Posts about Planning
What should Southwest DC look like over the next few years? Will it continue to be a quiet neighborhood despite increasing development around it? Or will it become a bustling area with more people and retail?
On Wednesday, the DC Office of Planning held a kickoff meeting for the Southwest Neighborhood Plan, which will be the Small Area Plan that will cover most of Southwest DC. The plan will address some of the development pressure that the neighborhood is experiencing, thanks in part to DC's growing population.
The neighborhood is currently surrounded by large development projects, like the Southwest Ecodistrict, the Wharf, and the Yards. Nationals Park borders the neighborhood, as well as the future DC United stadium and associated redevelopment in Buzzard Point. This creates a challenge for planners trying to craft a distinct vision for Southwest.
As the name "kickoff" implies, OP is still in the very early stages of putting the plan together. Right now there are no preconceived notions of what the plan will look like. Theoretically, everything is under consideration. The plan will focus on development along I and M streets, but plan will address issues of conservation, sustainability, and connectivity in areas to the north and south.
During this stage, OP is seeking input on what values are important to the community. Many residents value the diversity, affordability, green space, and access the neighborhood provides. But while some residents want more restaurants, retail, and bars, others are worried that competition will force out existing businesses. Neighbors also differed on whether a streetcar on M Street would be a good idea.
At the meeting, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning seemed optimistic that the neighborhood could build on its shared values to overcome differences and mold a plan. She pointed out that people aren't for or against the streetcar because it's a streetcar, they are for it or against it because of the perceived effects a streetcar will bring to traffic and the neighborhood. OP will continue to take input and then analyze and report back in late fall. They hope to have a final draft of the plan by Spring 2014.
Much of the land in the area is currently occupied by housing, which seems unlikely to go away over the next several years. But DC owns a fair bit of land that Tregoning called "underutilized." These are shorter structures like the DMV branch and inspection station and the DC Fire Department repair shop, located on M Street SW about halfway between the Waterfront and Navy Yard Metro stations. In the future, this area could sit right on a proposed streetcar line.
At a recent town meeting, Prince George's County planners asked where the county's downtowns are. That meeting inspired me to think more broadly about where and how the county as a whole should grow in the coming years, which I look at in a new policy paper.
Titled "Plan Prince George's 2035: Thinking and Growing Smartly Downtown and Beyond," my paper is a response to Plan Prince George's 2035, an ongoing update of the county's General Plan. County planners envision most future growth taking place in a few "downtowns" around the county. Over the past year, they've hosted a town hall meeting for community members and released two reports of their own, Where and How We Grow and Typology and Prioritization.
But have planners selected the right areas for new downtowns, and should we focus on them at the expense of other areas? And will emphasis on "new towns" in greenfield areas undermine the plan's goals? These are the issues I look at in my paper.
After reviewing the project team's two reports and attending the town hall meeting at the University of Maryland along with 300 other community members, I initially had some questions about the criteria that the planners used to rank potential downtowns.
Their quantitative analysis tool gave a higher priority in the top 10 list to places like Cheverly, Suitland, and Riverdale, which aren't really suitable for intense development, than to places that are, like Greenbelt and Largo. Other stations previously recognized as prime development opportunities, like Morgan Boulevard and Addison Road, didn't show up anywhere in the top 10. It didn't make sense to me that certain site-specific factors, such as the presence of available land for development and re-development and the absence of steep slopes, flood plains, and other barriers like railroad lines and highways, did not factor in more prominently in the diagnostic tool.
More broadly, though, I was concerned about what appeared to be a near-singular focus on the county's "downtown"-capable Metro station areas, to the exclusion of other station areas. I was also concerned that the preliminary recommendation to include a "new town" center typology in the General Plan Update seemed to be tacitly endorsing the troubling concept of non-transit-oriented, outer-Beltway greenfield developments like Westphalia, which are contrary to the county's stated land use priorities and basic smart growth principles.
Focus on the whole county, not just downtown
In Thinking and Growing Smartly, I attempt to more fully examine the questions posed by the M-NCPPC project team's earlier two policy papers: where and how should we grow, and how should our transit stations interact with each other to form a coherent growth strategy? To reach those threshold questions, I explore a number of issues:
Change the classification of land: Today, Prince George's County uses an amorphous, three-tier system to classify different parts of the county as either "Developed," "Developing," or "Rural." The project team has sensibly indicated that it intends to adopt and implement the place categorization guidelines developed by the Maryland Department of Planning in connection with PlanMaryland, the statewide development plan.
Those guidelines classify land into one of five categories: Targeted Growth and Revitalization Areas, Established Community Areas in Priority Funding Areas, Future Growth Areas, Large Lot Development Areas, and Rural Resource Planning Areas.
I recommend that Targeted Growth and Revitalization Areas should cover only areas that are within: a 1/2-mile radius around around existing Metro and MARC rail stations, designated 1/2-mile districts along General Plan-designated transitways, and transit-accessible areas in designated Maryland Sustainable Communities and Maryland Enterprise Zones. Future Purple Line stations that aren't in one of those areas already would become Future Growth Areas. All of those areas should be built under the county's new form-based zoning requirements.
