Sydney Taylor used to have a mantra: Metro or bust.
For years, the 27-year-old relied exclusively on the subway to commute downtown from Eastern Market, a daily travail she described as “horrible and super-crowded and just a generally terrible experience.”
Then, an aunt offered her a tip. Why not try the bus? After a few trips on the D6 Metrobus, Taylor reached a few surprising conclusions: The bus was fast. It was cheap. And it was, strangely, kind of lovely.
“I got to see so much more of the city,” said Taylor, who now lives in Adams Morgan and takes the 96 every day. “It was just, on the whole, much more pleasant.”
As Metro continues to battle its myriad rail reliability problems and track infrastructure overhauls, a rare bright spot has emerged in the agency’s transit offerings: its bustling bus network.
Even as Washington-area residents malign the subway — vowing after each rush-hour meltdown that they’ll never take a train again — there is an increasingly vocal cohort of bus evangelists.
Why bother with the sturm und drang of SafeTrack, they ask, when buses are nimble, affordable and increasingly predictable with the help of mobile apps?
It’s an option that has become increasingly favored by Dan Reed, a 29-year-old who lives in Silver Spring. When he heads home from work in the afternoon, he checks the status of the Red Line. If he spots a blooming flare-up of delays, he’s quick to swap modes.
“It’s great that I can check the status of the Red Line and say to myself, ‘Oh, wait, I don’t actually have to go deal with this at all,” Reed said. “A lot of times, the buses are more predictable.”
The glowing reviews are a stark departure from long-held stereotypes about buses: capricious schedules, undependable service, plodding speeds, grubby interiors and a general “sketchy” aesthetic.
Those stereotypes persist in many other parts of the country, where transit advocates bemoan the way buses continue to be treated as a second-class form of transportation — at least by politicians and residents who don’t have to rely on bus service.
“Bus is a second-class citizen for ‘choice’ riders because it’s scary, it’s harder to figure out, it’s obtuse,” said Aimee Custis, deputy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Trains are like public transport for beginners — there are physical tracks, so you can see where it goes. The Metro map is easier to read than any bus map I’ve ever seen.”
But in the District, that perception is shifting.
“I had a bus awakening,” said Dylan Landers-Nelson, a health policy researcher who lives in Adams Morgan. He and his wife just purchased a condo in 16th Street Heights. (Haven’t heard of it? It’s the neighborhood north of Columbia Heights and west of Fort Totten.)
When they were looking to buy a home, they prioritized finding a place near transit. But they weren’t perturbed by the prospect of buying a home a mile away from the nearest Metro station. Instead, Landers-Nelson and his wife marvel at all the bus routes that pass within a block of their home. The S1, S2 and S4! 52, 53, 54! The 70!
“The bus lines give you options in a way that Metro often doesn’t,” Landers-Nelson said. “It turns out to be a very convenient, quick way to get around the city.”
Some of that shift in attitudes can be attributed to large-scale policy changes aimed at improving the coverage and reliability of the network: fleet repairs to improve on-time performance, signal prioritization at some intersections, built-out transit centers in Silver Spring and Takoma-Langley Park.
But commuters’ openness to bus transportation also is fostered by the small, often underappreciated pleasures of bus travel that are inherent to the mode: The comforts of being aboveground, able to grasp one’s geographical bearings in the city and watch the world go by. Steady access to cellphone service, so riders can download a podcast or stream a new playlist mid-commute. No need to deal with the annoyance of an unexpected broken escalator.
And even when you’re stuck on a bus, the experience feels less fraught with gloom and senselessness.
“You can look out, you get some light, and if you’re not moving, you at least have a sense of why you’re not moving,” Landers-Nelson said. “On Metro, you’re quite literally left in the dark.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said some people may be intimidated by the idea of using the bus system — deciphering their most convenient route, tracking down a schedule — and that some have benefited from the extra push SafeTrack provided.
“It’s been positive. We’ve heard that from people,” Wiedefeld said. “They see, okay, that works well, too, for some of their trips, so that’s been possible.”
