Posts by Topher Mathews
|Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and new daughter in Georgetown.|
Both Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chair Kwame Brown may want to use tax increment financing to lure a high-end tenant like Bloomingdale's to the Georgetown Park mall, the Current reported. That's a foolish policy.
In tax increment financing ("TIF"), the city issues bonds for a particular project and gives the money to a private developer. A portion of the taxes from the project go towards paying off the bonds. In theory, the city pays back the bonds out of the extra property and/or sales taxes from the now-improved property.
DC has used TIFs in the past. For instance, it set up a $74 million TIF to help the Gallery Place development along. It used a $46 million TIF for the Madarin Oriental hotel. And a $7 million TIF helped pay for the Spy Museum. Each of these projects was successful and they even paid off the bonds ahead of schedule.
But TIFs only work when there's an increment to be found. In other words, they work in areas that will likely see a big improvement in value, and thus tax revenue, from the public investment. If there's no increment, then the only way to pay off the bonds is to cut into the taxes that would arise from the property without the public financing. In that case all you've really done is give free public money to a private developer.
According to the Current article, the argument goes that if there's no TIF for the mall, then Vornado won't be able to land Bloomingdale's and will instead lease to a store like T.J. Maxx. So, the theory goes, the "increment" of having a Bloomingdale's instead of a T.J. Maxx is enough to justify a TIF for the mall.
The twist with this proposal is that a part of the incremental tax proceeds (i.e. the difference in sales taxes that Bloomingdales would pay over T.J. Maxx) would be directed to tax breaks to attract retailers to less established retail districts in DC. Chairman Brown called this a potential "win-win."
This is completely backwards.
If the District wants to get into the TIF game again, it should be directing the TIFs to those less established areas, not the mall. That's where there will be an actual incremental increase in value. That's where we'll get much more bang for our buck. If Vornado, which owns the mall, can't put together a package to attract Bloomingdale's with its own resources, then so be it. Maybe that means they and their partners paid to much when they bought the mall at auction last year. That's not our fault.
I don't want a T.J. Maxx to move in to the mall, but using public funds to help attract one tenant over another is unacceptable. And it's shameful that the Mayor and the Chairman are even thinking about such a ludicrous proposal.
Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.
Ugly home additions or new construction often lead to calls to expand historic preservation citywide, but our current historic review process is far too cumbersome and limiting. Instead, less stringent design review or neighborhood-specific zoning could help shape development effectively.
Last week, Richard Layman provocatively suggested applying design review rules to the entire District.
The historic preservation design review process can indeed prevent undesirable projects from moving forward, but the process also too often serves objectives unrelated to genuine historical preservation, such as simply wanting to limit development.
For years I have been surprised that a city so defined by historical excellence in planning (L'Enfant, McMillan Commission) and excellence in architecture, does not require design review for the entire city, regardless of whether or not a neighborhood or building is designated as historic. ... This would be a way to right the terrible wrong that occurs in so many neighborhoods, when alteration of the housing stock is done in ways that diminish the value of place.Applying design review for the whole city would definitely reduce the diminishment of the historic housing stock outside the designated historic districts, but it would come at a steep cost.
In DC's historic districts, such as Georgetown or Capitol Hill, any modification or new construction of a building requires the approval of the federal Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) or the District's Historic Preservation Office (HPO) design review board.
During the review, these boards often (if not nearly always) deny applicants the right to build as much on the property as zoning allows. For example, while the zoning code for the property may allow a building of 40 feet in height, the board requires a shorter building.
Sometimes this process protects against projects that even advocates of more density would oppose. This classic "pop-up" was labeled by the Prince of Petworth as the "Worst Pop-Up of All Time":
Since this property is not in a neighborhood subject to design review, the owner was able to build to the zoning maximum. This completely breaks up the consistent roof lines of the block and the clapboard building material of the addition is completely out of place tacked on to a Victorian brick rowhouse.
Here's another atrocious example of what happens when poor design meets maximum building size:
I have no doubt that neither of these pop-ups would see the light of day if they were subject to historical review. The buildings are out of scale with their neighbors and the building materials and styles are completely out of place.