Define the place typologies: I generally agree with the planners that different place types belong in a hierarchy that describes the desired land use mix, housing and employment types and targets, and densities. However, the densities that county planners initially proposed are generally too low to support heavy and light rail. They also don't distinguish between areas within 1/4 mile of a transit station, where densities should be highest, and areas within 1/4 and 1/2 mile.
I propose five distinct place typologies, each with their own recommended densities, most of which are higher than those originally proposed by the project team. In descending order, they are: Central Business Districts, Major Urban Districts, Neighborhood Urban Districts, Special Use/Employment Districts, and Transitway Districts.
Rethink greenfield sprawl: Rather than endorsing greenfield sprawl projects like Westphalia and Konterra by according them their own "new town" category, the county should rethink and rezone those areas before major development occurs there, which would further undermine the county's transit-oriented development goals. Those land areas are not in a Priority Funding Area, Enterprise Zone, or Sustainable Community; therefore, they should be classified as either Large Lot Development Areas or Rural Resource Planning Areas.
Use Transitways to connect and revitalize the county: I also recommend 17 "Transitways" where the county should provide frequent bus service to connect major population centers to existing rail transit stations and major commercial and government centers.
Through the master planning process, the county should designate various Transitway Districts as focus areas for revitalization and intensive infill development. This would be a good solution for aging or deteriorated automobile-oriented commercial sites like Penn/Mar Shopping Center, Iverson Mall, and Langley Park Shopping Center.
Incentivize private sector development: I recommend that the county take a two-pronged approach to encourage more high quality jobs and development. First and foremost, the county should implement the necessary structural reforms that will foster a more sensible, faster, and less politicized development process. That includes placing appropriate restrictions on growth outside of targeted areas, streamlining the development review process, rewriting and simplifying the zoning ordinance, and eliminating the dreaded "council call-up" review of individual site plans.
Secondly, the county should focus public investment on those high-potential stations most in need of infrastructure improvement to catalyze private sector interest. Three good places to start would be New Carrollton, Addison Road, and Capitol Heights, which are older and less-prepared for new development than their counterparts on the Green Line and the Blue Line extension to Largo. They've also received less interest from public sector institutions, like the FBI or the University of Maryland Medical System's new regional hospital, which could bring jobs that stimulate the local economy.
The planners need to hear from us
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with the M-NCPPC project team to discuss an earlier draft of my Thinking and Growing Smartly policy paper. Kierre McCune, lead coordinator on the Plan Prince George's project, was happy to receive and discuss the paper, and noted that he was particularly pleased to see that at least someone outside of the Planning Department had taken the time to read through the project team's prior materials and provide thoughtful feedback.
Similarly, planner Sonja Ewing remarked that citizens often don't realize the value in providing this kind of feedback to the planners. She said it is helpful for the team to hear and be continually challenged by an outside-the-bubble perspective. And Planning Supervisor Kipling Reynolds said now was a good time for people to give input, since county planners are still refining their first draft of the Plan Update, which goes to the Planning Board in September.
What are your thoughts as to how Prince George's can think and grow smartly? You can let county planners know by emailing them or following them on Twitter @PlanPGC2035. Even after it's released, the public will still be able to offer suggestions. I hope that many of my recommendations will find their way into the draft as well.
Should DC raise its height limit? A study aims to answer this question, but we can't consider this issue entirely in a vacuum. The real question is, where should DC grow?
The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and DC Office of Planning (OP) are running the study, which includes 5 public meetings over the next 2 weeks, starting this Saturday in Tenleytown.
Rapidly-rising housing prices in the District show that many more people want to live in DC than do today. Without extra supply, that means more gentrification, and greater numbers of less wealthy renters getting pushed out of their longtime neighborhoods.
More supply isn't the only solution, but it's an important piece. In short, DC is building housing fast, but not fast enough.
So where should this housing go? There are obstacles to new housing just about everywhere.
- In wealthy neighborhoods, residents file lawsuits against new developments, and the historic preservation process often lops off an extra floor or two for project after project.
- In poorer neighborhoods, many residents also worry about larger buildings, and fear that change will bring gentrification that displaces longtime residents.
- Downtown, the height limit restricts buildings so that there is very little more that can be built.
Beyond that, and even before, the growth has to go to wealthy neighborhoods, poorer neighborhoods, and/or downtown. We haven't had a citywide discussion about what mix of these is the right one. Instead, individual neighborhoods and developers fight the same battle on site after site. Each neighborhood tries to be the best at pushing development to someone else's neighborhood. Some "succeed" more than others.
The same happens for transportation. The MoveDC study is looking at how much to focus transportation investment on the downtown or on neighborhoods. This question goes hand in hand with the question of where to grow. Neighborhoods and BIDs all want transportation investments. The right answer is to locate the transportation investments in and around the places where we want the growth to be.
Not growing is a bad solution for many reasons, and isn't even realistic. The height limit may be one part of an answer. If it's not, then residents need to find answers elsewhere, not stick their heads in the sand.
The 5 meetings are:
- Saturday, August 3, 10:30-12:30 at the Tenley-Friendship Library
- Tuesday, August 6, 6:38-8:30 pm at Dorothy Height/Benning Library
- Wednesday, August 7, 6:38-8:30 pm at the Mt. Pleasant Library
- Saturday, August 10, 10:30-12:30 at Catholic University's Crough Center
- Tuesday, August 13, 6:38-8:30 pm at the Office of Planning in Southwest
Parking isn't the only part of DC's zoning update that got cut back this month. In the latest drafts, DC planners have also limited plans to allow corner stores in residential areas.