And the historical weakness of bus systems — its lack of a dedicated right of way — may also be one of its greatest strengths. Buses can be easily diverted and reassigned. And without reliance on tracks and tunnels, one bus breakdown doesn’t cause a ripple effect throughout the region. That’s become increasingly apparent in the past couple of years, when buses are frequently dispatched to rescue stranded riders when arcing insulator incidents and unexpected track problems strike the system at inopportune moments.
“The reality is, any time we have issues on the trains, the buses are there to save us,” Wiedefeld said.
To be sure, buses are not immune to Metro’s ridership woes: The number of trips taken by bus in the second half of 2016 was 11 percent lower than in the year before — a drop-off that is still less than the ridership decline on the rail side. The rise of Uber, the shift toward walking and biking, the low cost of gas, and the increased prevalence of teleworking during SafeTrack all affect Metrobus ridership just as they do for the trains.
And yet, there are signs that buses have become the golden child of Metro’s transit offerings. Bus reliability has increased dramatically in recent years. And customer satisfaction among bus riders remained at a modest 77 percent last year — about the same as the previous year — quite a bit better than the 66 percent of satisfied rail customers, a number that has steadily dropped in recent years.
Technology has also been a major boon for the Metrobus network. In the past, would-be riders lacked trust in the system, wondering whether a scheduled bus would in fact arrive anywhere close to its appointed time. But between apps that connect to GPS systems installed on the buses, offering fairly accurate estimated times of arrival, and LED countdown clocks installed at popular bus stops, technology has helped address that concern.
That technology has also been bolstered by the rise of Uber and Lyft, as tech-savvy riders have grown accustomed to using their phones to perform a daily mental calculus on the best option for travel based on the time of day and their intended destination.
“The ride-sharing economy made me realize that you don’t always have to subscribe to this set system — Metro, cab, or walk,” Taylor said. “When I step out the door, I’m thinking, ‘What else could I be doing that’s cheaper or simpler?’ ”
If you work in downtown Washington, don’t have a car and want to keep your commute to under an hour, you could live in Gaithersburg, Md., or Reston, Va., both about 20 miles away.
But you’d have trouble doing the same from just across the Anacostia River in neighborhoods such as Bellevue, only seven miles away, or close-in areas of Prince George’s County, Md.
Metro, local bus systems and regional commuter rail combine to form an elaborate and expansive transit network for the Washington region. But data shows that wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs have an easier time tapping into it, while residents of poor and lower-income neighborhoods on the eastern side of the District and, farther east, across the border in Maryland face longer and often more-complex commutes.
A Washington Post analysis of travel times across the region illustrates stark differences in the commuting experience for transit users around the nation’s capital. Most striking, commuters in some areas in Southwest and Southeast Washington and close-in Prince George’s have longer trips to get downtown than more transit-connected locations dozens of miles away from the White House.
That problem will only be magnified in the coming months when Metro adopts truncated operating hours that will shut down rail service at 11:30 on weeknights. Those hours will hinder access from the downtown core to the wider region for an estimated 2,600 daily late-night riders, many of whom are low-wage workers, according to data.
For example, with Union Station as a starting point for a non-Metrorail commute, only the far reaches of Northeast Washington, a slice of Northwest Washington, and close-in Arlington County, Va., will be reachable within an hour by remaining transit.
“If you’re trying to get home from a job that lets out at 1 a.m., you work at a bar or a restaurant or something like that in downtown and you need to go to Southeast, you can’t do it in under an hour,” said J.D. Godchaux, co-founder of NiJeL, which describes itself as a “data storytelling” firm specializing in maps and data visualizations.
Howard Jennings, managing director of Mobility Lab, the research and development branch of Arlington County Commuter Services, said that on the basis of the Post analysis, Metrorail’s earlier closing represents a “severe curtailment” of transit service.
“This is cut back substantially,” he said. “People who are used to being rail riders, who are not bus riders, you’re going to have a real shift there in awareness of options. The onus is really going to be on providers of information.”
