing people to turn left, then right again before reaching Layhill Road.
Like in many new townhouse developments, the townhouses here will have rear-facing garages accessed from an alley, not the street. This can make the streets more pedestrian-friendly, but many developers use this as an opportunity to save money by getting rid of the streets entirely and arrange the townhouses so their "front" is on a pocket park instead.
The resulting layout is no less circuitous and confusing for drivers and pedestrians alike than the cul-de-sacs that alleys are meant to replace. The developers should put some more streets back into this plan, or at least redesign the townhouses in a way that forms more coherent blocks.
Pedestrian-focused design is a must
Since this is a site plan, we don't know what the buildings will actually look like. But since there will be a lot of foot traffic here, they'll need lots of detail and careful design to create an attractive, inviting pedestrian environment.
Judging from the townhouses that Winchester Homes is building up the street at Poplar Run, that may not happen here. It's as if the designers assumed that nobody would ever stand outside these houses and look at them, because very little thought went into designing the exteriors.
The windows and doors don't line up with each other, and without any trim, they look like they were pasted on. Each house has a number, but in a different place on each house, making them hard to see. And sticking utility boxes on the front of the house defeats the purpose of having an alley, which allows you to hide things like that.
Compare that to these new townhouses at the Mosaic District in Fairfax. Inside, they're very similar to the Winchester townhouses. But outside, so much more thought went into tiny details, like the way the stoop railings match the house lights, or even just making sure the windows line up with each other, creating visual interest and engaging pedestrians. These are the kinds of houses that belong across the street from a Metro station.
Glenmont Metrocentre could bring new residents, shoppers, and visitors to Glenmont and take advantage of a surprisingly underutilized Metro station. With so many people living and working across the street from the Metro, there will be a lot of pedestrians here. In order for this project to be successful, everything from the streets to the buildings must be designed with them in mind.
The developer of a new residential building at 7th & R streets NW in Shaw plans just 40 parking spaces for 105 units, but ANC commissioners say it isn't enough. Is more parking actually necessary?
Last year, DC put out a request for proposals to develop Parcel 42, a 17,000 square-foot lot next to the Shaw Metro station. After receiving several proposals, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development selected the TenSquare Group, which wants to build 105 apartments and 5,000 square feet of retail space there. The developer will set aside 20% of the eight-story building's units as affordable housing and expect it to meet LEED Silver standards, a measure of environmental sustainability.
The Zoning Commission has yet to approve the project. Neighbors and ANC6E commissioners are unhappy that the building would have just 40 parking spaces, located underground. TenSquare insists that the current plan maximizes the motor vehicle parking for a building its size, but it's unclear how much of the parking will be set aside for retail customers.
At a meeting last Wednesday, commissioners insisted that TenSquare add more parking spaces before they could support the project. Kevin Chapple, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner whose single-member district covers Parcel 42, and fellow commissioners threatened to oppose the project at the Zoning Commission unless there was more parking.
Chapple owns a home three blocks away and relies on street parking. Not surprisingly, he and his neighbors want to ensure that there is enough space for their cars. But this building may not have a big impact on that. After the Howard Theatre opened last year, DDOT decided to include Shaw in its initial launch of the Visitor Parking Pass program.
Parcel 42 is also next to the Shaw Metro station, and several Metrobus lines run up and down 7th Street in front of the proposed building, including the 70, 79, and G8. There are also several Capital Bikeshare stations nearby. Meanwhile, there's a lot to walk to nearby. Shaw has seen a tremendous boom in corporate, retail, and restaurant development. In fact, Mayor Gray will take part in ribbon cuttings for three restaurants in Shaw later this week.
It's because of compact, walkable neighborhoods like Shaw that DC residents led the regional trend in driving less. According to COG, DC residents drove 8% less in 2011 than they did in 2005. While the city has added 40,000 residents in the past decade, the number of car registrations has remained flat, suggesting more people are choosing to live without owning a car. It's likely that a new building at Parcel 42 will attract car-less residents, both to market-rate and affordable units, as less affluent households tend to have lower rates of car ownership.
Shaw has not seen the traffic congestion that other parts of the city experience. But that may soon change with the completion of developments like Jefferson at Market Place, CityMarket at O, and smaller projects, many of which will have much more parking than Parcel 42 and are likely to attract more cars.
The Jefferson development will include 281 apartments, 13,400 square feet of retail space, and 230 below-grade parking spaces. CityMarket will have 645 residential units, 182 hotel rooms, and 86,239 square feet of retail, along with 500 parking spaces. Roadside Development, which is building that project, originally planned for 700 parking spaces. Because it's in such a transit-accessible location, city planners asked for less parking, despite complaints from community leaders.
Mayor Vincent Gray has repeatedly suggested that as the District's population increases, the city will not be able to accommodate similar increases in motor vehicle ownership and traffic. The developers of Parcel 42 already seem to have accepted this reality. More homes and amenities within close reach of each other means fewer car trips, not more, and we should plan for parking accordingly.
I grew up in California, the heart of American car culture, but carpooled or took transit to high school and university, fighting two or three hours of congestion each way. I'm not unfazed by the growing pains DC is facing, but I am surprised it's taken so long for local leaders to address them.
This article was edited to note that this project has not yet been approved and that the Zoning Commission, not the Office of Planning, will decide to approve it.
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