Originally, they considered permitting retail, service, grocery, and arts businesses as matter of right in corner buildings, subject to lots and lots of conditions. Instead, only grocery stores might be able to locate as a matter of right, while other businesses can apply for a special exception and have a hearing.
This responds to resident concerns about stores' impacts. While it might impede corner stores, the old rules were so restrictive that almost no corner stores could have opened anyway, so this will have little further impact.
Corner store proposal tries to restore historic patterns
DC's historic neighborhoods had a few "corner stores" (usually, but not always, on actual corners) scattered throughout neighborhoods. Before zoning prohibited commerce in residential areas, and before malls and big box stores, these stores met many everyday needs.
But in the era of single-use zoning, which sought to segregate all commerce from residences, DC and other cities outlawed these stores. Some remained open, grandfathered into the zoning, while others closed and, if they remained closed for 3 years, could never reopen. OP wanted to fix this problem.
Certainly, a store can potentially harm neighbors if there is a lot of noise, trash attracting rodents, smells from cooking, and so on. Therefore, planners tried to write a set of narrow rules limiting trash to being stored indoors, restricting on-site cooking, curtailing hours, and so on.
Leaders ask for hearings before stores can open
The Zoning Commission approved the idea in theory, but it drew opposition from many residents. Councilmember Muriel Bowser, in particular, expressed hostility to this idea. Some small stores in neighborhoods in her ward tend to sell mostly liquor and junk food and can be magnets for disturbances or crime, though OP's rules didn't allow liquor stores under the corner store proposal.
Bowser suggested there have to be a public hearing before any store could locate in a residential area. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B, for southern Capitol Hill, also suggested requiring a hearing.
OP has agreed to change the rules so that a grocery store can still locate as a matter of right, but a retail sales business, art studio, cafe, or service business will require a special exception. To get one, an owner will have to apply to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), talk to the ANC, and have a hearing where neighbors can speak.
OP is still finalizing some of the details. For example, the old rules had many limits, including how close one store could be to an existing commercial corridor or mixed-use area. The idea was to ensure that such stores don't sap vitality from the actual commercial area. But, ANC 6B suggested, if the BZA is going to review an application anyway, instead of a firm rule this could be something the BZA can consider.
Similarly, maybe the strict limits on hours and size can be a little less absolute if the BZA is able to use its discretion and weigh the impacts against the benefits.
Is this the right move?
Certainly, this change will make corner stores harder to open than they would have been under the original, Zoning Commission-approved proposal. But there were so many limits on corner stores that there were actually vanishingly few eligible sites for corner stores at all.
Stores could only be in the moderate density R-3, R-4, and R-5-A zones, not the detached or semi-detached house R-1 and R-2 zones or the apartment R-5-B zones. They had to be at least 500 feet from any mixed-use zone (even one with no stores). They had to locate on corner buildings, or buildings originally built to be commercial.
That leaves few areas in most parts of the city. In Ward 4, for instance, only Petworth and a few tiny bits of other neighborhoods are eligible, and then only far from the commercial corridors. Even within the eligible area (shaded in yellow below), it's only corner buildings, most of which someone already owns and uses for a purpose other than a store.
DC's Ward 4. Eligible corner store area is shaded yellow. Corner stores cannot locate in the purple or white areas under OP's proposal. Click for larger map and other wards.
In this case, even with all the restrictions, neighbors might have an understandable concern about an impact the rules didn't anticipate. A special exception, while it creates a burden, might not be unreasonable here.
Meanwhile, residents need easy access to food, especially fresh food. The biggest potential problem with a grocer is trash, and rules require them to store all trash indoors. They also limit the store's size (1,200 square feet in the prior proposal), number of employees (3), hours (not after 10 pm and before 7 am), and more.
OP has tried to bend over backward to allow some stores while also keeping them from affecting neighbors. If their new, scaled-down proposal goes into effect, a very small number of new corner stores might open up, and then we can see how well they do. Or, the rules might be so restrictive that no stores appear.
On Friday, DC planning director Harriet Tregoning announced she's giving into yet another demand from zoning update opponents: to reduce rather than eliminate minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas outside downtown. Will this smooth the path forward for the remaining provisions, or only put other progressive changes at risk?
Until last week, the Office of Planning (OP)'s plan was to eliminate parking minimums downtown and along corridors with Metro, streetcar, or high-frequency bus lines. Low-density neighborhoods of detached houses, and even moderate density neighborhoods of smaller row houses, would have retained minimums, though not for buildings of 10 units and fewer.
Now, only the highest density "downtown" neighborhoods, including developing centers like NoMA and the ballpark area, would have no parking minimums. Elsewhere, the minimums for multifamily residential will be 1 space per 3 units away from transit, and half that near transit, Tregoning explained.
Instead of exempting buildings up to 10 units, the new proposal only exempts buildings up to 4 units, and in "single-family" neighborhoods, even a single-family home will require a parking space unless it has no alley access. That means that nobody will have to put in a driveway curb cut for a single-family house, but might have to pave over a backyard even where street parking is plentiful.
