The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Planning

Development


What's wrong with this map of DC's social services?

This map shows where DC's halfway houses, drug treatment centers, and mental health facilities are. What's wrong with this picture?


Map from DC's Office of Planning.

In 2006, DC's Office of Planning published this map of group homes in the city,grouping them into five types: halfway homes and facilities for community residence, mental health, substance abuse and youth rehab.

The easiest, clearest takeaway: most of these places are east of Rock Creek Park. The map may be 10 years old, but that's just evidence that neighborhoods in that part of the District have historically opted out of helping to solve the city's broader problems.

We actually came across the map while reviewing DC's Comp Plan. Let's hope the re-write of the plan, which which the Office of Planning will start next year, results in maps that show more people doing their part to make this a better region for everyone.

Public Safety


How do our cities' decisions perpetuate racial bias? How do the choices we advocate for?

America's struggles with gun violence and police relations with communities of color have burst, again, into the headlines over the last few weeks. Our contributors and editors have some thoughts about these issues and how they relate to the decisions our cities make around housing, transportation, and much more.


Aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting. Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr.

Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These and so many more incidents have repeatedly underscored how our society still doesn't truly treat black Americans equally. Americans who don't experience this injustice personally have had their eyes opened. And then, the occasional person reacts with reprehensible violence against the police and drives further wedges between Americans (most recently in Baton Rouge, previously in Dallas).

Not every social problem is related to the way we build cities and better urban design can't single-handedly solve some of America's deepest social ills. Still, our society's struggles with racial bias, whether from police or others, actually is deeply connected with the way American cities work and the decisions their leaders make. Here are some of our contributors' thoughts.

Dan Reed said,

This is about who feels safe and who public spaces are created for. We haven't experienced the worst of this here, but we've had a tumultuous demographic shift in recent years. As a person of color who grew up here, I feel unwelcome sometimes in a place that was once familiar.

This isn't just about police brutality. It's about the pervasiveness of racial bias, however subtle or unintentional, that appears in all of the policy decisions we make in education, transportation, housing, health care, and so on. It's about making sure that everyone in our community the ability to live safe, dignified lives with access to the economic and social opportunities that many of us take for granted.

Gray Kimbrough discussed how public policy has explicitly created divisions:
The built environment has long been intertwined with racism in the US. Housing policy is a clear example, with the underlying racism ranging from completely blatant redlining or other policies that excluded non-whites (e.g. the postwar explosion in VA and FHA-backed loans).
And then there's infrastructure. Growing up in North Carolina, I noticed that things like sidewalks were much less likely to be provided in predominantly black parts of town. Transportation infrastructure and transit networks have often also been used to maintain the status quo rather than to mitigate the impact of institutional racism.

Limiting the housing options for people of color and underfunding infrastructure in those areas contribute directly to limiting opportunities for whole classes of people. As a side effect, racial segregation of housing limits people's experiences with members of other groups.

This tends not to be a problem for white people, who generally don't have to fear police officers unfamiliar with people like them acting in overly aggressive ways. It can absolutely have devastating effects for people of color when police officers are more likely to see them as criminals by default, at least in part because of a lack of basic interaction due to residential segregation.

Nick Keenan added some specific policy examples:
It ties into two things I've read about Ferguson [Missouri]. One is that people in Ferguson were reluctant to walk places, even short distances, because they were afraid of being hassled by the police if they did. The other is that the municipal budget in Ferguson was dependent upon fines and fees from motorists, and that a grievance of the residents was that you couldn't drive anywhere without risking getting pulled over and ticketed for a minor infraction.

Many experienced cyclists have stories of interactions with police officers where just the fact of operating a bicycle seemed to set the cops off. There was a blog post last summer that got a lot of coverage about how for many people riding a bicycle is the closest they will ever come to not having white privilege.

Tracy Hadden Loh added,
It's all about who has access to what planning processes - whose outcomes are measured, voices are heard, values represented, needs prioritized, etc. Planning is all about navigating tradeoffs to maximize access and efficiency of public goods in a world where most of the acreage/square footage is private. ...

We [all] have our own often unstated assumptions about *how* to achieve planning goals [and] I don't think [we] ask enough hard questions about who the winners and losers will be.

Let's try hard to think about who winners and losers will be as we discuss the many choices cities and counties in our region make. How do the events of the last few weeks, and few years, affect how you think about urban spaces and the issues we discuss?