Others said the analysis points to the necessity of commuting alternatives for transit-dependent workers.
“What we’re confronted with, and there’s no easy answers, is how do we make sure that late-night labor can get home from work in an affordable way that allows our late-night economy to function?” said Adie Tomer, a policy fellow with the Brookings Institution. “This should be a motivator for us to think of a kind of set of alternatives for late-night laborers returning home, some kind of credit for them to use — in particular for [ride-hailing or taxi] services.”
The disparity in the region’s commuting experience might be illustrated most strikingly with the example of Shady Grove, Md. — a 28-mile drive from the White House. It is in a transit-rich corridor with substantial access to the wider region, with a footprint that roughly follows Metro’s Red Line.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Botanic Garden’s greenhouse complex in Southwest Washington, near the southern tip of the District, at about eight miles is physically much closer to the executive mansion. But the animated map, integrating real-time transit data, shows the greenhouses might as well lie 20 miles outside D.C. city limits. Because the commute from that part of Southwest requires a bus ride and rail transfer, the commute from Shady Grove beats the ride in from Southwest by several minutes. The Southwest example mirrors the experience in much of the District’s Ward 8.
Further contrasts are illustrated by King Street in Alexandria, Va., and Largo Town Center in Largo, Md., which are seven and 11 miles from the White House, respectively. Despite only a few miles’ difference between the locations, commuters from King Street have access to a wide swath of the region — including Arlington and Fairfax counties in Northern Virginia, the District, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland — within an hour by transit. Commuters in Largo can reach only the District and Prince George’s, with the exception of some isolated pockets elsewhere in the region.
Still, Jennings said, the data illustrates that the Washington region is a model for transit usage. Arlington, where Mobility Lab is based, presents a stark contrast to communities on the eastern side of the Anacostia River, which are far less connected.
“People focus a lot right now on the ridership drop on Metrorail, but they’re also failing to remember there’s still a huge ridership there,” Jennings said. “It’s the second-largest system in the country. . . . It’s not a failing, dying system by any means.”
At rush-hour peaks, nearly the entire region is accessible within an hour. But the transit footprint shrinks as the day goes on and service is reduced, until the District is essentially isolated from the wider region late at night, analysis shows.
Ward 8 residents, who live in Southeast and parts of Southwest Washington, have the longest average commutes in the District, with trips taking about 46 minutes, according to districtmobility.org, an initiative of the District Department of Transportation.
“That is astounding,” said Godchaux, observing a comparison between the Ward 8 commuting footprint and that of Montgomery County. “These folks are in the District, but they’re definitely more disconnected from downtown than these folks in [the suburbs].”
The analysis is also a dramatic illustration of an “east-west” divide in the D.C. region’s transit network, according to Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth.
“Part of it’s wealth and the ability for the jurisdictions on the west side of the region to spend more money on local bus service,” Schwartz said, “and provide local coverage to all income levels of their population.”
Schwartz said the data underscores the need for increased transit investment in the region’s eastern reaches. He pointed to a performance analysis of the 2015 National Capital Region Long-Range Transportation Plan, which showed that many areas, “mainly on the eastern side of the region,” will see automobile accessibility decline even further as more jobs are concentrated in the western half of the region between now and 2040. As a result, investment in transit needs to be bolstered, he said.
Further, the analysis showed that some of the region’s least-accessible areas also are the most transit-dependent. Northeast and Southeast Washington contain census tracts where more than 40 percent of households are both transit-reliant and lower-income, the only such corridor in the region.
These census tracts east of the Anacostia River are home to roughly 145,000 residents, most of whom are black and more than half of whom live in households making less than $35,000 a year, according to census data. And while Metro stations are fewer and farther apart in these areas, two stations — Anacostia and Southern Avenue — were among the stations where the most passengers exited late into the night.
The Anacostia and Southern Avenue stations, which border the District, are two of the 10-most-exited stations on average between 11:30 p.m. and midnight on weekdays, according to data provided by Metro.
Schwartz said the “building out” of transit stations on the eastern end of the system will play a part in easing the divide in the coming years. He pointed to development in Prince George’s, investments stretching from New Carrollton to College Park, both in Maryland, to the planned Prince George’s regional hospital near the Largo Town Center Metro station, as potential drivers of growth.
Prince George’s officials have flirted with the idea that the hospital could be a perfect impetus for a mass-transit line from Charles County and Southern Maryland to connect to Metro and MARC trains, but no serious proposal has been made.
Even as regional officials debate ways to better connect the region, the wide disparities in the region’s network are clear, policy experts said.
“It is a serious equity problem; there’s no question,” Jennings said.
Metro’s general manager is calling for $500 million each year in dedicated funding for capital projects and other major changes to the business model for the transit system, which has been hemorrhaging riders and has seen incidents ranging from disturbing to catastrophic in the past few years.
The system “is aging under our feet. Major infrastructure like this does wear out, and we have to replace it,” Paul Wiedefeld said on the Kojo Nnamdi Show today. “It is about what are the financial realities that we face and how do we start to attack them.”
In a six-page document released yesterday, Wiedefeld outlined his proposals, knowing full well that they would kick off a major debate. Among them are major labor changes, including less generous pensions for future employees and opening up some projects to competitive bidding from contractors, and a significant increase in annual spending on infrastructure projects.
On the job for about a year and a half, Wiedefeld has won respect for making tough decisions, like shutting the system for the day, and his candor in articulating a vision for the future of the transit system. He’s seen some noteworthy successes, including bringing various regional partners to pull off the yearlong maintenance plan known as SafeTrack and handling the Women’s March on Washington, Metro’s second biggest ridership day after Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
But with operating expenses growing at twice the rate of revenues and infrastructure investments that have been neglected for years, his new plan is significantly more far-reaching and ambitious.
Things like adding wi-fi and painting typically inspire a round of commentary along the lines of “they should be making service reliable first.” The truth of the matter, though, is the cost of those things account for drops in the yawning financial bucket.
Wiedefeld says the system has $25.5 billion in unfunded capital needs. He is pushing for a $15.5 billion plan—$1.5 billion a year for the next decade—that he believes would be more feasible technically and politically, and it calls for a third of those funds to go specifically to infrastructure investments, so they don’t get re-appropriated for operating expenses.
And while Wiedefeld is advocating strongly for a dedicated funding source, he isn’t making recommendations about exactly how that should come about. “We want to stay in our lane. Our lane is to define the needs, justify the needs, and talk about what we would do” with the funds, he said on the Kojo Show.
At the top of the list of challenges is bringing the region’s governments together to agree on a plan. For some context, Virginia and Maryland didn’t get their act together to create the framework for a new Metrorail Safety Commission until after the federal government followed through on its threat to withhold millions of dollars from the transit system.
Wiedefeld acknowledged that extremely difficult decisions lie ahead, but said that the ongoing string of incidents and attention on the issues are working in their favor. “I think that has woken up everyone,” he said. “We have to start to address these issues—we cannot continue this path.”
Right up there in terms of difficulty will be convincing the union and labor groups to go along; they have already emitted a howl of protest that seems unlikely to diminish.
The proposal “is bad for riders, bad for workers and bad for the region. Instead of offering real proposals to improve the system and win riders back, Wiedefeld has, once again, pitted riders against workers in an attempt to balance the agency’s budget on the back of WMATA’s hardworking employees,” reads a statement issued by ATU Local 689 today. “His solution is to outsource services more and more of the system, which will make the system less safe, less reliable, more costly and demoralize the workforce in a race to the bottom.”
One self-identified employee called in to the Kojo Show to ask if Wiedefeld was trying to impoverish the workforce.
The general manager countered that one of the only other options would be service cuts, which would also mean job cuts.
Praise has come from other corners, including the Washington Post’s editorial board and some local politicians.
“GM Wiedefeld’s logical proposal for a long-term WMATA funding plan is worthy of careful consideration,” tweeted Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, had a similar take: “The general manager’s plan is the best we’ve seen to date. His statement is bluntly honest about the situation and we generally endorse his proposals—although we will need more information about some of them.”
Now that the plan is out in the open, the debate can begin in earnest. The open question is: will ever turn into action?
“If we don’t do something, we know the slide we’re on,” Wiedefeld said. “It will get steeper and deeper.”
- Tour program
- An Atlas of Bus Rapid Transit Stations – Fairfax County Staff Recommended Draft Station Locations
- Gum Springs Station Area Map
- Historical and current documents on Embark Richmond Highway
- Presentations on Embark Richmond Highway
- Richmond Highway Revitalization District
- Aerial photos of Little Hunting Creek (1937, 1953, 2015)
The Metro board finance committee voted Thursday to raise fares for bus and rail riders, but also approved last-minute amendments to save a slew of bus routes that were slated for cancellation or reduction.
Board members advanced the proposal despite numerous concerns, including whether raising fares would accelerate a ridership decline that has contributed to the transit agency’s financial stresses. There was one dissenting vote.
Metro is facing a $290 million budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, and General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has said he is essentially out of options to further reduce operating costs. The transit agency slashed 500 positions last year and aims to cut another 500 jobs this year.
Under the proposal, rush-hour rail fares would go up by a dime, and off-peak and bus fares would jump by 25 cents. Trains would arrive every eight minutes in most of the system, with higher frequencies in the core — but riders would see fewer trains overall on most lines.
Malcolm Augustine, a board member representing Prince George’s County, was the lone board member to vote against the proposal. He warned of the potentially disastrous impact of raising prices at a time when riders appear to be fleeing the system. Ridership is down about 100,000 trips overall from 2009 peaks.
“This is basic economics. You’re raising the price. You’ll lose riders,” said Augustine, an alternate member who does not have a vote on the full board. “That is a bad business move.”
But Jim Corcoran, a board member representing Virginia, argued that the fare hikes would help stabilize ridership in the long term — because a stable budget helps pay for safety and reliability improvements that would win back riders in the long run.
“I think this is a very good business decision to improve the product,” Corcoran said, “because an improved product will bring back riders.”
Others said the fare increases were painful but necessary. Christian Dorsey, who represents Arlington on the Metro board, said Metro could stem the ridership losses by adhering to promised wait times.
“If we can deliver on what we say we’re putting out there, that would be an improvement,” he said.
Aimee Custis, deputy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a pro-transit group, disagreed with the idea that the new headways could bring riders back to the system.
“The thing that will eventually bring people back is frequent, reliable service, and we are headed away from that,” she said.
Board members from the District, Maryland and Virginia also made 11th-hour amendments to save bus routes that were slated for elimination.
The District rallied to save routes B8 and B9 — the Fort Lincoln Shuttle Line — and to modify the H6, which runs between Brookland and Fort Lincoln.
Virginia board members offered a series of changes that they estimated would cost about $500,000 in subsidies for the year. Their list included the full restoration of the 3T in Pimmit Hills, the 1C in Fair Oaks, and the 16G/H/K/X routes that run along Columbia Pike, from Columbia Heights West to Pentagon City.
They also approved some changes to local routes meant to help serve riders affected by the cancellation of the 28X, 7X, 17A and 17F lines.
Maryland members of the board pushed an amendment that would fully restore the following routes: T14 (between Rhode Island Ave. and New Carrollton stations), F1 and F2 (running along Chillum Road), C8 (between College Park and White Flint stations), and the J1, J2 and J3 routes (operating between Bethesda and Silver Spring stations).
Maryland also persuaded the board to allow Metro to continue to operate the J7 and J9 buses through at least October. Those are express buses that run along Interstate 270.
Maryland board members did not offer details on how much those revived routes would cost to operate and who would be paying for the service.
Dorsey praised the amendments for ensuring the agency doesn’t harm Metrobus, “relatively the shining star of Metro at this point,” he said.
Immediately following the vote, Metro Board member Corbett A. Price — who was not at Metro headquarters — chimed in from a conference calling system.
“You may record my vote in favor of it, reluctantly,” said Price, who represents the District.
The proposal is up for a full board vote March 23.
A coalition of affordable housing advocates, faith groups, business groups, tenants’ groups, developers, and over 250 residents have unified to support more housing, more affordable housing, and targeted support for communities as DC rewrites its Comprehensive Plan. One of those priorities: Best utilize areas near transit.
The coalition, which includes Greater Greater Washington and many other groups, has agreed on a statement of ten priorities. In a series of posts, coalition members will go through many of the priorities to explain what they mean, why there’s a problem, and how the group reached agreement. Do you support the priorities? Sign on today!
What “Best utilize areas near transit” means
The coalition says:
Best utilize areas near transit. When redevelopment occurs on blocks surrounding Metrorail stations and priority transit corridors, the District should, through the Comprehensive Plan, permit and encourage mixed-use developments of medium to high density. To the extent feasible, redevelopments involving increased zoning should include affordable housing in excess of what is required by inclusionary zoning.
Put plainly, building housing near Metro stations, bus lines, and streetcar service makes it easier for people to live in the District without owning a car. And that means less congestion and pollution as well as a stronger local economy.
As the District of Columbia continues to grow to historic population levels, our transit corridors and stations offer the best opportunities for creating places to live and work that are more sustainable, accessible, and affordable. Helping more people live close to transit, enabling more jobs near transit, and creating attractive places near transit are all essential to well-managed growth.
The consequences of not creating these opportunities near transit is spread out, sprawling development.
Pushing growth away from cities, towns, and transit lines means converting more farms into subdivisions and strip malls. This generates ever more polluted stormwater runoff and carves up working agricultural lands.
Sprawl also makes it impractical to get around by walking, biking, or transit, forcing everyone to get around by car, which fuels traffic congestion and air pollution. The cycle then continues, as the congestion leads to bigger roads that simply get congested again, all of which are built with money that gets diverted from transit and existing infrastructure.
Finally, when we sprawl out, low-income people disproportionately feel the negative effects of having no option but to drive.
We’ve missed chances to build near transit in the past
Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of lost opportunities to provide more mixed income housing options at Metro stations in D.C. While some parts of the District have been growing, others— particularly more affluent ones— have not.
The reason for the lack of new homes is not due to lack of interest. Rather, local opposition that takes advantage of a weak and nebulous Comp Plan make it difficult to build new housing in neighborhoods where some existing residents are determined to stop it. That leads to exclusive enclaves with limited housing opportunities for residents of different incomes.
Under our current Comp Plan language, here are a few examples of what we’ve lost:
- Withdrawn: 1,721 apartments next to the Woodley Park Metro station, including family-sized 3 and 4-bedroom units.
- Shrunk: An expanded Georgetown Day School offered housing (including affordable units), retail and parks along Wisconsin Avenue and 42nd Street, a few blocks from the Tenleytown Metro station. The school sliced about 50 apartments and now the entire project is on hold.
- Abandoned: The single use, two story library constructed by the Tenleytown Metro station was supposed to be a mixed use building with affordable and market rate housing above the library. While the city spent extra money to strengthen the foundation to allow some apartments to be built above the library in the future, the prospects for many affordable units is dim.
- Delayed since 2000: Plans for nearly 200 homes on the Takoma Metro station parking lot, along with preservation of the large open space in front of the station.
All these proposed projects offered below market rate and market-rate homes. They are all examples of the market responding to strong demand to live in the city close to transit by redeveloping sites close to transit. They are also examples of how determined opponents can use contradictory language in the Comp Plan to stall, stop, and shrink the construction of much needed new homes and affordable homes.
Under the current Future Land Use Map (FLUM), which translates the Comp Plan onto a map, no Metro stations are designated for low density residential development. A reasonable update to these designations could be to take land that the FLUM categorizes as “moderate” density (row houses and low rise garden apartments) and make it “medium” (4-7 stories), and to change what the FLUM categorizes as “medium” to be “high” (8 stories or more).
Based on the experience of the last decade, it’s fair to say that the Comp Plan has not been as effective as it should have been in balancing the need for more housing, and more affordable housing, around transit stations. That’s especially true in affluent neighborhoods.
Looking into the future, it’s critical that the Comp Plan clarify that a good share of our city’s needed future homes should go to places well-served by transit. Rather than losing out to some neighbors’ objections about new homes, we need to address local concerns while committing to creating more housing opportunities that help more people live more sustainably, and help the city thrive.
Sign on to the priorities!
This is one of ten priorities where the coalition reached agreement. We’ll be following up with articles on more of the 10 priorities by a variety of coalition members.
(Note: While the coalition agreed on the priorities, this article is my commentary about one of the priorities, not an official coalition statement, and all members have not signed onto the specific wording here. The same goes for the other posts in this series.)
So far, 65 organizations and over 350 individuals have put their names on the priorities statement. Will you join them?
A federal judge has ruled in favor of the District in a four-year case over inclusionary zoning, a policy allowing developers to construct larger buildings than otherwise permitted in exchange for creating affordable units. The case was a touchstone of affordable housing issues in D.C.—leading some organizations to push for improvements to the city’s IZ program.
In December 2012, real estate developer Art Linde brought the suit, via one of his companies, over a 22-unit condo building at 2910 Georgia Ave. NW near Howard University. Linde’s company for the building argued that IZ requirements prevented the developer from making an “economically viable use” of the property. In fact, the building was the first to bring IZ units onto the the District’s housing market—a total of two.
Linde’s lawyers contended that the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development could not supply the developer with any qualified buyers for the two affordable condos. The 20 other condos sold within a few months. The LLC argued that IZ amounted to an unconstitutional taking of property rights as well as a denial of due process and equal protection rights.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court for D.C. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly denied Linde’s company’s constitutional challenge to the District’s IZ program. In her ruling, Kollar-Kotelly dismissed the company’s constitutional claims while acknowledging that D.C. may have indeed “‘fumbled and bungled every aspect of the IZ Program’s implementation,'” as the developer had stated in its complaint.
“The Court does not intend to minimize Plaintiff’s [2910 Georgia Avenue LLC’s] legitimate grievances with the District’s administration of the IZ Program, or to suggest that the District acted perfectly at all times,” the judge wrote. “The Court merely concludes that at no point did the District’s conduct rise to the level of a violation of the United States Constitution.” D.C.’s IZ program was first approved in 2007 and took effect in 2009, slow to start after the recession.
City Paper has reached out to Linde and his attorneys for comment and will update this post if we hear back. Meanwhile, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine‘s office says the ruling “is a major victory for the IZ program,” which requires that 8 to 10 percent of a new development’s residential space be set aside as affordable housing. Last year, the D.C. Zoning Commission lowered the income threshold for affordable units through IZ.
“We are committed to using all of the tools in the toolbox to protect affordable housing” via IZ and other legal means, Racine says in a statement.
Kollar-Kotelly’s opinion notes that IZ requirements did not stop the developer of 2910 Georgia Ave. NW “from earning a considerable profit from its property”—some $6 million from the sale of the market-rate units in the building, which resulted in a “20 percent return on their investments.”
Affordable housing advocates praised Kollar-Kotelly’s decision. Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, says IZ “has proven to be a reasonable program for developers and an important development to D.C.’s residents searching for more affordably priced homes.” And Claire Zippel, an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, notes the District isn’t alone in enacting IZ regulations. “I am heartened but unsurprised by the court’s affirmation of inclusionary zoning, which has worked successfully with the private sector to create hundreds of affordable homes in D.C.—and hundreds of thousands of affordable homes in more than 500 jurisdictions across the country,” Zippel explains.
In January, a majority of the D.C. Council co-introduced a bill that would amend existing IZ law to reflect last year’s changes by the Zoning Commission.