The fact is that historical review is generally effective at preventing inferior projects like these from going forward. So Layman is right that expanding the entire District to review by the CFA or HPO could address "bad" projects that disrupt the aesthetic harmony of a neighborhood.
But a literal application of this approach would be a disaster. Neither CFA nor HPO has remotely enough resources to perform the design review that would be necessary if the entire District were one large historic zone. Moreover, enforcement would be nearly impossible. I can speak from experience that dealing with historical review is incredibly frustrating, and if it were applied across the District, I would fear a grassroots rebellion against any and all historic protection.
But more importantly, historic review prevents plenty of good projects as well. In Georgetown, for instance, Eastbanc has proposed to replace the Canal Rd. Exxon with a five story condo building. From a true historic preservation perspective, there's not much of a case against the project. It wouldn't break up the rhythm of the block and the proposed style, while not particularly elegant, was at least not discordant.
But neighbors along Prospect Street would lose a part of their fabulous view across the Potomac. So they argued vociferously during the design review process that the project should be reduced to preserve their views. This had little to nothing to do with genuine historic preservation. While the Old Georgetown Board (a sub-body of the CFA) did not endorse the Prospect Street residents' objection specifically, they did hem and haw over the "massing" of the building before Eastbanc pulled the proposal. They are currently working on new plans.
This pattern is repeated frequently in Georgetown and in other historic districts. I've sat through dozens of meetings discussing scores of projects. Time and time again, neighbors use the historic preservation design review process to object to the size of the project rarely out of any genuine concern for the preservation of the neighborhood's historic character but rather because they simply just don't like the project. The basis for the complaints would be no different than if the project were in a brand new development with no historic character: it blocks my view, it's too big, you'll be able to see into my garden, et cetera.
So while historical preservation design review can prevent projects that could truly degrade the historic quality of a neighborhood, it's also used to prevent projects that don't pose that threat and would in fact enhance the neighborhood.
But it is certainly worthwhile for the District to develop alternatives for neighborhoods looking to prevent the pop-ups, and the like, while avoiding the burdens and drawbacks of full historic district designation. The scope and objectives of such a review should be narrowly tailored.
A sliding scale of review could apply depending on the nature of the neighborhood. For instance, older townhouse neighborhoods like Bloomingdale may warrant stronger controls than a neighborhood full of detached houses of diverse styles.
Layman hinted at how the possible mechanics for this review could work. Rather than expand the jurisdiction of the CFA or HPO, tailor the zoning envelope to a neighborhood, or even to each block. If someone wants to build beyond that envelope, make a special exception the standard of review by the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA).
This is a lower standard than a variance. It would introduce a small degree of design review, without being the proverbial camel's nose under the tent that the historic preservation design review often becomes.
A group of U Street residents and business recently formed to fight a possible liquor license moratorium along the newly bustling corridor. The reaction has been swift and strong. Georgetown's experience with a similar one shows some benefits for a moratorium, but also bears out some of the concerns that moratorium opponents raise.
Photo by the author.
Eric Fidler weighed in yesterday with a list of reasons why a moratorium would be bad for the greater U Street neighborhood, including:
- It makes no distinction between "good" establishments and "bad" establishments
- A moratorium on liquor license is in effect a moratorium on new restaurants, period.
- It will reduce pressure to offer a good customer experience.
- It unfairly rewards current businesses over future businesses.
- It sets the cap at an arbitrary level.
- It doesn't address the supposed problems those advocating for a moratorium raise (loud crowds, vandalism, etc.).
- It's difficult to administer.
Georgetown has had a moratorium since 1989. Right now, only about 70 liquor licenses can be issued to Georgetown bars and restaurants. Liquor stores and hotels are not subject to the moratorium. Here are some of the results attributed to the long standing moratorium:
- Opening a new restaurant in Georgetown is more expensive than opening one elsewhere. On top of the higher rent, you need to purchase a liquor license on the secondary market from a license holder who no longer wants it. This has reportedly driven the cost of such licenses close to $100,000.
- Georgetown restaurants are pretty boring. No new exciting restaurant has opened since Hook did, and it's closed already.
- Drunken revelry is only a problem in certain spots around the neighborhood.