Development


33 pages after calling for a growing and inclusive city, DC's Comprehensive Plan muddies that vision

Greater Greater Washington readers are reading the DC Comprehensive Plan together. Each week we discuss a section online. We'll post a summary of each chapter and our participants' thoughts about the changes we want to see in the upcoming amendment process.

DC's 2005 Comprehensive Plan began with a strong and encouraging vision: building a growing and inclusive city. Just one chapter later, it lists a set of contradictory guiding principles that waffle between preserving the status quo and promoting inclusive growth. Oops.


Image by Debbie Ohi on Flickr.

A great vision gives great promise

DC's 2005 Comprehensive Plan accurately forecast DC's growth up to 2010, though the city has grown much faster than predicted since then.

The plan did not, however, fully anticipate the spiraling housing costs that are putting housing in DC out of reach for so many people. But it issued a strong guiding vision to grow inclusively. It's a vision statement worth repeating:

Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices—choices about where they live, how and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school.

Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices—regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age.

This vision was right for 2005, and it is definitely right for 2016, as we watch rents rise at twice the national average and many outside of the wealthier income brackets are feeling pressured to move out. Figuring out how to capture the benefits of this growth without excluding many is the challenge we'd hope this document would take on.

Don't judge a book by its cover; a vision gets lost

After making a lot of predictions about the future, the plan starts to get into principles for guiding DC's growth. It starts out well:

1. Change in the District of Columbia is both inevitable and desirable. The key is to
manage change in ways that protect the positive aspects of life in the city and reduce negatives such as poverty, crime, and homelessness.
But then, the plan seems to say that not everyone has to help make room for new neighbors or any other kind of change.
6. Redevelopment and infill opportunities along corridors and near transit stations will be an important component of reinvigorating and enhancing our neighborhoods. Development on such sites must not compromise the integrity of stable neighborhoods and must be designed to respect the broader community context.
Of course it's important to respect the neighborhoods and neighbors as they currently exist, but this statement is simply not bold enough to let the city be and remain inclusive.

The plan seems to acknowledge that every neighborhood has to be a part of the solution:

12. Each neighborhood is an integral part of a diverse larger community that contributes to the District's identity. Growing an inclusive city means that all neighborhoods should share in the overall social responsibilities of the community, including housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and accommodating the disabled.
But, then, not:
8. The residential character of neighborhoods must be protected, maintained and improved. Many District neighborhoods possess social, economic, historic, and physical qualities that make them unique and desirable places in which to live. These qualities can lead to development and redevelopment pressures that threaten the very qualities that make the neighborhoods attractive. These pressures must be controlled through zoning and other means to ensure that neighborhood character is preserved and enhanced.
Corey Holman noticed that many of these statements use "near antonyms," like "Maintaining and enhancing the mix of housing types" (Principle #3) or "ensure that neighborhood character is preserved and enhanced" (Principle #8). He wrote, "How can something be maintained or preserved while also being enhanced? It's that wishy-washy language that allows people to see what they want in this document, instead of laying out a clear vision.

"It's saying, 'we need growth in commercial corridors—but "stable" (which seems like code for "affluent single-family homeowner") neighborhoods should not be touched,'" said David Alpert. Or, "Growth should be inclusive, but don't worry, people in exclusive areas—we don't mean YOU have to be inclusive."

Corey Holman added, "To me, this is an example of 'I got mine, move the development elsewhere' that certainly shouldn't be considered a guiding principle of growth in the city."


DC's need to accommodate new residents applies to Chevy Chase, too. Photo by Dan Reed.

A timid Comp Plan is not going to work

The vision of an inclusive, growing DC is maybe even more needed today than in 2005. The status quo of today is not acceptable for many people who are being priced out of living in safe neighborhoods. We can't fix that with a bunch of weak or confusing "guiding principles" that just qualify and carve out broad exceptions to its compelling vision.

No, we shouldn't just build on every scrap of land available. No, we shouldn't just build 12 stories on top of every low-rise building. Green space matters. A diversity of housing types and neighborhoods matters.

But our city's Comprehensive Plan needs to provide solutions, not a list of non-committal statements that read in conflicting ways. It should push for the inclusive growth we need in no uncertain terms. And while each neighborhood should be a part of the discussion and have some voice in shaping how it grows, no neighborhood should get an unqualified opt out from growing and being inclusive.

Interested in helping us find ways to make this plan stronger? Join our online "book club" by filling out the form below. We cleared 110 members last week. Jump on in!



Links


National links: How the highways happened

The US highway system is around partly because of a road trip Dwight Eisenhower took right after WWI, and if our leaders don't invest in our transit infrastructure, we'll have to sit back and hope for the best until they change their minds. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

Interstate prelude: On July 7, 1919, Dwight Eisenhower struck out on a road trip across the country. His military convoy, the first to cross the US by car, was partly a WWI celebration and partly an effort to gather info on the state of American roads at the time. It averaged 52 miles per day. This road trip and a view of the German autobahns would plant the seeds of the future US Interstate Highway System (History)

Alphabet soup: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (which is basically Google), has offered a suite of tools to Columbus Ohio, the winner of a contest for city design. It includes a program called "Flow," which would help the city modernize its parking system and coordinate ride sharing for low income residents. Though some worry the program will take away from standard transit services. (Guardian Cities)

Surviving the storm: Transit in the United States is often set back by ideological rigidity and under-investment. Laws that keep tax money from going toward infrastructure, for example, make it impossible to get the support needed to repair and expand transit, and they'll stay in place unless leaders change them. The real question is whether transit can survive until those changes happen. (The Hill)

Try something new!: The developers behind a Harris Teeter in Carrboro, North Carolina, want to build something familiar: a grocery store in a tired strip mall. The design has remained very suburban and auto-oriented despite the city's multiple efforts to make it more urban and increase its potential tax base. It's an example of what happens when bean counters at the home office believe what they've always done (strip malls) is the only way to make money. (City Beautiful 21)

No Mickey Mouse ride: Disney has been pushing for a streetcar line from a commuter rail station in Anaheim to the theme park, and local officials were going along with the plan until now. The streetcar has been cancelled by the Orange Country Transit Authority board, with opponents citing low demand for the existing commuter rail and a high speed rail station that's coming in the future as reasons. (Voice of the OC)

Geek city:This week bay area tech incubator Y Combinator has put out a request for applications for its city research endeavor. The agency hopes that in the future, it might be able to find out the best way to build a city from scratch in a way that's better than what exists now. Good luck with that.(Treehugger)

Quote of the Week

"Drive-ins shifted the film industry's focus to the teenage demographic, a tactic that still informs studio decisions in 2016. And drive-ins unwittingly became both cause and casualty of urban sprawl."

- Urban planning expert Ryan Baker on the heyday of the drive in theater.

Development


Ten years ago, predictions for DC today were pretty spot on, except for a few key things

A lot has changed in DC in the last ten years ago. Planners knew it would, back then. But they had to make some predictions about the future as part of DC's then-new Comprehensive Plan. How did they do?


Crystal ball and city photo from Shutterstock.

Overall, the plan got a lot right. It predicted the 2010 population and the number of jobs in 2015 quite well. But DC started growing faster, and was in even higher demand as a place to live, than looked likely in 2005.

These and other predictions are part of the Framework chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, which we're reading in an online book club.

The group identified some predictions and then pulled current numbers to compare 2005 forecasts to reality.

Population: Even forecasting significant growth for DC was a big change in 2005, when the Comprehensive Plan was written. DC had lost population every Census from 1950 to 2000, but the trend had already started to turn around—and fast.

The plan's forecasts estimate 600,000 people by 2010. That was an amazing guess: the Census counted 601,721.

After that, the plan anticipated more growth, but reality far outstripped it. The Comp Plan predicted DC would reach 630,000 by 2015. Instead, the Census's estimate was 672,228. The plan forecast the population to hit 698,000 by 2025. We're surely going to get there much sooner; the mayor now talks about 800,000, not 700,000.

What happened? DC had started growing much faster than the forecasts, but the recession took a bite out and brought the growth numbers back down for 2010. Since then, people have continued coming to DC faster than the planners of 2005 imagined.


Population change from 1980-2000 (left) and 2000-2010 (right, by Corey Holman).The darkest shade of red represents the steepest decline, while the darkest green is the steepest increase.

Jobs: The 2005 Comprehensive Plan estimated 819,600 jobs in DC by 2015. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists May 2016 employment as 784,700. James Denney said:

It's a pretty close miss for the 2005 plan. Considering just how hard the economic downturn hit the nation in the late '00s, and accounting for the 2013 sequestration, the fact that DC is only 35,000 jobs away from the 2005 projection is actually rather admirable. Even ignoring the recession, the sequestration of 2013 accounts for nearly all of the projection gap.

Persons 25 and over without a college degree, 2000 (left) and 2010-2014 5-year ACS (right, map by Corey Holman).

Corey Holman looked at some other predictions in the Comp Plan and how they turned out.

Families are back. Prediction: "In fact, the average household in Washington contained 2.16 persons in 2000, down from 2.72 in 1970. Middle-class families left the city in large numbers during this period and the number of school-aged children dropped dramatically. Looking forward, the city expects household size to continue falling through 2010, and then stabilize."

Reality: Average household size in the 2010 census did continue to fall to 2.11, but the 2005-2009 (2.21 persons) and 2010-2014 5-Year ACS (2.22 persons) showed much larger household size.

Baby boomer boom? Prediction: "According to the US Census, the percentage of seniors is expected to increase as 'baby-boomers' retire."

Reality: The number of seniors is lower now that it was at the time the Comp Plan was written. In 2000 the 65+ percentage was 14.3%. In the 2010 Census it was 13.0% and in the 2010-14 ACS is was 11.3%. The 18-64 age group percentage increase dramatically while 0-18 showed decreases as well.

Immigrants come, but not as many Latinos. Prediction: "The percentage of foreign-born residents, particularly those of Hispanic origin, is expected to rise."

Reality: Foreign-born population did increase slightly from 12.9% in 2000 to 14.0% in the 2010-14 ACS. However, the percentage of people of Hispanic origin is actually lower now that it was in 2000.


Poverty rate in 2000 (left) and 2010-2014 5-year ACS (right, map by Corey Holman)

So what?

The Comprehensive Plan governs DC government decisions, particularly land use and zoning. Many provisions suggest adding more housing while other provisions talk about "protecting" neighborhoods.

The way the plan underestimated population growth means other provisions may also be inapt for DC's current needs if they are predicated on lower housing demand than there really turned out to be.

We'll delve into more specific policy statements in the Comp Plan as the book club gets to those chapters. Want to be a part of the book club? Sign up with the form below!



Development


Is DC "growing inclusively"? In 2005, it set out to.

Greater Greater Washington readers are reading DC's Comprehensive Plan, a document that lays out how we build our city, and discussing it as we go. Each week, we'll post a summary of the chapter we most recently read, along with some highlights of what our book club participants think about how the plan could change in the upcoming amendment process.

In 2005, DC's Comprehensive Plan was 20 years old and woefully out of date. The District undertook a major effort to rewrite the plan for DC's needs. This new plan opens with an encouraging vision: a growing, inclusive city. Has the plan actually helped DC grow inclusively?

Our book club discussed these questions as it read the first chapter, the Introduction.


DC Comprehensive Plan - Chapter 1

A big vision: planning to grow for all people

The opening statement of the Comprehensive Plan reads:

Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices—choices about where they live, how and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school.
Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices—regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age.
The emphasis on growing inclusively is important. This Comprehensive Plan was developed in the early 2000s, when DC's population had declined for 50 years and that trend was just ending. Since that time, DC's population has grown quickly, with more growth predicted for the coming decades. The language in this Introduction highlights the need to allow for this growth.

But will the city translate this vision into practice and actually grow in a way that welcomes people of all incomes?

The Comp Plan is a piece of a larger puzzle

The Comprehensive Plan is not the same as a prescriptive law. Its purpose is to guide the city's agencies and policies when making planning decisions. But it is not the only plan to do so.

The federal government (through the National Capital Planning Commission) creates its own "Federal Elements" about government land and property. DC also has many topical plans, like Sustainable DC, Move DC (for transportation), and Play DC (for parks). Finally, the Office of Planning is charged with periodically developing Small Area Plans, which address individual neighborhoods in more detail.

All of these other plans become part of the Comp Plan, and its more general policy statements are supposed to guide those plans. Theoretically then, growing inclusively should become a guiding principle for every planning decision that gets made in the city.


A plan within a plan... within a plan...

This 2006 plan was a big change from past plans

This version of the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in December of 2006. It was created because the previous version created in the 1980s was out of touch with the realities of the city.

Among some of the important changes was an entirely new way to organize the city. Previously, the Comprehensive Plan described the city based on ward boundaries, but because these boundaries shift over time due to population changes and politics, this plan delineates its own sections of the city, called Area Elements, to keep things consistent.


Area Elements Map of DC Comprehensive Plan

Another change was the high level of community input and engagement that took place to create the plan. Book club member Jane Dembner was a part of the consulting team for the Comp Pan, and shared that "this process was unprecedented in DC at that time" and was more strategic about engaging diverse stakeholders than ever before.

Will this plan fulfill its promise?

Many book club members were enthusiastic about the plan's bold vision. Peter Casey said, "too often, organizations and governments move forward without a vision of what they want to move towards. It heartens me to see the city so intentional in its development and choosing inclusion as its guiding principle."

But, he continued, "talking about inclusion is one thing, actually achieving it is anotherů In my mind, inclusion, more than anything else is the major challenge facing the District today."

David Alpert, too, reflected particularly about how this vision statement uses the language of "choices" and asked whether today we have the choices the plan calls for:

"In some ways, choices have really expanded in 10 years - people have more transportation mode choices, and there are more better schools including charter school choices, etc. ... But other choices have not expanded or have [even] contracted, like where to live. While many neighborhoods have gotten safer, more of the city is also out of reach of many people than was 10 years ago, and I don't think we are doing enough to ensure people still have those choices."
Yuki Kato wondered about "how this concept [of inclusivity] gets executed in the remainder of the [Comp] Planů It is possible that in some of the elements inclusivity is more easily conceptualized and executed."

Cheryl Cort, who was part of the task force that created the plan, noted it includes good concepts about "building an inclusive city, but now seems to lack urgency to address rising demand to live in the city, since the city grew much faster, and sustained its growth."

In summary, readers who shared their thoughts support the vision of growing an inclusive city, but wonder how it will be implemented. The problems we are facing today are generally magnified and more acutely felt than they were in 2006, especially in terms of housing. This amendment process is the opportunity to update the Comp Plan and make sure it reflects our city's current and future needs.

Can you be a part of the book club?

This week and next we are reading Chapter 2: Framework, and will report our thoughts soon. After that we move on to Chapter 3: Land Use.

Want to join us? We are 85+ and counting! Fill out the form below.



Development


Let's read the book on DC... then re-write it

What if you could shape DC's master plan that guides the future of the city? You can. The District is about to update its Comprehensive Plan, and we're starting an online book club to read it and provide feedback on how it should change. Join us!


DC's Comprehensive Plan.

DC's Comprehensive Plan is one of the most important documents our leaders use to guide decisions on what the city will be like today and in the coming decades. You probably haven't read it—it's over 600 pages long. But if we're going to ensure that more people of all income levels can live and work in this great city, we need to pay attention to the Comp Plan.

The Comprehensive Plan is truly that. Its chapters include everything from housing to arts and culture. Inside each chapter are guidelines, goals, and recommendations that spell out a vision for what DC is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to function.

The plan is meant to guide everyday decisions and act as a measurement tool to see if we are building and growing in the right way based on the city's and region's needs. While the plan doesn't dictate specific buildings, roads, schools, or rec centers, it's the framework that agencies must follow when making their own decisions.

Does the Comp Plan really matter?

Yes.

As we wrote about recently, having goals matters, even if enforcing them or reaching them is difficult. Without clear, measurable and attainable goals, our growth and development as a city will move forward without our values to shape it.

What is more, an unclear or contradictory Comprehensive Plan can be used to stop needed new housing and jobs. The recent case in Brookland showed this, where a plan for 200 apartments was rejected by a court because of statements (some contradictory) in the Comprehensive Plan. The plan can be a powerful tool for the city, but if not done well it can cause harm as well.

The first Comprehensive Plan was adopted back in 1985. In 2006, DC re-wrote the plan and set a schedule for ongoing amendments every five years. There was a minor update in 2011-2012. Now, it's time again. The Office of Planning, the stewards and interpreters of the plan, will soon kick off a process to collect public input on the plan and propose revisions.

You can shape the new plan

This is a big chance for residents to set the direction for to what the city should look like tomorrow and 20 years from now.

One thing to do first though—you need to read it. And before you run off, wait! We'll read it with you!

Greater Greater Washington is organizing an online DC Comprehensive Plan Book Club. Each week for the next six months, a group of us will read one chapter at a time and discuss it over email. Volunteers will moderate each chapter's discussion, and then we'll publish a summary of our collective thoughts about each section on the blog.

If you want to be part of our book club, fill out this form and we'll get in touch with more details. If you have any questions about it, leave a comment below.

This is a big opportunity to share in the vision of our city. Time to crack open the cover.



Bicycling


Use this map to make Fairfax more bike-friendly

Little River Turnpike, a major road that runs across Fairfax, is difficult to bike along. The county is looking to change that, though, and a new interactive map lets you make suggestions for how it can.


Click this map for a version that you can comment on. Image from Fairfax County.

Stretching from Fairfax City to Alexandria, Little River Turnpike has been a major road since the 1800s and its interchanges with both 495 and 395 mean the road sees a lot of traffic today.

Right now, there are no bike lanes on Little River Turnpike, and sidewalks are hit and miss. Fairfax wants to make it easy to bike between the many neighborhoods and businesses up and down the road.


Riding a bike here could be a whole lot easier. Image from Google Maps.

While there is a master bike plan for Fairfax, some of its roads need a more detailed and focused approach. Little River Turnpike is one of them (the county has deemed it a "policy road"), so planners in Fairfax are conducting the Little River Turnpike Bicycle Study to determine the best way to improve bike riding options there. They're starting with the interactive map above.

One challenge for bike projects along the road is a narrow right of way, which means there isn't much space for bike lanes (and it'd be expensive for the county to buy the space). Also, there some places along the road do have ample space for a stretch, but then it ends abruptly.

The hope with the map is that planners will be able to identify quick fixes in some of the road's trouble spots. The entire study could lead to broader-sweeping changes, but those would be further down the line.

This isn't the only bicycle project coming to Annandale. A number of bike lanes will go in when Ravensworth Road, Guinea Road, John Marr Drive, and Heritage Drive get repaved this summer (all of these roads connect to or run near Little River Turnpike).

Fairfax did this last year as well, when it used an interactive map to crowdsource ideas for bike projects across the county.

Links


National links: The robots can't see the road!

When robots are driving cars, faded line markings become bigger problems than usual. Also, Phoenix gets a bad rap among urbanists but maybe we should consider it differently, and airports can be pretty miserable places to be in. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Ali Eminov on Flickr.

Robocars are befuddled: As roads age, their lane markings fade and signs become harder to read. Most humans can adjust alright, but nationwide, roads in disrepair are confusing self-driving cars. (Reuters)

Phoenix is just misunderstood: Phoenix gets a bad rap among urbanists because it's not very dense and virtually everyone there drives. But is that what it deserves? It's true that Phoenix, and similar places like Houston and Las Vegas, have sprawling designs. But maybe we should evaluate them based on how effective today's decision makers are while working within those parameters. (Urban Edge)

Airport agony Do designs for airports accommodate passengers? The New York Times' Chris Holbrook argues that changes in building priorities, from security concerns to more specialists who need to sign off on small details, has made airports feel more like prisons than places of comfort and service. (New York Times)

The US is lagging behind: When compared to airports in Seoul or trains in Switzerland, America's infrastructure falls short. Possible explanations include that we're dependent on cars, that the private sector abandoned mass transit, that we won't pay for maintenence, and that more people are focused on their own success but not that of society at large. (The Conversation US)

Housing hyperbole: Joel Kotkin is one of urban thinking's most outspoken contrarians, and a review from the California Planning and Development Report says his recent book is so off-base that it's questionable whether he has ever actually met a planner. Just because a city is getting denser doesn't mean it will get as dense as humanly possible, and just because a lot young and wealthy people live in cities doesn't mean there's a "war against suburbia." (CPDR)

Quote of the Day

"As we've grown in recent decades in our knowledge of urban economies, street-level planning, city design, the value of diversity, government finance and management, we've lost an essential leadership skill—the craft of city politics." Otis White, a renowned writer on government and cities, on why planners should think like politicians.

Development


Tenleytown won't get 50 units of housing and a park

50-100 people won't be able to live in Tenleytown, and a major intersection won't get a pocket park and become more walkable. That's because DC's Office of Planning and some local leaders got anxious about a mixed-use building from Georgetown Day School that's shorter than another one across the street.


Rendering of the proposed residential buildings along Wisconsin Avenue. All images from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

GDS proposes a transformative project for Tenleytown

In June 2014, after three unsucessful attempts to redevelop a Safeway grocery store at 42nd and Davenport Streets NW, the neighboring Georgetown Day School (GDS) bought the Safeway property, a WMATA chiller plant, and a car dealership across 42nd on Wisconsin Avenue.

Despite initial fears that this would mean no chance to add retail, build much-needed apartments, and link Tenleytown and Friendship Heights, after 20 months of public meetings, GDS proposed a design that would consolidate the school and build two mixed-use buildings on the dealership property.


Plan of the GDS proposal at Wisconsin Avenue's elevation.

Since the low-rise school was much lower density than zoning would allow, GDS wanted to use a process called a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to shift density from the school, closer to single-family homes, and over to the dealership site on Wisconsin Avenue.

The project would have added 270-290 housing units, 22-29 of which would have been permanently affordable. Plus, it offered 38,500 square feet of retail, a pocket park at Elliott Street, a spectacular public staircase, and a 42nd Street redesigned with state-of-the-art traffic calming features.


Traffic calming on 42nd Street. The school is at the left and the mixed-use buildings at right.

The only complication: The zoning would have to be changed from a lower-density commercial zone, C-2-A, to a slightly denser one, C-2-B. The same change was successfully made across the street in 1999, for a project called Tenley Hill. That project's penthouse is actually 7'6" higher than these buildings would have been.

You can read the full PUD submission and an amendment.

The project gets positive reviews but some "height-itis"

Reactions to the project among community members were mostly positive, but two groups of neighbors expressed concern about the scale of the project, "Neighbors of GDS" and the "Wisconsin Avenue Gateway Group," whose leaders live in the Tenley Hill building. Supporting GDS's project were the longstanding smart growth group Ward 3 Vision and a new group called "Revive 3E," which formed to specifically focus on what members felt was obstruction in the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 3E.

The ANC repeatedly expressed support for upzoning of the site, but dithered over whether the package of amenities and mitigation was adequate, demanding an detailed Transportation Management Plan, including a request that no new vehicle trips arrive at the site. The ANC's chair, Jon Bender, openly questioned whether alternative arrangements could fit more residential uses onto the school site.

The big sticking point, however, was the height of the buildings. The zoning change would have let both buildings rise 80 feet from Wisconsin Avenue. Because 42nd Street is down a steep hill, one would have been 86'3" on 42nd Street and the other maxed out at 97'4" adjacent to GDS's high school building.


Height of the school (left), north residential building (center), and across Wisconsin (right).

Office of Planning blocks the project

This week, there was a new surprise: DC's Office of Planning also took issue with the height.

To do a Planned Unit Development, a property owner first applies to the Office of Planning, which then recommends, or doesn't recommend, DC's Zoning Commission "set it down" for a hearing. As GDS's head wrote in a letter to the Northwest Current, OP expressed opposition to setting down the current proposal.

Why the Office of Planning opposed the project is not public knowledge. Once a project is set down, the Zoning Commission schedules a hearing and OP, as well as other city agencies, file public reports with their comments. But because of OP's opposition, the school withdrew this version of its plans.

Some housing and the park are gone

GDS now wants to go forward with fewer floor on the southern building and two fewer on the northern one. It's not even the first height reduction. Critics of the project had asked for a 65-foot nominal height and GDS compromised from the original height, cutting two stories off last fall. Now, the building will be as short as critics requested.

Because of the loss of revenue from three floors, GDS can't afford some of the big-ticket benefits that brought in community support: the pocket park at the north end, the special public space finishes, and the traffic calming measures on 42nd Street.

It's still a fine project, but had the first submitted design been accepted, it would have made Tenleytown one of the most complete urban designs in the city, crossing the work and play of multiple generations of Washingtonians in a single space.

More importantly, this second reduction means a loss of another 50 potential apartments. On a micro-level, that's unfortunate in an area that has a large student population but few small apartments, leading many students to live in group houses that could otherwise hold families with kids. It also reduced the density that can support small businesses and restaurants. On a macro scale it's just another opportunity increase the aggregate amount of housing in the city, lost to the tastes of a vocal minority.

Sure it's only 50 here, but 50 at the next one, and so on, contributing to a deficit across the city. If the 2006 Comprehensive Plan is what's keeping this site from an appropriate level of density, then it's failing. If OP is talking of the need to build shelter for a growing city and reduce automobile use, but disqualifies GDS' modest mixed used density, then the talk of two biggest issues the city faces is just a gesture devoid of substance.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC