Author: Charles Rudner

Developer-In-Chief: Obama Wants D.C. (And Other Cities) To Build More Housing

By next year, President Barack Obama will be just another D.C. resident, living in a rented Kalorama house until daughter Sasha finishes high school. That means he’ll be able to vote in local elections and take part in the city’s civic process, weighing in on everything from streetlight outages to development plans. (He could even be elected as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, should he choose to return to public office.)

But what type of engaged civic citizen might he be? It became more clear this week with the publication of a White House policy paper outlining his administration’s view on housing — and whether there’s enough of it in many of the country’s cities.

The answer? Not nearly.

“In a growing number of metropolitan areas, the returning health of the housing market and vibrant job growth haven’t led to resurgent construction industries and expanding housing options for working families, due to state and local rules inhibiting new housing development that have proliferated in recent decades,” says the 23-page Housing Development Toolkit.

In short, NIMBYs — the not-in-my-backyard activists — have had too much sway over the construction of new housing in and around many cities, the report says, and they have pushed rules limiting not only where and when housing can get built, but also if it even gets built at all.

The paper details some of the downsides of those rules: more competition for a smaller number of available units, resulting in sky-high home prices and rents; increasing income inequality as only the well-to-do can afford living in cities; slowing economic growth due to workers’ not being able to live in certain cities or regions; longer commutes; and even increased gentrification as development is pushed out of established neighborhoods that can restrict it and instead moves into low-income areas.

All of those trends are evident to a certain degree in the Washington region: Median home prices and family homelessness), income inequality is as stark as it’s ever been and local job growth is slower here than in cities like Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia — and one reason is the region’s high housing costs.

The White House policy paper says cities should do away with zoning rules and policies that overly restrict the construction of housing or make any construction more expensive by, say, requiring that a certain minimum number of parking spots be built with every new development. Instead, they should allow more by-right development and increased density, streamline construction permitting and use tax policy to move vacant land into use more quickly.

Local support for the smart-growth Obama

The paper has been a hit with local smart-growth advocates.

“I was impressed,” says Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It talked very clearly about the challenges facing housing affordability in the country, some of the zoning challenges we have, the neighborhood opposition to additional housing and mixed-use development.”

Schwartz says that overall, the region is doing well on policies proposed by the report, especially in D.C., Arlington, Alexandria, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Fairfax County.

“We have a strong local commitment to affordable housing. There are good inclusionary zoning for requiring affordable units in new development. In many cases D.C. is doing the best, followed by Montgomery and Arlington,” he says. “All the jurisdictions have been looking at their parking policies and trying to reduce the requirements or even eliminate parking minimums. D.C. has done so, Alexandria recently did so and Arlington is now looking at there’s.”

Just this month, D.C. enacted a long-awaited rewrite of its Zoning Code, which dated back to 1958. It includes certain changes that square with the White House policy paper: it’s now easier for residents to rent out accessory dwelling units — basements or carriage houses, in non-technical jargon — and parking minimums have been reduced in certain areas and eliminated in others.

And in July, the Zoning Commission approved changes to D.C.’s inclusionary zoning program, which allows developers to build more units if they set aside a certain percentage for low- and middle-income buyers. Under the changes, units built will be more affordable than in the past.

But the region still faces some of the restrictions and challenges outlined by the paper — namely neighborhood opposition to development projects.

“One of our greatest challenges now is neighborhood concerns about change and neighborhood opposition to some of this transit-oriented development, where even if a project is very well designed and would bring many community benefits, many of the projects are being reduced in size and number of units based on neighborhood opposition,” he says.

Schwartz names three projects that he says reflect that pattern: the Georgetown Day School development in Tenleytown, where neighborhood opposition caused the developer to cut 50 units of housing; the Westbard project in Bethesda, where the number of housing units was cut in half to just around 1,200; and in Lyttonsville, where some residents are fighting a development proposed for a planned Purple Line station.

In D.C., last year the Zoning Commission — spurred by some resident groups — limited pop-ups and condo conversions in certain residential neighborhoods. And in another case, the Northwest neighborhood of Lanier Heights down-zoned to prevent developers from expanding the size of rowhouses.