Some of Fidler's predictions for U Street have not come true for Georgetown. Restaurants have opened in Georgetown without obtaining a liquor license. They are more likely to cater to a lunch crowd, but a restaurant is a restaurant. And it isn't really difficult to administer. The zone basically is everything south of Q Street.
Also, it's true that moratoriums don't address the negative externalities of existing drinking establishments. But they do address the negative externalities of bars that haven't yet opened. (And of course it also eliminates the positive externalities of those unopened bars and restaurants too!)
The cap may be arbitrary, but right now U Street has 107 licenses, over 50% more than Georgetown. Maybe it's arbitrary, but it doesn't seem likely that it's low.
All that said, U Street should not pursue a moratorium. New and interesting restaurants open there almost weekly. It would be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg to stop that now. It would make sense for U Street to trust the market but verify with strong voluntary agreements that address hours and outdoor patios, etc.
One criticism of moratoriums that Fidler did not mention, but should be pretty obvious from Georgetown's experience: they don't go away. Georgetown's has been renewed multiple times, and nobody seems to even make the case to let it expire. (To the ANC's credit, they did add seven new licenses to the cap last year, but that only brought us back to the level that existed in 1989).
Finally, many believe that moratoriums make existing licenses worth a lot more. And that appears to be mostly true. Last year, when the city "released" those seven new licenses into the Georgetown moratorium zone, they were quickly snapped up, in some cases by parties with only sketchy plans for actually opening. It was a land rush.
The thing is, half of those licenses have already been forfeited because the speculative plans simply fell through (or in one case the restaurant didn't want to comply with voluntary agreement restrictions). At least a couple now sit in ABRA unclaimed. Supposedly the lack of cheap liquor licenses is a huge obstacle to new restaurants opening in Georgetown, but the longer the free licenses sit there, the more that conventional wisdom seems wrong.
Since the 2010 general election, DC has had 3 council elections where the winning candidate gained less than 50% of the vote. Our current system too often hands a victory to someone who most voters vote against, in elections that too few voters participate in.
"The way District residents elect a mayor and Council members needs to change," Chuck Thies noted this week. He's right. It's time for a new voting system.
In the 2011 at-large special election, Vincent Orange won with only 29% of the vote. This month, Yvette Alexander won her primary with 42%, and Orange got 40% in the at-large primary.
It diminishes winners' legitimacy and support for our electoral process to end an election without strong public support for any candidate. And it's no way to choose our decision makers when we have better options available.
Back in 2010, I argued for scrapping DC's primary system. DC should replace it, I said, with a single general election with some form of a preferential voting system (like Instant Runoff Voting, Approval Voting, or one of several others).
These other voting systems represent a big change, and stand little chance of becoming law any time soon. But a less radical, yet still effective, option is available.
Nonpartisan blanket primary is the answer
If the District must keep holding primaries, the best model would be to hold a single primary open to all candidates and all voters. The top two vote-getters would then face off again in the general election in November. This system, known as a "nonpartisan blanket primary," is used in several states including Louisiana and Washington, and was recently adopted in California.
This system would easily work well for electing the mayor, the council chair, the ward councilmembers, and the attorney general (which will be an elected position starting in 2014).
How would at-large seats work?
Electing the at-large seats gets a little more complicated. Currently, 2 at-large seats (not including the chair) are up for election every two years. No party can hold more than 3 of the at-large seats, and because the chair will remain a Democrat for the foreseeable future, only 1 of the 2 at-large seats can go to another Democrat in a given election year.
This creates a complication for a blanket primary, since the top 2 vote-getters in the primary may not both be able to win in the fall if they're both Democrats. However there is a solution: eliminate these set-asides. The rule isn't accomplishing anything, anyway: Michael Brown, one of the "independent" members of the council, is in all practical senses a Democrat, and more aligned with his party on a number of issues than some members who are officially Democrats.
This move may also appease a DC Democratic party that might resist opening up the primary. While non-Democrat candidates could be unhappy about losing their set-aside seats, non-Democratic voters, who account for 25% of registered voters, would finally have an opportunity to cast a vote that matters.