In addition, property owners will be able to apply for an easier "special exception" to further reduce or waive parking minimums, rather than the tougher variance standard in effect now.
There is one significant step forward: OP had previously said that parking minimum changes (outside downtown) wouldn't go into effect if and when the zoning update won approval. Instead, there would be another, subsequent process to "map" the transit zones in each neighborhood. That would likely have led to years more of acrimony.
Instead, Tregoning said, OP now proposes to simply write rules so that the half-as-strict parking minimum rule automatically kicks in for properties within ½ mile of a Metro station or ¼ mile of a streetcar line or designated WMATA priority bus corridor. (I forgot to ask, but hopefully Circulator lines will also qualify.)
That means that if the Zoning Commission approves the plan, property owners near transit could see less onerous requirements more quickly than when there was going to be a mapping phase. While this is a step forward, OP could always have used this formula to define areas with no parking minimums at all. This didn't have to go hand in hand with retaining minimums.
This change isn't the right policy; it's just a political choice
There's no doubt the zoning update has engendered fierce debate. It's a constant topic of heated argument on neighborhood listservs, particularly in neighborhoods like Tenleytown, Chevy Chase, and Cleveland Park. A small group of opponents, almost all from west of Rock Creek Park, have shown up at hearings over 5 years to object to nearly every change of any kind.
From Tregoning's statements to the press, it's clear she's made the change in order to appease opponents, not because she's actually convinced keeping parking minimums is the better policy. She told Aaron Wiener at the Washington City Paper that abolishing requirements "was really wigging people out," and Mike Debonis at the Post quoted her saying, "A lot of people were very, very concerned with the concept of no parking minimums."
She also told DeBonis, "I'm not an ideologue. I'm very practical. The practical effect is not very different." That may be true in most cases, though it still means some owners will build garages they know aren't necessary, simply to avoid asking for zoning relief.
But the practical effect will be very different if the DC Zoning Commission further waters down the proposal before giving it final approval. Tregoning and associate director Jennifer Steingasser promised to transmit proposal to the commission by July 29. The commission, a hybrid federal-local body, has the final say on the plans, and can change them or ask OP to revise them in any way.
Opponents will pressure the Zoning Commission to scale back any changes, and there will be a strong temptation at least in the minds of some commissioners to shrink any proposal that meets substantial opposition. Had OP continued to propose eliminating minimums, the commission might have decided to keep some but reduce them. Now that OP set a new baseline of only reducing minimums, the commission may well decide to reduce them somewhat less.
Tregoning says she thinks the most recent change will appease some opponents, though some are blasting the new plan almost as vehemently. Chevy Chase resident and stalwart zoning update foe Sue Hemberger called the new proposal "repackaging [the] same anti-car policy." Alma Gates told Mike Debonis she's "not sure [the change] goes far enough," and DeBonis paraphrased Juliet Six saying she thinks the move "was calibrated to create an illusion of consensus."
The Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning have caved once again on parking minimums.
Retreat after retreat, and for what?
Why would this change engender any greater harmony, when OP has watered down its proposals several times in the last 5 years, never to any effect? Intransigence has paid off for those who opposed the zoning update since day one. They have managed to delay the update by at least a year, and bully the Office of Planning into successive rounds of scaling back.
OP has cut the fat, then the muscle, and now the bone from its plans. In 2008, the zoning update team was talking about eliminating all parking minimums and even establishing maximums. Travis Parker, the head of the update at the time, decided to leave in some minimums only in commercial corridors far from transit, because opponents say parking is most needed in those areas. Later, OP decided not to push forward on maximums.
When Parker moved to Colorado and Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser took over, she backed off further by promising to delay lower minimums around transit until after a further "mapping" process. It looked like Steingasser hoped that promise would quiet the small group of furious critics; it did not. Will this latest change be different?
Ironically, earlier last week, Matt Yglesias wrote in Slate that it's a bad idea to reduce rather than eliminate minimums. Among other reasons, he said,
On a concrete level, this is a form of compromise that really fails in its goal of de-mobilizing opposition. If you are a street parker and your priority in parking policy is to defend your access to cheap street parking, then any reduction in parking mandates should spark opposition. Watering the reform down doesn't lead to any genuine reconciliation of interests.Maybe Tregoning has the pulse of the Zoning Commission
I hope so, but I think it's much more likely that opponents will use this concession to try to get another concession, and zoning commissioners will still cut something back even more. Everyone wants to strike a compromise. But when one zoning update head compromises, then he leaves, his boss takes over, and she compromises, then the agency director compromises, and finally zoning commissioners compromise, we're left with is a weak set of changes that do little to truly position the city for the future.
You've probably heard a lot about the Supreme Court's decisions last week on the Voting Rights Act and same-sex marriage. But the court also decided a case on planning law which could make it more difficult for communities to negotiate public benefits during the process of land development.
Last Tuesday, the court released its decision in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, a planning law case from central Florida. The court ruled that two important tests must apply to a common technique called "monetary exactions."
An "exaction" is when a city or county requires a developer provide something of value, generally real estate or money, to mitigate negative impacts of a planned project in return for a permit. For example, a planning agency could require the developer of a residential subdivision to dedicate some land to protect waterways from runoff.
This case concerns whether a particular type of exaction is the same as taking of property, which the Fifth Amendment forbids without "just compensation."
The facts of the case
Koontz purchased 15 acres east of Orlando. Most of the property is wetlands. The St. Johns River Water Management District is responsible for preserving Florida's wetlands in that part of the state.
In the mid-1990s, Koontz applied for a permit to build on 3.7 acres of his property, including some wetlands, but offered to place a permanent conservation easement over the rest. The Water Management District said that wasn't enough. They wanted no net loss of wetlands.
They gave Koontz two options: he could pay to restore wetlands nearby, or he could limit his development to just 1 acre and conserve the remaining 14 acres. Koontz said no to both, and his permit for development was denied. He sued, and the case slowly made its way to the Supreme Court.
Takings and regulatory takings
Most takings involve eminent domain. For example, if the transportation department wanted to build a road across your property, you could sell it to them. If you don't want to sell, however, they can still take your land, but they have to pay you for it.
What if land isn't literally taken from a property owner, but the use is restricted so that the owner is giving up some property rights? That's called a "regulatory taking." It's when a regulation reduces the value of property.
The Supreme Court says that regulations become takings when they involve something physically occupying the property (like Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan, about installing wires on a building) or when they "go too far" (Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine what is going too far.
While the court recognizes that some exactions are necessary, sometimes they count as takings. To decide this, the Supreme Court established criteria known as the Nollan and Dolan tests.
In Nollan v. California Coastal Commission (1987), the court ruled that there had to be an "essential nexus" (relationship) between the regulation's intent and the exaction.
The Nollans wanted a permit to build a new beachfront home in Ventura County. The California Coastal Commission required they dedicate a public easement for pedestrian access along the beach portion of their lot as a tradeoff for blocking the view of the water from the street.
The commission claimed that pedestrian access offset the loss of visual access, but because the Commission had an ongoing program to obtain beach easements, the court decided that the required easement did not really mitigate the impact of granting the building permit. Thus, it counted as a taking.
Later, in Dolan v. Tigard (1994), the court introduced a new test, "rough proportionality." Under that test, the exaction required by a regulation needed to be roughly proportional to the impact the regulation was addressing. The government must actually quantify that impact before the exaction, rather than simply make an argument after the fact.
Specifically, Dolan wanted to enlarge her hardware store. The city of Tigard, Oregon required her to dedicate land to build a greenway (for flood control) and a bike path across her property. The court ruled that while it the bike path may indeed offset any increase in traffic, Tigard had not actually done an analysis to show that the requirement was a reasonable way to mitigate the increased traffic.
As with the Nollan case, the court said that if the city were simply requiring Dolan to dedicate the land because the city needed it for the bike path, then the city should pay for the land. Without an analysis, the the city can't know whether the requirement is roughly proportional to the harm it seeks to mitigate.
While the exactions in Nollan and Dolan involved dedicating land for some purpose, exactions can also be monetary: regulations can require land owners to pay for something, rather than giving up land.
An example of a monetary exaction
Since this is fairly complex, let's take a look at an example.
A developer wants to build a 2 million square foot shopping center in an area with no transit. The two roads passing the site are both two lanes wide. In its analysis, the planning department finds that the shopping center will increase car traffic by 40%.
To get the development approved, the planning agency asks the developer to pay for stoplights at each of the shopping center's entrances, add turning lanes from the main road, build sidewalks, and rebuild the intersection, which planners expect will increase road capacity by 35%.
Those exactions pass both tests. There's a relationship between the development's impact (more car trips) and the exaction (more road capacity). And there's proportionality because the traffic is expected to increase by 40% and capacity will increase by 35%.
But if the developer had to dedicate land for a new school, a court could find that an unconstitutional taking because a shopping center doesn't add students, so there's no relationship between it and needing more schools.
Or, if the shopping center is on a parcel where the master plan showed an interchange, and the agency requires the developer to build the interchange without any analysis of its effect on traffic, the court would conclude that the city is requiring the interchange because of the master plan, not to mitigate the traffic from the shopping center.
What does Koontz mean for communities?
The court made two key rulings in Koontz. First, the Nollan and Dolan tests apply to monetary exactions just like they apply to land dedications. Secondly, the Nollan/Dolan tests apply even when the permit is denied (and therefore there is no taking).
The court did not actually rule on the merits of the case. Koontz's case will have to wend its way through a few more courtrooms before he can determine whether he deserves compensation from the Water Management District.
Since there is no longer any doubt that the Nollan/Dolan tests apply to monetary exactions, courts will have to consider whether there is a nexus between requiring Koontz to pay for offsetting his destruction of wetlands and the Water Management District's goal of protecting wetlands. There also has to be proportionality. Koontz was proposing to destroy about 2.7 acres of wetland. How many acres of wetland restoration would his exaction have funded?
More importantly, what does this ruling mean for other planning agencies and property owners? Justice Samuel Alito says it prevents local governments from overstepping their bounds:
By conditioning a building permit on the owner's deeding over a public right-of-way, for example, the government can pressure an owner into voluntarily giving up property for which the Fifth Amendment would otherwise require just compensation. So long as the building permit is more valuable than any just compensation the owner could hope to receive for the right-of-way, the owner is likely to accede to the government's demand, no matter how unreasonable. Extortionate demands of this sort frustrate the Fifth Amendment right to just compensation, and the unconstitutional conditions doctrine prohibits them.Some in the planning community believe the Koontz decision will hamstring planners. Reading the excerpt above, it looks like if a planning agency demands an exaction that might not meet the tests even in the opening round of a negotiation, the agency could be opening itself up to litigation.
Because monetary exactions have not always been viewed through the perspective of Nollan and Dolan, some jurisdictions may have regarded them as a way to negotiate for improvements. Under Koontz, courts may regard some attempts to bargain with developers as asking too much.
What can local governments ask for? Could growth management programs, like those that require developers to pay to help preserve agricultural land, be at risk? Will Virginia's system of proffers, where developers offer dedications as part of the rezoning process, stand up to legal challenges?
The American Planning Association worries that this decision will make some agencies afraid to even propose exactions. The decision does not make it clear what kinds of exactions meet the Nollan and Dolan standard, or which payments might be grounds for takings lawsuits.
And what if permits are denied? Do local governments have to pay for exactions they never actually received? For takings that never occurred?
This decision does not do much to clear the waters. In fact, it has clouded them up significantly. Only time will tell whether this ruling opens local governments up to more litigation or whether it stops them from trying to regulate certain types of impacts altogether.
Yesterday, I talked about how Prince George's County planners want to create "downtown" areas around 2 or 3 of the county's Metro stations. But will the county direct growth to the right places, and will this new policy actually discourage suburban sprawl?
At a town hall meeting last Saturday, county planners presented 3 Metro stations, College Park, Prince George's Plaza, and New Carrollton, that could be sites for potential "downtowns." They would become Priority Improvement Districts (PIDs) which would get extra public investment to encourage private development. 3 other stations, Greenbelt, Largo Town Center, and Branch Avenue, were dubbed "game changers" that could become downtowns in the future.
This is a welcome step toward steering the county's growth toward transit sites and away from greenfields in distant, car-dependent areas. However, there are still questions about whether the county is picking the right centers, what to do with the other Metro station areas, and how the county will handle development away from Metro.
Are we using the right methodology to identify the best "downtown" locations?
How should we decide where a downtown goes? Historically, cities grew from areas with some geographic asset, like a confluence of rivers or an important rail junction, but Prince George's County has used very different criteria.
Planners developed a PID Diagnostic Index to analyze the county's 27 "activity centers" and decide which ones were best suited for a downtown. They gave the most weight to dynamic conditions, like current population demographics, the presence of large employers, and crime rates, while downplaying static features that could provide opportunities for growth, like undeveloped land, the lack of steep slopes or flood plains, or proximity to transit, including Metro, bus, and MARC.
While the 6 places they came up with make sense, it's strange to see Metro and MARC stations like Suitland, Riverdale, and Cheverly also ranked among the county's top 10 "highest performing" areas. M-NCPPC's 2010 Subregion 4 Master Plan said these areas weren't suitable for private investment, citing low household incomes, and a lack of existing private investment and developable land. Instead, planners recommended focusing on places like the Addison Road and Morgan Boulevard Metro stations, which offered "the best market opportunities for near-term development" in central Prince George's County. Yet, Addison Road and Morgan Boulevard appear nowhere on the top 10 list. This doesn't instill confidence in county planners' current analysis.
Largo Town Center: A promising high performer underrated in the PID Diagnostic Index. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
It's also strange that Largo Town Center wasn't rated more favorably than College Park, Prince George's Plaza, or New Carrollton. Largo is centrally located, is on the Blue and eventually Silver lines and major highways, has significant commercial activity, reasonably high income and education levels, and a large number of government offices. Matt Johnson recently called it the prime location for the new county seat. Unlike New Carrollton, Largo has lots of land available for redevelopment that isn't constrained by flood plains.
It's likely that, had M-NCPPC considered other models that weighted each factor differently, other stations may have come out on top in some of those alternate models. It might be a good idea for the planners to rethink some of these models and rankings, in an effort to arrive at a more realistic ranking of stations.
What about the other Metro stations?
While 2 or 3 downtowns would receive extra help from the county, the rest of the 27 activity centers would have to fend for themselves in the private market, according to the strategy proposed at the town hall forum. This logic flies in the face of previous M-NCPPC studies and findings, which indicate that there isn't enough of a market in the near term to spur development at most of the county's Metro stations without public help.
It's also unclear that a singular focus on creating "downtowns," as opposed to other station typologies, is the best strategy for the county. Previous M-NCPPC planning efforts called for a "corridor strategy" that pursues coordinated development and planning of several transit station areas along a major transportation route. Planners are working on two such efforts now, along the Blue Line and the southern end of the Green Line. The development of non-downtown station areas along these corridors may likewise require public commitment, focus, and financial support.
Representatives from M-NCPPC and the county haven't clearly explained why they've changed their focus, nor have they provided any data showing that the private market will be organically motivated to redevelop existing station areas in the short term, with no financial incentives or strategic support from the county. While it's not realistic to expect that all 27 centers or even the areas around all 15 Metro stations will be redeveloped at once, it may be advisable to pursue more of a middle-ground approach.
The county could still direct a lot of public investment to the downtowns, while providing some additional, targeted aid to other Metro station areas, like the "game changers" or other high-potential urban neighborhood sites like West Hyattsville and Addison Road. This could include building street grids where they don't exist, filling in the sidewalk and bike lane network, and assembling land for private development.
Other stations, like Morgan Boulevard, might need fewer public infrastructure improvements, since there's a lot of vacant and developable land around the Metro station and it's owned mostly by the county and WMATA. But they could use marketing and branding support from the county and WMATA to encourage private development.
We also need a strategy for implementing these public investments. County TIF bonds are one possibility. Both existing or future municipalities, like the City of Greenbelt, could take more of a direct role in the redevelopment of non-PID Metro stations. We also need to decide which non-downtown stations should receive priority consideration.
Do "new towns" and other typologies make sense?
Plan Prince George's 2035 continues to designate substantially vacant and undeveloped areas far away from transit, like Westphalia and Bowie (away from the MARC station), as planned growth areas. If the county wants to focus its energy on building 2 or 3 "downtowns," and several other Metro station areas have room for development and a need for both private and public investment, why would we need any "new towns" in the near term?
Even if greenfield communities are fully paid for by the private sector, which is unlikely, the county would still have to pay for the infrastructure needed to sustain them, like roads, sewers, and schools. M-NCPPC should explain how "new town" centers thus fit logically into the county's strategic land use priorities between now and 2035.
If we're going to direct future development to transit, we need to ensure a strong connection between transit and land use. That means allowing more density around Metro, both to incentivize development, support high-quality retail and commercial uses, and create compact, walkable neighborhoods where people don't have to drive. But it also means discouraging development of any density in areas far away from transit, which not only cannibalizes what private investment does come to the county, but further destabilizes closer-in communities.
According to M-NCPPC project leader Kierre McCune, work on Plan Prince George's 2035 should end by next spring. If you'd like more information, visit their website to get updates, and follow the process on Twitter at #PlanPGC2035.
Prince George's County has struggled to attract new development, especially around its Metro stations, but it also lacks a defined center. Over 300 residents and constituents gathered for a town hall meeting at the University of Maryland last Saturday to discuss potential locations for the county's future "downtown."
The forum was the latest in a series of outreach efforts by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) as part of Plan Prince George's 2035, an effort to update the county's General Plan, last updated in 2002.
Over the past 6 months, county planners have worked with residents, business owners, developers and state and municipal officials to craft a vision for the county's future. They've concluded that the county's approach to development needs to change: instead of sprawling farther out, it must focus on a few select areas that have the transit and economic strength to draw private investment.
The problem: the county can't simultaneously develop 27 centers
One issue is that the current vision is too broad. The 2002 General Plan designates 27 growth centers. 15 are at each of the county's Metro stations, and another 3 are at the Bowie, Seabrook and Riverdale MARC stations. 9 other centers are far from existing or planned rail transit, in places like National Harbor, Konterra and Westphalia.
This isn't serving the county well, says M-NCPPC planner-coordinator Sonja Ewing. Virtually all of the centers remain undeveloped, and none have reached their housing and employment density targets.
Each center fits into one of 3 vague categories, "Metropolitan," "Regional," and "Community," but those often lead to competing and disjointed planning efforts. This time around, M-NCPPC proposes to adopt a more descriptive system with 8 categories. Each one comes with its own particular desired land use mix, desired types of housing, height limits, maximum floor-area ratios, and density limits.
M-NCPPC will also designate 2 or 3 of the "urban center" locations as "Priority Improvement Districts" (PIDs), where the county would provide marketing, infrastructure investments and financial incentives to encourage private development.
Planners pick 3 "high performers" and 3 "game changers"
After analyzing and scoring all 27 areas, Planners chose 6 potential downtown sites, all of which are at Metro stations. They say 3 of them, Prince George's Plaza, College Park, and New Carrollton, are "high performers" best poised for the PID designation because of the existing level of activity there.
The other 3, which they dubbed "game changers," need an additional push to make them viable downtowns. These sites are Greenbelt, which could be the FBI's future home, Largo Town Center, where the county wants to see a regional medical center, and Branch Avenue, where WMATA has expressed interest in a public-private partnership to build around the station.
The audience favored New Carrollton as the best "high performer," followed by College Park.
The audience appeared to favor College Park as the best "high performer" due to the presence of the University of Maryland. There was also clear consensus that New Carrollton made sense as a downtown since it is already a major regional multimodal transportation hub. Largo Town Center was the most-favored "game changer" location.
I left the town hall meeting with several questions, which I hope can receive some attention as we move through the Plan Prince George's 2035 process. In the next part, I'll look at those questions.
After a year-long search, Montgomery County's new planning director will be Gwen Wright, a senior official at the City of Alexandria's planning department. Will she be able to move the county forward?
Montgomery's new planning director. Photo from Gwen Wright's LinkedIn page.
Wright spent over 20 years at the Montgomery County Planning Department before becoming Alexandria's chief of development in 2008. She's played a role in transforming huge swaths of the city, from the redevelopment of Landmark Mall to Potomac Yard, one of the nation's largest urban redevelopment projects.
It's likely that Wright will continue the vision set by her predecessor Rollin Stanley, who sought to urbanize the county's aging commercial corridors. She seems to have a strong understanding of what makes urban places work. "The way pedestrians and bicyclists and the folks on the ground interact with buildings is really, really key to making great communities," she recently told the Post.
Before resigning last year to become the planning director in Calgary, Stanley tried to make the planning process more accessible to laypeople, which encouraged public involvement and got people excited about the future of their communities. But he was also known to shoot from the hip, and residents and elected officials alike complained that he didn't take their concerns seriously.
It's also true that any planning director who tries to push a jurisdiction to evolve often faces strong opposition. Some of that opposition includes claims that the director or department don't involve residents enough, whether or not that's true. Still, planners indeed must work hard to involve residents and create an inclusive dialogue. It's rare to find a director with both the fortitude to buck entrenched interests and the skills to make everyone feel a part of the process.
Montgomery County is changing. It's gone from being the "perfect suburbia" to a majority-minority county with substantial urban areas, and with it the discussion over how and where we should grow has shifted.
Gwen Wright's task is to make sure Montgomery County can continue to attract new residents and businesses while directing investment to the right places, particularly near transit, in close-in urban areas, and in the underdeveloped East County. The big question, however, is whether she can do it while acknowledging different perspectives and making everyone feel welcome.
For years, Loudoun County was one of the nation's fastest growing counties and an instructive example of the downsides of sprawl. Meanwhile, it's a nationally recognized center for horse breeding and for its wineries. How can the county manage ongoing growth without losing its rural areas?
Running north-south from Point of Rocks to Aldie, US 15 bisects the county into developed and rural halves. Loudoun's eastern half is a rapidly developing area that made it the nation's wealthiest county and one of its fastest growing counties.
This area contains Dulles Airport, a large number of technology businesses, and increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity. Soon, Metro's Silver Line will extend to Loudoun County, taking workers to job centers like Reston and Tysons Corner.
In Loudoun's western half, small towns and villages like Purcellville and Waterford dot the landscape among miles of rolling countryside. However, extreme development pressures put this land essential to the agricultural economy at risk.
How can the county continue to grow in a more sustainable manner and reverse existing planning mistakes? This two-part series will look at what Loudoun General Plan recommends for the county's Suburban Policy Area, or SPA, in the east and the Rural Policy Area, or RPA, in the west.
Both halves of Loudoun face unique challenges and risks, but they must play to their strengths. Each half has a specific role to play in the county, but they can complement one another. Despite tension between the two areas, Loudoun's success stems from being able to successfully plan and manage both suburban and rural places.
Where growth is happening
Brambleton, one of many new planned communities in Loudoun County's eastern half. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
The Suburban Policy Area (PDF) is predicted to absorb seventy five percent of all of Loudoun's growth in the near future. By 2020, the SPA will have a population density of about 2200 people per square mile, which is close to Fairfax's current county-wide density of around 2300 people per square mile.
Sprawl has blurred many of the borders between Loudoun neighborhoods. Shopping centers blend together and there's a distinct lack of a center in many of the communities. Recognizing this, the SPA plan recommends creating four distinct "towns" in the county's eastern half: Ashburn, Sterling, Potomac and Dulles.
The towns would be compact and have a mix of uses, allowing them to have distinct centers and a strong sense of community identity. Schools and community centers would go in places where they can be easily reached by foot or bicycle. A greenbelt would wrap around each town, providing physical separation between communities and creating a network of open space and trails. The county could use Transfers of Development Rights, or TDRs, to allow greater density at other sites to preserve the open spaces.
For decades, Loudoun has planned only for cars while ignoring all other transportation modes. It will be relatively easy to add "complete streets" to new developments, but it will take a lot of work to make current roads safer and more attractive for walking and biking, especially ones like Route 7 that are over 100 feet wide and have grade-separated interchanges.
Where is the transit?
These are all good ideas, but in order to make them happen, Loudoun will have to find a way to deal with both existing and future traffic congestion. This must include more comprehensive intra-county transit.
The county's general plan devotes a lot of space to widening roads and adding interchanges. However, there's hardly any mention of any sort of public transportation, outside of vague references to future Silver Line stations and the desire to build transit-oriented developments around them.
Right now, Loudoun County Transit runs commuter buses from park and ride lots in the county to downtown DC or Metro stations elsewhere in Northern Virginia. Virginia Regional Transit operates shuttles between neighborhoods and shopping centers, but only every forty-five minutes. Transfers between lines are few and far between.
Now that the county is committed to building the Silver Line, it must create a true transit network that not only connects communities to Metro but to each other. This would relieve congestion on many of Loudoun's roads and head off the desire to continually widen arterial roads. Loudoun needs transit sooner rather than later to handle what's already here and for future infill development.
Make it denser and give Loudoun an identity
Many people would say that what Loudoun needs to do is stop growing. That wouldn't help the county improve its communities or its traffic.
The county is urbanizing rapidly and must be able to pay for the costs of new services that more citizens require. Loudoun already has higher property taxes than Fairfax or Arlington, and the improvements to the transportation network will need to rely on carefully planned growth to maximize the county's investment. In order for Loudoun to hold on to its agricultural heritage, it must ensure that its developed areas are planned with excellence.
In part two, we'll talk about the Rural Policy Area.
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