And the nation’s capital faces an even stricter limitation of development, this one imposed by Congress: the Height Act of 1910 limits how tall buildings can be, keeping them from growing far beyond 130 feet in even the densest parts of town. An August report from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development said that the height restrictions contribute to high land costs and limited remaining development opportunities. In 2013, the National Capital Planning Commission — backed by the D.C. Council — rejected a move to loosen the Height Act in certain peripheral neighborhoods.

The Height Act, of course, does not apply to communities in Virginia and Maryland — the commercial building 1812 North Moore, just across the river from D.C. in Arlington, is nearly 400 feet tall.

More development, more displacement?

But not everyone is on board with Obama’s endorsement of what have come to be known as “smart growth” principles. Chris Otten, an activist with D.C. for Reasonable Development, says the White House paper oversimplifies what ultimately drives housing costs.

“Housing markets and prices do not rise and fall with supply in an instant reaction model, where if you build more housing the prices automatically drop as predicted in this document and other smart growth mantras,” he says. “If developers get to build more housing by relaxing regulations, that lower-barrier housing produced will be priced the same as the housing they build now.”

Otten points to rents in D.C.: Even as new buildings have popped up in neighborhoods from U Street to Navy Yard, rents have continued to increase. And not only that, he says, but when new development occurs, it puts pressure on existing neighborhoods and residents by increasing property values — and forcing long-time residents out.

“If a developer, with help from the city, decides to build hundreds of market-units in a mega-complex box — that’s boring to boot — next to an established low-rise residential neighborhood, what of the housing prices for existing residents? Intuitively gentrification and subsequently displacement pressures will rise with the values of the land, tax rates, and rents,” he says.

He also worries of the impact on the environment and existing infrastructure from increased development, and says that planning and development decisions should flow from residents up instead of from governments down.

Schwartz agrees that many jurisdictions can do more to help lower rents and housing prices, from more aggressive inclusionary zoning policies to putting more public money into preserving and building affordable housing. And while he agrees that the public needs to remain involved in planning and development decisions, he says that as cities grow, development needs to be prioritized — especially in commercial corridors and areas near transit.

“With the community, we need to come up with good mixed-used redevelopment plans and streamline the approvals on the back end for the developers. Let’s save time and money. And let’s move much quicker with our commercial corridors to allow the zoning for those to be changed to provide more housing,” he says.

Image credit: Flickr/Roger Smith

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Lyttonsville Residents Fault Sector Plan’s Housing Density, Potential Traffic

Several residents faulted Tuesday night the density and potential traffic that could follow the Montgomery County Council’s passage of the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, a land-use guide for a Silver Spring neighborhood founded by a freed slave in the 1850s.

“I know all this development will stifle my neighborhood’s life,” resident Patricia Tyson told the council during a hearing on the proposed plan, which has been in the works since 2012. The number of new homes proposed for the neighborhood would be far too much for the community to absorb, she said.

“I believe this plan will add intolerable traffic congestion, make the area unaffordable to lower and middle-class residents, and destroy the current character of Lyttonsville,” added Erwin Rose, who has lived in the community since 2001.

The area covered by the plan currently has 499 single-family homes and townhouses planner Melissa Williams told the council in a morning briefing. Under the plan, the maximum number of units would increase to 1,334. Multifamily units would grow from 2,864 to a maximum of 5,577.

However, Williams said the maximum numbers are rarely achieved and a “crude calculation” of looking at acreage and applying zoning. For example, under current zoning, the plan area could have 1,290 single-family and townhouse units, and 3,912 multifamily units, she said.

“The proposed level of development is beyond what my little community can handle,” Rosemary Hills resident Lynn Amano said.

The hearing at the County Council Building also drew many supporters of the sector plan. The community will have two Purple Line stops—on Lyttonsville Road and at Woodside/16th Street—which drew support from representatives from Purple Line Now, the Action Committee for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which all support the light-rail line to be built from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

Several people said they supported that the plan maintained a light industrial area north of the Purple Line, the only light industrial area in Montgomery County that remains inside the Beltway. Leonor Chaves, a resident, noted the light industrial area has 475 businesses that employ 2,500.

Others supported the planned walkability of the envisioned community, added parklands, small retail area, and bike lanes. The sector plan also drew support from local developers EYA and Federal Realty Investment Trust. EYA is trying to redevelop three parcels in the community into transit-oriented development. Federal Realty owns an apartment complex on the west side of the plan area.

A second hearing is planned for Thursday night at the Council Office Building, and 17 people have signed up to testify. The council will tour the area Oct. 7.

Since its founding, Lyttonsville has suffered from neglect from the public and private sectors. It lacked paved streets and running water until the 1970s. The county once had a trash heap and incinerator in the neighborhood.

Work on the sector plan began in 2012, and Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson said the fits and starts of the Purple Line, now planned to start construction later this year, were one reason why the plan took so long to complete.

As the sector plan progressed, the board engaged in an intensive community outreach, including holding numerous meetings with residents and creating a hot line for those who had questions.

Anderson told the council he believed the criticisms of the plan would be directed toward specific details and not the framework that was built on consensus.

Resident Mark Mendez seemed to agree. “No one gets what they want in a master plan. This list checks a lot of boxes for me,” he said.

But resident Abe Schuchman criticized the lack of a full-service grocery store in the plan, which would mean people would still have to get in their cars to shop, despite the plan’s walkability. And Jonathan Foley of the Gwendolyn Coffield Community Center Advisory Board said the plan needed to address specifically how the center on Lyttonsville Road would handle the new residents.

Council President Nancy Floreen said committees are scheduled to take up the plan in November, which could lead to a full committee vote by the end of the year.


Image credit: Montgomery County Planning Board

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The White House takes on off-street parking

Few topics can spoil polite conversation as swiftly as politics, religion and off-street parking. In a gentrifying city such as Washington, new housing means new residents means more cars — and pointed questions from natives on where all of those cars will go.

Now, in a policy paper released Monday, the White House has taken a side, coming down against rules across the nation that require developers to build parking spots.

“Parking requirements generally impose an undue burden on housing development, particularly for transit-oriented or affordable housing,” the paper states. “When transit-oriented developments are intended to help reduce automobile dependence, parking requirements can undermine that goal by inducing new residents to drive, thereby counteracting city goals for increased use of public transit, walking and biking.”

The anti-parking stance came from a “Housing Development Toolkit,” a broadside against zoning. The report says zoning “reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand,” making affordable housing hard to find in high-price areas.

Nixing off-street parking is not the paper’s only recommendation. It also advocates taxing vacant land, making it easier to get permits and making cities more dense.

NIMBYs have got to go, the paper states.

“Yes, in our backyard, we need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing,” it says.

“We want new development to replace vacant lots and rundown zombie properties, we want our children to be able to afford their first home, we want hardworking families to be able to take the next job on their ladder of opportunity, and we want our community to be part of the solution in reducing income inequality,” it states.

The paper, which points out that Washington “saw a 31 percent increase in family homelessness last year amid a 14 percent increase in homelessness overall,” is not silent on the D.C. region. It praises Fairfax County’s flexible zoning for “encouraging economic development.”

“These more flexible zoning regulations include 40-50 foot increases in building height, parking requirement reductions, and abbreviated fees and approval processes for development changes,” it reads.

This was the policy paper many urban planners have been waiting for.

“This is an amazing document,” Jeff Speck, a city planner and the author of
“Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” wrote in an email. “It gets just about everything right.”

Speck, a former D.C. resident, praised the paper’s endorsement of density and “accessory dwelling units,” also known as backyard cottages or “granny flats.”

Offering U Street, where he owns a property, as an example, Speck said new residents should not be able to get resident-only parking permits the city previously offered.

“Particularly in cities where alternatives to driving exist, on-site parking is a build-it-and-they-will-come phenomenon,” Speck wrote. “If a building has parking spaces, people show up with cars. If it doesn’t, people show up without them.”

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a nonprofit that promotes walkable communities, said debates about density and parking were endemic to the region, often pitting longtime residents against new arrivals.

“It’s a battle in every neighborhood,” Schwartz said, citing the fight over Georgetown Day School development in Tenleytown and the “communities not canyons” debate over the height of planned buildings in downtown Bethesda.

Dennis Williams, a Tenleytown resident who spoke out last year against the Georgetown Day development, said that he was not familiar with the White House paper but that his community is “concerned about height and density.”

“Other kinds of housing and building high-rise buildings close to residential areas reduces the quality of the environment around which we live and in which people raise their families,” he said.

The White House paper is novel for pushing a philosophy the Obama administration is not known for: deregulation.

“Economic insights are finally creeping into the administration, and that’s a good thing,” said Sanford Ikeda, a professor of economics at the State University of New York whose work is cited in the paper.

The District’s Office of Planning, which has proposed doing away with parking requirements for new construction in the past, was not available for comment Tuesday.

Image credit: Amanda Voisard, The Washington Post

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Guest Commentary: Walkable Urbanism in the City of Falls Church

People were streaming along the sidewalks and biking down the street – parents with children, couples, retirees, and the full ethnic diversity of our region. Where were they all going? We were leading one of our tours of walkable urban places and were amazed. Our group had just reached Park Avenue after having come up from the East Falls Church Metro. It felt like market day, and in fact it was – with the weekly Farmers Market, the Taste of Falls Church and the Fall Festival all taking place last Saturday.

Mayor Tarter, Vice Mayor Connelly, and Councilmember Hardi were there to meet us and tell us about the Little City. The Mayor talked about the community’s efforts to become an even better place for walking and bicycling, including adding Capital Bikeshare. We learned about the effort to bring new amenities like the Harris Teeter, and investment that will diversify the tax base to reduce pressure on residential property taxes. We learned about the city’s commitment to environmental sustainability and quality of life.

With the help of Falls Church’s planning department, our guides for the morning, we looked at old and new development along Washington and Broad Streets, talking about urban design, sidewalk widths, best designs for ground-floor retail and more. It was easy to feel the difference between walking along a narrow sidewalk next to high-speed traffic and the new wider sidewalks with street trees.

At the Northgate development, we talked about the benefits of redevelopment for dealing with long-standing stormwater problems. Old parking lots fuel torrents of floodwater into creeks like Four Mile Run. New development must meet current stormwater control standards and significantly reduce runoff. The sidewalk retention basins are one tool, although the big clunky ones at Northgate will have to be chalked up as a learning experience!

The Harris Teeter is the big new addition and lies within reach of most city residents, generating a significant number of walking trips to the store. Later, we learned from developer Bob Young about the sustainability features of his Flower Building and the affordable apartments for teachers in the Read Building. Parking needs are being reduced through shared parking at the Hilton Garden Inn. So many people arrive by shuttle from Metro, that they don’t need as much parking as they have.

The two Metro stations that bear the Falls Church name became a big topic of conversation, particularly because neither is as accessible as it could be. The long walk from East Falls Church Metro demonstrated, without a doubt, the need for a western entrance to the Metro at Washington Street. The western entrance would place the Metro much closer to many Falls Church and Arlington residents.

Metro studies show that attracting more riders who walk and bike to the stations is far more cost-effective than building very expensive parking structures. Almost all of Falls Church lies within one mile of one of the two Metro stations. So it’s easy to see why good sidewalks, bike lanes and bikeshare are great ways to connect the community to the two Metro stations.

East Falls Church Metro is already a champion in attracting bike commuters, but the demand is such that a bike station is in progress, designed by the same folks who created that amazing glass bike station at Union Station in DC. Bikeshare will add a whole new level of convenience for the commute to Metro, because you’ll be able to ditch the heavy bike lock. But the city almost didn’t win the funding in the face of opposition from outer suburban legislators and highway lobbyists. So we jumped into the fray, sending an alert to our Falls Church members, who responded in record numbers to send letters of support that helped to win the funding.

We didn’t have time to go to Tinner Hill or the West Falls Church Metro, but we learned about both and plan to come back. West Falls Church Metro is a disjointed place today and many talk about how the big parking lots feel unsafe at night. So it would be a real win to create a walkable urban place, with a new high school, mixed-use development, and a more vibrant Virginia Tech campus.

We wrapped up our tour in the pocket park at the Spectrum development, but people wanted to keep talking, so we adjourned for a great lunch at the Mad Fox.

Falls Church is a wonderful place, and in demand because of its walkability, convenient access to jobs and services, and nearby Metro stations. Carefully planned development in the commercial corridors will provide needed housing, convenient new services, help the tax base, and contribute to a walking and biking friendly community. We look forward to returning to see the next stages in the evolution of the Little City.”

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