Since there are 2 at-large seat open each year, 3 at-large candidates should advance from the primary to the general election. Voters would continue to cast 2 votes for the 2 seats. This would not guarantee that either of the victors would garner 50% of the vote, but it would guarantee that every voter that voted both votes would have chosen at least one winner.
Would the Democratic Party support this?
To implement this new system, the DC Democratic Party will have to get on board. The party has historically resisted any attempts to open the Democratic primary. Typically the argument is that it will lead to "meddling" or mischievous voting by people who aren't "true Democrats."
But there is scant evidence that mischievous voting actually occurs in open primaries. In fact, there would be little incentive to vote mischievously because your preferred candidate will need all the votes he or she can get to reach the general election.
Incumbents who have historically been elected and reelected with more than 50% of the vote, which often happens in the ward primaries, would likely continue to win easily under the non-partisan blanket primary system. They'd just have to beat their opponents twice. If they're popular, this shouldn't be a problem.
Moreover, with the primaries now so early in the year, an incumbent who loses would be a lame duck for 9 months. How would they govern for so long, knowing they have already been fired? Would they become indifferent? Ineffective? Venal? Voters won't find out this year, but eventually it will happen. In a nonpartisan blanket primary system, the campaign would continue into the fall, making the lame duck period very short.
Some might argue that the flaws of DC's voting system are hardly unique, particularly in jurisdictions dominated by one party. That's true. But it doesn't make it any more acceptable, especially when a better system is available.
We can continue to use a system where the 60% of the voters, in an election that only 9% of the registered population votes in, vote against a candidate who wins. Or we can demand a better system that produces victors with wider support from a larger electorate. This proposal could deliver that.
The Library of Congress has a fascinating resource called "Researching Historic Washington, DC Buildings," which includes dozens of links to databases and collections with reams of information on old DC buildings.
One collection is a digitized version of Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys for Washington, DC. It's a highly detailed map of every street and building in the city in 1903.
Here are the maps for Georgetown:
Here's southeast Georgetown. Note the wooden bridge for K St. across Rock Creek, the factories and lumber yards on the water, and the fact Virginia Ave. used to go across the waterfront.
Here's southwest Georgetown. What's notable about this map is the streams that ran through Georgetown at this point, as represented by the black lines meandering through the neighborhood.
Here's northeast Georgetown. Notice that Q St. wasn't constructed yet, and Dumbarton House hadn't been moved yet. Plus, there was a giant streetcar facility on P St. (not to mention homes in what is now Rose Park).
Here's central Georgetown. What's notable here is that, as I discovered Monday, the addresses of homes north of Volta were different. And that's because Volta Place was Q St., Q St. was R St., Dent Place west of Wisconsin was S St. (east of Wisconsin it was Irving Place), Reservoir was T St. and R St. was U St. Oh and Wisconsin was called 32nd St. and 32nd St. was called Valley St.
Finally, here's northwest Georgetown. Note that Volta Park used to be the Presbyterian Burial Grounds, and that the weird Tudor style home on 33rd between Volta and Q was the Presbyterian church.
Roosevelt Island is a DC recreational asset and it's tantalizingly close to Georgetown. But far from easy to access for most DC residents. A ferry from Georgetown could solve that problem.
Last weekend, as I was taking in the newly-completed Georgetown waterfront park, my eyes (as well as many of the eyes of my fellow layabouts) were drawn to Roosevelt Island. It sits so tantalizingly close to Georgetown, yet it's a difficult place to visit.
From the waterfront park, it's over a mile walk across the Key Bridge and along a highway. This situation inspired me to ponder the idea of creating a ferry service between the Georgetown Waterfront Park and Roosevelt Island.
The distance between the park and the island is just over 100 yards. It would be possible to build a small pedestrian ferry to shuttle small groups of people back and forth from the waterfront park amphitheater to the island. All that would be needed would be a small dock at either end. The ferry could be wire-guided or simply be a small independent boat.
Illustration by the author.
Connected this way, the two parks would truly complement each other. The waterfront park is beautifully landscaped and sunny, but it doesn't provide that much in the way of footpaths. To walk a mile, you'd probably have to walk in a circle a couple times. Roosevelt Island, on the other hand, is almost nothing but paths and wild nature. With an easy connection, visitors could come to the waterfront park, have a picnic, and then make their way over to the island for a hike.
An even better (albeit much more expensive) option would be a bridge:
Illustration by the author.
This would allow a steady flow of visitors to move between the island and the park. Just imagine the beautiful vista that would be created by a sweeping bridge like London's Millennium Bridge going from the base of Wisconsin Ave. over to the island.
Roosevelt Island is in the District of Columbia, yet DC residents have to travel through Virginia via or along a highway to get to this fantastic and wild resource. The new waterfront park is a perfect new gateway to the island. Now it's time to build the threshold.
Crossposted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.
At the far western end of M Street stands the massive Car Barn. Built in 1895, the Car Barn served as a depot for the streetcars until they stopped running in 1962. After changing hands a couple times, the building now serves as extra space for Georgetown University. But one feature in the building's architecture reflects its earlier use:
On the pediment of the building it still reads Capital Traction. The Capital Traction Co. was one of the earlier mass transit companies that operated in DC. It constructed the Car Barn with an intent for it to be a Union Station.
As Wikipedia describes:
Union Station was designed to serve four streetcar companies: The old Washington and Georgetown lines would use the ground floor on M Street NW while the Washington, Arlington and Falls Church and the projected Great Falls and Old Dominion were to come across the Potomac from Rosslyn entering the second and third floors respectively on steeltrestles. The Metropolitan would use the roof. In reality, the Virginia companies never used it and the Metropolitan only sparingly so. The Washington and Great Falls took over the third floor. The station opened on May 27, 1897 and contained Washington's only cable loop.That's right, for a very short while Washington, DC had cable cars. From 1890-1899, the Washington and Georgetown Railroad. Its successor, Capital Traction, ran cable cars through the city.
The old power source for the streetcars is reflected in the pediment. At each side and at the peak, there appears to be a "flying wheel" (somewhat like the Red Wings logo). But if you look closely, you can see that they are actually models of the old cable car pulley:
The Car Barn was barely opened before Capital Traction moved away from cable power to electrical power. But 116 years later, a little piece of Washington's brief flirtation with cable power remains.
Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.
The Barnes and Noble in Georgetown has given up its lease, giving way to an unnamed retailer paying an unusually high $65 per square foot.
Why the closing of a large chain store struck a particular chord with Georgetowners (and others) is that it was a perfect "Third Place." This term, coined by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place, described those places in a community where people come together outside their home (first place) or work (second place).
They can be bookstores, cafes, pubs, libraries, whatever. To Oldenburg, and those that follow him, these places are most essential parts of that community.
What made Barnes and Noble a particularly great Third Place was that it offered Georgetowners and visitors alike a place to escape from the heat or the cold (or just the crowds), but you didn't have to pay anything to use it.
Commenter Ben wrote on Georgetown Metropolitan,
This is terrible news no matter how one looks at it. I can't fathom of any retailerMany of the classic Third Places continue to exist in Georgetown
— Bloomingdales, Saks, H&M, whatever — filling the hole that the B&N will be leaving behind. It was one of the precious few commercial spaces where one could literally "kill time" without racking up enormous bar tabs or restaurant bills. I spent many an hour in this store, browsing, sipping coffee and — yes — buying.
Oddly enough, if there's one store that can fill the "just want to browse out of the elements without buying something" void, it's the Apple Store. Every time I go in there, people wander in just to play with the toys for a while before wandering out (which 9 times out of 10 is exactly what I'm doing as well). It's not quite the same as browsing great literature (or a great magazine rack), but it's the least technology can do for us after killing our bookstore.
Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
There are many benefits to living in a dense city. The most obvious is that with so many people living in close proximity, their joint buying power and habits can support shops and restaurants within walking distance.
It's why a corner shop like Sara's Market, at 30th and Q, can survive in a totally residential neighborhood in a way that it couldn't in a suburban subdivision (where it would probably be illegal in the first place).
But Sara's recently instituted summer hours on Sunday. They don't open until 1:00, and close at 7:00. It's a reasonable easing of their normal hours, but it reflects one of the fundamental characteristics to Georgetown that will continue to seriously limit the amount Georgetowners will be able to support locally oriented businesses: not enough Georgetowners actually live here full time.
This was one factor that the owners of Griffin Market cited in their closing, namely that too many Georgetowners only live here part of the year. This was based on their own anecdotal evidence, but the Census records contain statistical evidence to support the observation.
Georgetown has 4,732 households. Of those, 568 are vacant. That's a rate of 14.2%. That's much higher than the rates of other similarly well-off neighborhoods. For example, Cleveland Park's vacancy was only 3.36%, the Palisades was 8.38%, and AU Park was only 0.47%.
While some of that vacancy rate represents truly empty houses or homes on the market, it could also reflect the fact that a lot of Georgetowners spend a lot of time elsewhere. Of course, either way an empty house is an empty house, and it means fewer residents around.
Moreover, the Census asks whether the home is for "seasonal or recreational use", and Georgetown's numbers are also much higher than the other neighborhoods. Georgetown reported 131 such residences (2.8%). The next closest of the other neighborhoods is the Palisades with 51 such residences (1.0%). Cleveland Park and AU Park reported zero such residences.
These aren't definitive statistics, but they are consistent with the anecdotal evidence that Georgetown has housing density but less human density. And it's probably not a coincidence that when small local shops close up they often will quietly grumble about the lack of business from the residents who profess to love all our small local shops. The love's there; maybe it's the people who are lacking.
Cross-posted to the Georgetown Metropolitan.
DC has begun a project to rehab and replace the streetcar tracks on O and P Streets in Georgetown.
DDOT will pull up all the cobblestones (technically Belgian blocks), tracks, and the yokes that support them. They will then reposition the yokes lower to be better aligned with the street grade, which has eroded a lot over the years. Once that's completed, they'll reposition the cobblestones and rails and, hopefully, the streets will look beautiful and be a lot more safe to travel on.
But what won't be riding on the tracks is streetcars themselves. The whole point of this exercise is not to make the tracks usable again but rather to simply preserve in place the last remaining examples of Washington's rare conduit power system.
That's a fancy way of saying the streetcars got their power from a buried power line. The streetcars accessed the powered line through a slot running down the center of the tracks. It looked a lot like a cable car slot, and for good reason because a lot of the streetcars in Washington were originally cable cars that were transitioned over to electric power.
Route 20 of DC Transit ran on Georgetown's O and P Streets until 1960. It wound its way through Georgetown on its way either out to Cabin John (by way of the Glen Echo Amusement Park) or towards downtown, ultimately terminating at Union Station. In Georgetown it came in on M Street, went up Wisconsin to P and headed west to 36th Street, hung a left all the way down to Prospect, where it would turn right and head out on the Cabin John right-of-way (which still exists!).
On the way back in, it would come in on Prospect, head over to 35th and up to O Street where it would turn right and head over to Wisconsin Ave.
Here's a map of the streetcar tracks that once went through Georgetown:
Green is covered tracks; blue is uncovered tracks; red is removed tracks.
Click for interactive version.
Nowadays you can only see the tracks on O and P Streets east of 35th St. But the rest of the loop around to 36th and down to Prospect is still there under the ashpalt. In fact, according to what I've been told, the tracks are still under the M St. and Wisconsin Ave. asphalt as well.
As part of this project, however, DDOT is actually removing the tracks west of the uncovered tracks that have been covered for decades.
And on Wednesday, they are starting that bittersweet removal on 36th St. just south of P. As you can see in the photo above, they've already carved out the tracks from the road. You can see the whole system quite clearly. If you're interested, you ought to stop by tomorrow morning as they remove the tracks. I was informed that the National Park Service will be there today to document the tracks as part of its Historic American Engineer Record.
Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
- Fairfax's answer to neighbors' transit plans: Light rail, streetcars, and BRT
- Today's problems were visible decades ago, but zoning has blocked solutions ever since
- Montgomery County added 100,000 residents since 2002, but driving didn't increase
- The DC zoning update has already had triple the public input as the enormous 1958 zoning code. Enough is enough.
- MARC's chief engineer wants to allow bikes on some weekend trains
- Federal board wants "dignified," dull Southwest Waterfront
- Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza