Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Historic Preservation Tuesday: Bungalow Maintenance 101

One of my favorite local historic preservation groups, the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association, which sponsors monthly training sessions and an annual expo, has recently published a booklet, Bungalow Maintenance 101, which is also the "text" for some of their seminars.

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More on zero waste practice (and DC)

DC Sanitation - Trash - Garbage TruckDC's DPW is working on implementing the city's sustainability plan's provision on zero waste, which calls for a reduction of the solid waste stream so that 80% of the total is reduced-reduced-recycled.

According to a recent press release, the DPW just hired a couple people from the city's Department of Energy and Environment to move this and other goals forward.  Annie White has been hired to be the Manager of the Office of Waste Diversion.  According to the press release:
The DPW Office of Waste Diversion is charged with developing a zero waste plan to achieve at least an 80% waste diversion rate. It also serves as a liaison between the District and neighboring jurisdictions in developing regional waste reduction and diversion campaigns
I've written a fair amount about this topic, including testifying at a March City Council hearing.  That testimony provided an extensive set of recommendations and ideas.  Also see the past blog entry "Solid waste management update" from 2014.

In January I learned that Santa Monica, California was one of the first cities in the US to create a sustainability plan, which they did in the mid-1990s.

This supports my criticism ("Realizing all aspects of Sustainable DC") of the goals of DC's Sustainability Plan and how the city now, with a couple of exceptions, isn't implementing practices at the level of best practice nationally now, so how can the city be expected to surpass by 2032 all other US cities, many of which are already significantly ahead in their sustainability achievements?

From the standpoint of the argument in Alexander Gerschenkron in "The Economic Advantages of Backwardness," the advantage of being behind is you can adopt the newest technologies without losing a lot of money in "sunk investments" in more recent technology.

But this is an advantage only if you adopt the innovative technologies.  If you herald adopting less than best practice now, there's no way to catch up to those communities further refining their already better practices.

One exception is how DC Water (WASA), which provides waste treatment services not just to DC but to many of the area's counties, is now generating 30% of its electricity and reducing waste and producing better quality compost as a result of adopting world leading treatment technology ("D.C. Water begins harnessing electricity from every flush," Washington Post).

Austin, Texas.  Austin set a zero waste goal in 2011 and as part of the law implementing it, they are required to do a "waste characterization study" every five years for insights on what is and isn't working.

Similar to results from a comparable study in DC, the first Austin Waste Characterization study (2014) found that much of the waste stream was comprised of divertible materials.

One of their findings is that people given the largest cans are less focused on recycling ("Why don’t Austinites recycle more? The answer might be simple," Austin American-Statesman) although part of the problem is that the city collects "trash" every week but recycling only twice each month, and people's recycling cans get full long before they are picked up.

Austin uses the same size 96-gallon trash can distributed outside of DC's rowhouse neighborhoods.  In DC's rowhouse neighborhoods, the can is 32-gallons, but they do have twice/week trash pickup (once/week for recyclables).

The Austin DPW created a webpage that is supposed to give recommendations on options for diverting "waste," but in my opinion it's not particularly well developed, because it is inconsistent in the "advice" it offers across items.  On some, returned results prioritize "bulk trash pickup" while other terms return results that stress diversion.

Wish cycling and falling economic returns to recycling programs.  More recently, media coverage has focused on the effect of the economic downturn and the fall in oil prices (which impacts the value of recycled plastic) making recycling only marginally profitable.

In October, the New York Times ran a long piece in the Sunday Review section ("The Reign of Recycling") calling into question the value of recycling programs more generally, although it focused specifically on calculating the value of the programs only on greenhouse gas emissions, which was criticized in letters to the editor in response ("Where Our Trash Goes").

It's accentuated by the problem that has arisen with single-stream recycling systems (versus sorting-based systems) in that many people toss items into recycling bins that aren't recyclable.  This increases the cost of the program.

In the Minneapolis Star-Tribune ("Global shifts put squeeze on Twin Cities recycling" and "Recycling or 'wish cycling'? Materials to stop tossing in the big blue bins") they quote someone in the field calling this "wish cycling." From the first article:
Despite the predictions that the market will eventually turn around, Keegan is less optimistic overall revenues will return to previous levels. That’s partly because higher recycling goals have pushed facilities to process materials like milk cartons and juice boxes that have less resale value. Some new innovative packaging can’t be recycled, but nonetheless ends up in the single-sort bin through what Keegan calls “wish cycling.” And the growth of online media has eroded the amount of recycled newsprint, once a moneymaker. ...

“We’re including more and more materials that have lower and lower economic value and that are harder and harder to recycle,” Keegan said. “So the economics truly are changing. They aren’t what they were during the last downturn.”
From plastic bag bans to styrofoam bans.  A few years ago, cities and counties started imposing either bans or charges for plastic bags, to encourage bag reuse.  In fact, DC was an early leader in this movement, and for the most part residents and businesses have adjusted.

Now the push is to ban polystyrene, which except in the absolute largest cities like NYC ("Judge Strikes Down New York City's Ban on Foam Food Containers," New York Times) can't be recycled cost-effectively.  DC's ban on foam containers goes into effect January 1st, 2016 ("Countdown to DC foam food-packaging ban," Washington Business Journal.

Burning trash for electricity.  Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a special section on energy, including a pro/con piece on electricity production from trash ("Does Burning Garbage for Electricity Make Sense?").  The proponents say that it's better to burn trash than to use land.  The opponents say that energy production moves the focus away from waste diversion, recycling and related programs.

I have been somewhat skeptical, especially since it appears as if 90% of the waste stream separate from "recycling" programs capture is divertible, and because the City of Harrisburg was driven to bankruptcy, in large part because of problems with a malfunctioning waste-to-energy facility (it's since been sold to the Lancaster City Waste Management Agency, and now it works fine).

Although these days, there are plenty of examples of successful facilities.  In fact, DC's trash is burned in a waste-to-energy facility in Fairfax County, Virginia ("D.C.'s trash is now Fairfax facility's treasured commodity," Washington Post).

New best practice for pizza box composting.  Even though pizza boxes are cardboard, because they are typically grease-stained and soiled, they aren't recyclable.

Nevertheless, millions of pizza boxes are put in recycle bins ("wish recycled") and if not diverted, make recyclable paper and cardboard less usable.

North Carolina State University has created a program to capture pizza boxes in a separate process ("Pizza Box Composting Gets College Try: Campus arms race to go green nets creative efforts to deal with the greasy containers," Wall Street Journal) which is easier for them to do compared to individual households because they can focus on dormitory buildings. From the article:
College students love pizza. They also love recycling. But their pizza boxes are virtually unrecyclable, thanks to the cheesy, greasy residue left behind on the cardboard bottoms. What’s a poor school to do?

At North Carolina State University, the answer is the Pizza Box Composting Project—dumpsters placed at eight locations around campus that since early last year have helped turn approximately 16,000 grease-stained boxes into fertilizer.

At Saturday’s packed Homecoming, sophomore volunteer Wesley Phan moved a composting bin in front of a trash can so that it would be noticed by those disposing of their individual pizza boxes during the game. “It’s a strategy,” he said. “You force them to think.”
(Because I hate tearing up pizza boxes for composting, I prefer that we make pizza from scratch.  The problem is that when the urge for pizza arises, we don't usually have fresh pizza dough ready for cooking.  Yes, I used to just toss pizza boxes into recycling, knowing that the firm that processes DC's recycling has a chipper in their facility for pizza boxes, separate from the recycling stream.)

From my testimony at the March 20, 2015 DC City Council hearing.

Current planning documents and website. A review of the DPW website does not reveal a “Solid Waste Management Plan” document. Last year the department launched a “Strategic Road Map for Solid Waste Management” process. I did fill out the survey, but was unable to attend either of the scheduled meetings. Since then, there doesn’t appear to be much public discussion of the initiative.

On the website, there is a 2011 document, the “Waste Characterization Report,” which studied the city’s waste stream and contains a discussion that is weighted towards the creation of a waste to energy plant.

The DC Sustainability Plan does set a zero waste “stretch” goal. To implement recommendations of the Plan, City Council passed the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Act of 2014, which increases DPW responsibilities concerning sustainable practice going forward, with stronger requirements taking effect starting around 2016. (These documents are not referenced substantively on the DPW website.)

Evaluation of the city’s waste stream. According to the Waste Characterization Review, much of the undiverted “trash stream” is comprised of items that are either recyclable (51.5%) or compostable (40.9%).

The study also references a 2007 DPW study of trash and recycling collection that determined that while about 36% of the city’s waste stream is recyclable, only half that rate is achieved.

It does not appear as if significant studies of different types of properties (e.g., single family attached, single family detached, multiunit residential of various sizes and types, office, restaurants, etc.) have been conducted to determine opportunities for recycling, composting, and source reduction.

Recommended programming. This section outlines best practices that DPW could launch as part of innovative and sustainably-focused solid waste master plan. The items are not necessarily listed in order of importance. Text marked by brackets [] is an addition to the original testimony.

[Two items that were not part of the original testimony:

A.  Work with pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to set up medicine disposal programs.  This was raised by another person testifying at the March hearing.

B.  Consider testing smaller trash cans, currently very large measuring 96-gallon, in the outer city, since larger cans tend to discourage waste sorting and diversion.]

Original recommendations

1. Rebrand the solid waste unit of the DPW. As a way to build a new culture, reorganize the solid waste function as a semi-stand alone organization with its own brand.

The City of Johannesburg did this with “Pikitup.” as did the employee-owned business that serves the City of San Francisco and other local governments, which is now called “Recology.”  Comparably, in DC, WASA has rebranded the entire agency as dc water. On the other hand, a brand is more than a logo.

[One of the problems DC government agencies have with external communications is that all are required to subsume their identities within the DC Government webpage and content management system, which homogenizes information and prevents the development of distinct agency identities and the ability to implement more attractive and specific information presentation methods and systems. DPW is no exception.

The Lancaster City Waste Management Authority website is a model of how to deliver the communications of rebranded DC DPW solid waste unit.]

2. Trash trucks as rolling billboards.  DPW’s orange and white trash trucks are very distinctive [but also a missed opportunity in that they can be employed as message delivery“vehicles” within social marketing campaigns focused on getting people to adopt more sustainable solid waste management practices.]

A repainted DC DPW recycling truck.

While the agency recently repainted some trucks with murals (something that Philadelphia did 7 years ago), Baltimore and New York City present anti-litter messaging on many of their garbage trucks using social marketing principles.

[New York recently introduced new messaging for their zero waste goal, although personally I think the design is somewhat cryptic.]

3. People don’t believe that recycling is actually recycled. Produce videos that show what happens to recycling.

Even without the recent event, or last year’s trashing of discarded trash and recycling cans made redundant by the distribution of new cans, people have doubts that recycling is actually recycled. Besides videos, the agency could sponsor field trips, and other activities to better educate residents.

4. Develop yard waste diversion and collection programs for the Outer City. DPW should provide differentiated waste collection and diversion programs based on a finer-grained understanding of the respective spatial and urban design conditions across the city. Collection of yard trim is one such opportunity, especially as it accounts for almost 15% of the waste stream at DPW’s transfer stations.

Yard waste thrown out on the 200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW.

The “outer city” (wards 3, 4, and 5 especially) is comprised in large part of detached houses on larger lots, and significant tree cover, thereby generating a great deal of “yard trim” – leaves, grass, tree limbs, etc.

(See the 2013 blog entry, A way for DC to begin adding yard waste collection as a separate element of waste collection and reduction programming.")

Much of this could be collected and composted, comparable to programs in Montgomery and Prince George’s County, Maryland and Salt Lake City, significantly reducing the amount of waste that is landfilled/incinerated.  [Note that Montgomery County emphasizes on-site composting over collection.]

A yard waste diversion and collection program should be piloted in at least one ward within the outer city.

5. Schedule neighborhood-wide bulk trash collection days. Rather than focus on individual bulk trash collection appointments, Salt Lake City organizes collection at the neighborhood scale, with a rolling schedule of “Neighborhood Clean Up” days. Other residents are allowed to pick through and take items that have been set aside for bulk collection on that day. While some demand for individual appointments would still exist, this would simplify bulk trash collection, improve services and promote community building.

In Capitol Hill, “neighborhood practice” is to put items that are reusable outside of the house, on the sidewalk, with a note saying the items are “free.” This practice is not sanctioned by DPW.

In Amsterdam, the Goedsak is used by residents to “discard” items but identify them as still usable and available for taking.

6. For single family households, develop promotion programs for on-site composting. Composting diverts food and yard waste from the waste stream.

Montgomery County probably has the best composting promotion effort in the metropolitan area. My own household learned how to compost from information provided by Montgomery County on their website. (DC government websites are severely deficient in providing such information.)

Because of the high proportion of yard waste and the prevalence of larger lots compared to rowhouse neighborhoods, this should be piloted in the outer city.

Over time, a separate program can be developed for rowhouse neighborhoods.  [The Lower East Side Ecology Center piloted composting for apartment dwellers by putting collection bins at the Union Square Greenmarket farmers market.]

7. Develop recycling promotion programs for multifamily residential (MFR) properties. A cursory review of the literature finds some good tests but no particularly exemplary program, and low participation rates. Currently, it does not appear as if the Smarter DC Challenge initiative has plans to extend their campaign to multiunit residential properties.

DC has the opportunity to develop and demonstrate national best practice in this area. Note that some cities have changed zoning and building regulations for MFR properties to facilitate recycling.

8. Pilot a composting program for MFR properties. While large buildings typically don’t generate yard waste, food waste can be a significant proportion of the waste stream and should be addressed. DC has the opportunity to develop and demonstrate national best practice in this area.

9. Use the monthly hazardous materials day as a way to expand special collection programs. [At the beginning of each month DPW has a hazardous materials collection drop off program at the Fort Totten waste transfer station.]  Organizations like Community Forklift (building materials), A Wider Circle (furniture and other goods), Wheelchair Society (medical equipment) take donations of items that often are trashed. Used clothing, even if threadbare, is still convertible to rags, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, although most people “trash” such items, believing them to be unusable.

The special collection day the first Saturday of the month could be treated as a “special collections fair and expo” and include representatives from organizations such as those listed above, either to promote donation of materials to those organizations or to collect them directly.

Clothes discarded on the 800 block of 5th Street NE.

Note that special collection bin programs by organizations such as Planet Aid are available within DC. But too often bin areas tend to become unsightly.

10. Promote special collection organizations on the DPW webpage, in brochures, and other promotional venues. The above-mentioned organizations aren’t even mentioned in DPW materials as “waste diversion” options.

The Austin DPW webpage mentioned above, while not perfect, is a start.

11. Utilize farmers markets and libraries as a staging point for special collections programs. Farmers markets can be good events to leverage for special collections also. New York City does this extensively for compost collection, collection of clothing and textiles and hazardous and e-cycling collections. For example farmers markets in densely populated areas, (Dupont Circle, Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, U Street, etc.) would be great places to pilot compost collection for residents from MFR properties.

Currently some small businesses like Compost Cab collect compost from individual households on a fee basis.  But this could be scaled up significantly by utilizing farmers markets as collection points for composting and other special waste collection programs.

Libraries could also be a potential site for the collection of textiles and e-goods.

An example of a message campaign for trash cans by PETA.

12. Waste receptacles in the public space should be used as vehicles for messaging on solid waste matters. This can help increase participation rates.

13. DPW should develop a recyclables collection program for public spaces. “Windshield surveys” of the composition of items deposited in trash cans placed in the public space indicate that 50% or more of the volume is recyclable or otherwise divertible.

Currently, some of the city’s Business Improvement Districts provide separate cans for collection of recyclables, but this is not a standard city practice outside of special service districts. (NYC provides separate cans for bottles/cans and paper/cardboard.) DPW should develop a program comparable to New York City’s.

14. DPW should work with DPR and DGS to develop a systematic recyclables collection program for public park spaces.  [Some parks and recreation centers have some recycling bins, both inside and on the grounds.]

15. DPW should exhibit at festivals to improve resident understanding, commitment to, and participation within the city’s Solid Waste Management agenda. Some city agencies exhibit at festivals to communicate their message. DDOE is quite active in this arena and dc water provides misting tents and water dispensing trucks—promoting the “Tap It” drinking water vs. bottled water initiative. While DPW has an active direct mail program, some resources should be shifted to face-to-face programs.

[The Clean City unit of DPW and the outreach unit of the DC Department of Energy and the Environment have a heavy exhibiting program at festivals, but there isn't a strong focus on household waste diversion, especially compared to how Montgomery County's DPW exhibits at the Montgomery County Agriculture Fair and other venues.]

The Yard at the Fort Totten Transfer Stwishation.

16. Develop a program to try to divert from the waste stream reusable materials that are “dumped” directly by people who travel to the city’s transfer stations. Sorting programs with areas for divertible items could be created. 

Develop an informational brochure on diversion that could be distributed to vehicle operators as they line up for access to the transfer station.

17. Develop programs and initiatives to improve recycling and waste diversion rates on the part of commercial properties, businesses, and organizations. Participation in the SmarterDC Challenge is voluntary and won’t necessarily be enough. Identify business categories with great opportunity for improvement and introduce programs to help them address those issues which hinder their ability to reduce their generation of waste as opposed to recycling, composting, and diversion.

18. Develop outreach programs with commercial haulers to improve recycling and waste diversion rates.

19. Pilot composting programs should be developed for restaurants, food service operations, supermarkets and grocery stores. Note that according to the survey used for the “Strategic Road Map for Solid Waste Management” process, this is being considered by DPW already.

20. Consider buying one or more wood splitters for use by residents in converting fallen trees to usable firewood. One strategy for reducing wood waste would be to facilitate on-site wood splitting [when street trees are lost to weather events]. One or more portable wood splitters could be acquired and a pilot program devised.

[Somewhat related and renumbered, this originally was point 16.]

21. Adopt the Keep Australia Beautiful Litter Survey instrument and develop baseline data for neighborhoods and commercial districts. Use the information collected to shape litter interdiction programs. (The KAB survey form is more detailed than similar instruments used in the US.)  

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Racial differences on the value of new development shown in Washington Post opinion survey miss the point: income differences are what matter, not race

People eating outdoors at the new Busboys & Poets restaurant in DC's Takoma neighborhood.

It happens that I was one of the respondents to the most recent Washington Post poll of DC residents on the state of the city, and I do remember the question about my sense of the value of development to the city.

The Post ran a number of articles on the poll, including "Poll: White residents in D.C. think redevelopment helps them. Black residents don't" which found a difference in the perception of the value of new development in the city.

From the article:
The growth in resistance among African Americans may reflect that redevelopment is no longer a novelty and that the improved services and amenities it attracts to neighborhoods at some point becomes a hardship to poor and working-class residents forced to pay higher property taxes. The District’s transformation began slowly downtown in the 1980s and 1990s and, in more recent years, has accelerated, spreading to neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, Brookland and Petworth, raising property values and rents and imposing added economic pressure on working and middle-class households.
Washington Post survey of DC residents, question on value of development

While it seemingly makes sense to analyze this question/this issue on the basis of race, the reality is that the benefits of development depend more on a household's economic status.

In my middle class neighborhood, which is majority African-American but changing (basically, the majority of housing turnover results in replacing black households with white, Hispanic, or mixed-race households) I don't imagine "African-American households" believe that new development negatively impacts them. People are happy that the new apartment building by the Metro has a Busboys & Poets, etc.

Washington Post photo.

OTOH, the guy in Brightwood with the yard signs against "gentrification" lives not too far away.

But there isn't really gentrification in our neighborhood based on the strict definition of lower income households being displaced by higher income households, as much as it is about demographic change.  See "Is gentrification racial or an economic class issue?."

Or maybe he is right in that there is displacement of middle income households by higher income households.  But except for some discussion in academia about super-gentrification (e.g., the work by Loretta Lees), traditionally there isn't much sympathy for the displacement of households earning $125,000 or more.  Also see "Exogenous market forces impact DC's housing market."

Because middle class African American households are still leaving the city at higher rates than in-migration of similar households, and lower income African American households are likely to not be moving, likely a sample of African-Americans in such a survey over-represents lower income African American households.

For households less well armed to compete in a market economy, new development contributes to an upward pricing of housing and the purchase cost of goods and services and the partaking of newly available amenities--e.g., yoga shops, fitness places like SoulCycle, expensive restaurants, the difference between the upscale "Union Market" vs. what it replaced, a food market building focused on serving low income audiences, Whole Foods and Yes Market, etc.

The thing that people may not be conscious of is a long term restratification within the city of households by income, which will end up, in the long run, displacing less well off "white people" too, because to compete for houses in the city, households will have to earn much more money in order to compete for housing, probably a minimum annual income of at least $200,000 is required.

At Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street in Woodley Park.

To buy a house in high demand neighborhoods, a household needs an income of at least $250,000 to be able to buy a million dollar house. That's at extremely low interest rates.

As interest rates rise, so too will household incomes need to rise in order to be able to buy (e.g., $375,000 household income to buy a million dollar house at mortgage interest rates of 6%).

If you are fortunate to have bought a house before 2008, and if so you didn't do too much cash out based refinancing, as long as property taxes don't rise too quickly, you're set to be able to participate in DC's economy. But the likelihood of being able to sell and buy elsewhere in the city is significantly reduced, unless your household income is $200,000 or more.

In the meantime, the addition of new housing to many neighborhoods has resulted in the concomitant development of and support of new retail and food options, which mostly are welcomed.

However, these places are repricing upwards also--at least for restaurants--and all too frequently the price-value equation is negative.  (Each bad overpriced meal that I consume encourages me to cook more at home...)

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Trends in retail rents for "globally-relevant" shopping districts

Time to ShopAP photo.

Retail rents came up recently with regard to the rehabilitation of the Takoma Theatre in DC, which was recently purchased by a property development company.

With regard to the theater building, they are seeking what I would call "high rents," at rates that are in line with other districts in the city, but not in Takoma where the retail trade area is smaller (e.g., 1/3 the size of Capitol Hill or 1/6 the size of Foggy Bottom or 14th Street) and therefore so is the revenue potential of the space.

(I have been thinking about this because some residents are "campaigning" for a Trader Joe's.  I said that's great, but given the realities of the retail trade area, why not expend your energies on something achievable, like the Streets upscale market.  They have one in Arlington and on 14th Street in DC, and recently they opened a store in Downtown Baltimore.  See "Streets Market & Cafe opens specialty grocer in downtown," Baltimore Sun.)

Economically justifiable rents are supposed to be based on the revenue generating capacity of the building.  The rule of thumb for retailers is that they should pay no more than 4% to 10% of their gross revenue in rent, although restauranteurs pay higher, up to 15% of gross revenue in rent, because of higher volume.

But for the most part, because the city's central business district and certain other submarkets (Georgetown, Chevy Chase) are part of the international-national property market, the city's commercial real estate is priced upward in all districts, even if they are not national or globally relevant submarkets, but decidedly local, with locally based property owners, businesses, and customers.

I have scads of entries on this general topic, such as:

-- Cleveland Park Retail: My Off-hand evaluation, the rents are too high (2009)
-- Commercial retail rents #2 (2009)
-- Problematic outcomes as real estate investment trusts buy more "high street" retail real estate (2015)
-- Dupont Circle's changing retail environment covered in today's Post (2006)
-- Globalization of the DC real estate market catches neighborhood commercial districts up in the wake (2006)
-- Retail Action Strategy (2007)
-- Franchises sucking the local flavor out of L.A. (2007)
-- Retail and authenticity: continued (2007)

Understanding comes down to understanding these issues at a variety of scales.  But the reason that places languish usually comes down to a disconnect or incongruence between property owners and likely tenants, as well as how the city's property tax assessment methodology overprices commercial real estate outside of the "global" submarkets.

Though increasingly, like in Cleveland Park, Dupont Circle, Chevy Chase, and elsewhere, national firms have entered those submarkets, which leads to a steady repricing upwards of the real estate.

To get a sense of the scale of the highest value commercial districts around the world, Cushman Wakefield's regular report on this market, Main Streets Across the World, is a good source of info.

Outside of New York City, the highest priced commercial districts are outside the US.  Within the US, outside of New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, South Florida, and DC have the highest priced markets.

In DC, the highest priced retail space is in Penn Quarter, at $220/s.f., which surprised me, but I guess we have to admit that the Verizon Center as an anchor makes a big difference.

Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and Chevy Chase are the other submarkets rounding out the list.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Grassroots communications capability in the city

KioskFlickr photo by Tony Hoffman in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The university I went to had a steam heating system and air ducts for the tunnel system, called kiosks, ended up being used for postering, providing a community bulletin board system.  In other cities, such as Seattle, utility poles end up providing a similar function.  Same with independently owned coffee shops, sometimes grocery stores, etc.

As printed community newspapers wane, another source of communicating falls off.  People claim that the digital world--listservs, blogs, Facebook, email, etc.--suffice, but this waxes and wanes and in any case, the real point is that to maximize your messaging you have to be "omnichannel."

I have discussed elements of these issues here:

-- Community cleanups (and other activities) as community building and civic engagement activities
-- Ground up (guerrilla) art #2: community halls and music (among other things)
-- The ongoing tragedy of dying print media, the latest being community newspapers in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Maryland

From "Community cleanups (and other activities) as community building and civic engagement activities":

The basic point is to think about communities as networks of assets--physical, people, organizational--and how to use these broad concepts to reposition and rethink our approaches to neighborhood mobility and placemaking.

The other way I am thinking is more broadly about public spaces, public engagement, and ways of connecting in spaces. I'm not likely to go too far in this direction, because I am still mulling over the various aspects of the issue, plus it's probably off topic in terms of "improving neighborhood walkability."

I mentioned probably that I have been engaging in an ongoing discussion with a grad student at York College in Toronto about what I think of as planning for spaces for connection and contestation, not unlike some of the issues involved in say protest in Tahrir Square (which I have been meaning to blog about for some time) or the Wisconsin State Capitol, or even a place to put up a protest sign.

I am thinking along this kind of framework, from the personal to the group, but somehow the other dimension of support/expression vs. opposition and resistance needs to be incorporated:

- individual expression (graffiti, letter to editor, social media))
- group/community (block party, mural, neighborhood parks, street fairs, community media, smart mobs, pirate radio, etc.)
- public assembly (Hyde Park type speakers corners, public squares in cities, college campues, etc.)
- resistance (oppositional, including suicide bombings in public space/transit infrastructure, what the IRA did in their London bombing campaign, wilding, riots, also celebrations, i.e., college sports related, that get out of hand, etc.).

I need to sit down and read lots of John Friedmann plus the scads of journal articles I've printed off on the topic, in order to come up with a master framework.
Basic Concepts, Planning in the Public Domain
Basic Concepts, Planning in the Public Domain.

But while we can get pretty high falutin' about the topic, there are some real practical dimensions, such as:

1. Planning for community bulletin boards and community media -- providing space for such in commercial spaces, but also in civic places, e.g., bulletin boards in parks, libraries, etc., and do you have to get permission to post things?

2. Planning for community spaces in libraries and recreation centers, for meetings (yes we do that already), but what about spaces for community organizations located in libraries and other public buildings, bulletin boards sure, but how about galleries for local artists and other exhibitions, or spaces for regular exhibitions (that could rotate around the city) on community issues?

3. What about having some funds available, like what the Humanities Council of Washington does, for community curation projects, for projects on urban issues, etc., that can then be shown in such facilities?

4. Or something I've said for about 5+ years, that all libraries should have collections of materials specific to their communities. The Georgetown branch of the DC Public Library has the "Peabody Room" which is a focused collection on Georgetown. But all libraries could have a filing cabinet full of stuff and finding aids.

5. Public squares, pocket parks, etc., in neighborhood commercial districts. E.g., I will take some responsibility for failing to advocate for this in the H Street NE revitalization plan, or for not thinking of the need for an expanded public space around the 2nd and N Streets NE exit at the New York Avenue Metro station in NoMA.

Although I did recommend that the parking lot (and even the building) at the southeast corner of 12th and Newton Streets NE in Brookland could be converted into a small public square for the commercial district. 12th and Monroe would be best, but there really isn't the opportunity.

6. Having funds to support community festivals and events, even on a smaller scale.

7. And micro funds to support micro community projects. (Although ANCs do have some funds for this.)

8. Or how Arlington County government agencies exhibit in force at the Arlington County Fair. Or how some Baltimore City government agencies exhibit at Artscape.


The core of DC doesn't have utility poles, so there aren't many "mediums" on which people can place posters.  Sometimes people use traffic signal boxes, such as this one by the Busboys & Poets on 14th Street NW, or the bases of lightpoles.

I got a kick out of this one.

And I don't really understand the "McDrought" message.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Lampshades for streetlights in Quebec City: an architectural lighting installation by Lightemotion

Lightemotion is an architectural lighting firm based in Montreal.  One of the three Illumination Awards they received this year in the program sponsored by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America is for an installation of night-lighted lampshades for streetlights on Cartier Avenue in Quebec City.

Commissioned by the city and the Quebec Tourist Information Bureau, as conceptualized and suggested by Lightemotion, the lighting project is now an element of the city's plan to brand itself as the winter capital of North America, and was piloted on Cartier Avenue in association with the Montcalm commercial district revitalization program.

Working with the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, they featured work in the style of Québcois artists Alfred Pellan and Fernand Leduc on 34 different "lamp shades" fashioned after Chinese lanterns.

The artworks can be changed out annually and can feature different artists.  The intent is to expand this program to other streets in Quebec City.

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Lead Your City Summit, November 18th: Greensboro, NC

I have been remiss in not writing about various initiatives in Greensboro, NC, which I was introduced to earlier in the year. I will do so sometime over the next few weeks.

Suffice it to say that the city is fortunate to still have an active industrial sector, a number of higher education institutions, an innovative culture more generally, and innovative foundations committed to investing in the city.

I guess I must have signed up for email from Action Greensboro, the city improvement initiative, and I got a notice about the city's annual synerG Lead Your City Summit, focused on young professionals, and sponsored by synerG, the city's young professionals organization, and Entrepreneur Connection, a business unit of the Greensboro Partnership.

According to the email:
The half day summit will include keynote speaker Malina Jeffers with Mosaic City, "What I'd like to see in Greensboro" brainstorm, using LinkedIn effectively, networking tips and tricks and other community and career development sessions. The cost for the summit is $30 and includes lunch, all sessions, drinks at the networking event and a professional headshot. 
All attendees will also be entered into a drawing to win a custom designed resume from Hue & Tone Creative (a $275 value).

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

(Still) tired of mis-understanding of the potential for e-bikes

Updated: because (1) I came across an article ("Riide - Gift Guide") on the founders of the Riide e-bike  in the GW Magazine for alumni, which has a quote worth citing and mentions the cost of the bikes as about $2,000, when I said the typical cost for an e-bike is double that; (2) plus my earlier point in the comment thread about aging cyclists as another market segment.

From the article:
Sweat—lots of it—dampening summer styles and spirits, drip by drip. It's one of the chief obstacles D.C. commuters name when it comes to biking to work, says Amber Wason, BBA '07. With an eye toward easing the effects of the heat and humidty on bikers, she and Jeff Stefanis co-founded Riide, a company that makes a sustainable, single-speed electric bike.

It has the effect, she says, of "flattening the city."
I love the line "flattening the city." It's brilliant.

But unfortunately as discussed below, they miss the point of where "the city needs help becoming flat."

In the core of the city it's already flat and an e-bike doesn't make it any flatter. It's places farther from the core and in hilly areas and for older people, where "flattening assistance" becomes the killer app.

That being said, the Riide bike is attractively designed, especially in how they integrate the battery apparatus into the frame.

Yesterday's Post has an article ("Are electric bikes the wheels of the future or just the new Segways?") about e-bikes above the fold in the Style section.  It's about how some local entrepreneurs have created an e-bike, which can go up to 20 mph, and you can "cycle" without getting sweaty.

I heard a presentation by one of the principals a couple years ago, and my sense then was that they didn't have a good sense about mobility as a market and that they were focused on alternatives to the car, rather than on mobility technologies and products that are most appropriate for "center city applications."

Sweat seemed like the biggest point of differentiation for him--riding a bike gets you sweaty.  Using a e-bike, since you don't have to pedal, means you won't sweat.

He was thinking of e-bikes capturing trips by people who normally drive a motor vehicle.  But most trips in the city center made by residents are not performed by car.

Sweat isn't the deal-killer for transportational biking.  Even in DC, where it is hot and humid from about June 15th to September 15th, sweating isn't an issue much of the time when you cycle.

There is a place for e-bikes in cycling for transportation.  But I don't think it is for short trips in a city's core, especially at 20 mph.

It's for trips in places that are hilly, for longer distance trips, and for medium distance trips that some people are willing to cycle by traditional means but others won't.

Five years ago, when I came across a series of articles, "The parable of the electric bike" on e-bikes by Alan During of the Sightline Institute, I wrote this:
I don't think electric bikes will save the world. I do think that they can make bicycle commuting much more attractive to larger segments of the population. Maybe, over time, it could lead to as much as 10% of work trips by bicycle, or more. And that would be a significant contribution.
The Sightline articles discuss whether or not the electric bike will take off, why they are more efficient than electric cars, and whether or not they should be subsidized as electric cars have been (he argues no).

The Segway comparison.  The Post article compares the e-bike featured in the story to the Segway, which didn't live up to the hype that was made about the product.  Instead of transforming transportation, the Segway is mostly used to patrol campuses and large buildings like malls and airports, and in more narrow applications, such as tours for tourists.

But the Post journalist doesn't get why the Segway failed.  It was because it was a product in search of a problem--which I argue is the same issue for e-bikes in urban cores ("A Lesson in Innovation – Why did the Segway Fail").

The people most likely to travel on trips of the distances for which a Segway is seemingly efficient--pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users--didn't see much benefit from changing. Not to mention the cost--today a Segway can be bought for about $6,500.

For motor vehicle operators, while a Segway is a lot cheaper than a car, it fails to satisfy most of the demands for trips a typical user satisfies by car, including protection from the elements.

Hills.  Most cities are flat in their cores (topography and proximity to rivers and ports being the primary reasons for cities locating where they did).  For example, the core of DC is pretty flat.  The fall line starts around W Street and the hills can be pretty steep.  Riding home can be difficult.  Some people find hills they don't mind riding (e.g. Georgia Avenue or 14th Street vs. 13th Street or 15th Street or 16th Street), others may choose not to ride.

But if you could get a boost from an electric motor up one or more hills, that might make the difference between choosing to cycle regularly as your primary mode of transportation.

Long distances.  I am willing to ride 10 to 15 miles to get somewhere, and budget time accordingly. Beyond that distance, it takes too long to cycle, at least for me, because I am not a fast rider.  An e-bike could be the difference from commuting to Downtown DC from White Flint or Rockville vs. taking public transit.

When I was still involved in bike and pedestrian planning in Baltimore County, the Baltimore Sun ran a story ("Electric bicycle gives commuter a boost on 22-mile way to work") about someone using an e-bike for a 22-mile commute.

Trips of such distances are when being able to ride 20 mph, and not having to stop every few blocks at a stop sign or traffic signal, makes a big difference. But I do wonder how much of the time is spent pedaling the bike vs. riding the bike as it is propelled by its electric motor--a big reason why I cycle is for the health benefits of exercise.  You lose that with e-biking.

Medium distance.  While I am willing to ride 10+ miles for a single trip, most people aren't.  While about 51% of all trips in the United States are 3 miles or less--an easy distance on a traditional bike--13% of trips are 3 to 5 miles, which is a distance that seems long to many, so they drive rather than bike.

Having the option of an e-bike could be the difference for a larger segment of people being willing to cycle for transportation.

People less willing to cycle more generally.  And while I haven't tested this empirically, I think it might be possible to coax people onto an e-bike when they may be less willing to cycle more generally. Maybe.

[This section has been added.] Enabling cycling as you age/biking for senior citizens.  In one of my pieces about the outer city as suburban in mobility paradigm ("DC as a  suburban agenda dominated city") I made the comment about how sustainable mobility is possible in the outer city based on the experience of my own household.  We live eight-tenths of a mile from a Metro station and about 3 blocks from a bus stop--during morning and evening rush the bus goes Downtown, outside of rush it travels between the Petworth and Takoma Metrorail stations.

I cycle for most trips, including grocery shopping.  Suzanne and I walk and Suzanne uses transit to get to and from work.  We also use car share (both one-way and two-way) and occasionally rent cars.

In a comment on my piece on a listserv in Chevy Chase, the mobility lifestyle I describe was said to be achievable only by younger people.  The woman who said so is a couple years younger than I.

Seniors on a tandem, folding bike, Capitol HillWhile I do think that it will be harder to do this as I age because of the uphill climb from Downtown and the hills around where we live, e-biking could be a way towards maintaining cycling as a primary form of transportation as we age.

cf. (from other blog entries) For example, working with senior centers and retirement communities could increase biking activity by seniors.  The Ateaze Senior Center in Baltimore County has a serious biking club ("Seniors redefine a life cycle," Baltimore Sun).  Retirees in the Blue Bell community in Greater Philadelphia created the "Old Spokes" club which holds rides every couple weeks in area parks ("Freewheelers The Old Spokes, members of a bicycling club, venture from their retirement community to cruise the region's byways," Philadelphia Inquirer).

Caveat: cost.  You can buy a new city bike for $400 or less (of course you can spend a lot more too). Electric bikes cost ten times that, around $4,000 and up, although kits to add a motor to an existing bike can be purchased for much less.

The Riide people featured in the article are leasing the bikes to people for $79/month.  While that is potentially worth it for long distance cycling, it's a waste of money compared to the cost of a traditional bike capable of satisfying the biking needs of the typical city resident.

Bike share as a cost-efficient alternative.  One month's e-bike rental is almost the same cost as a year's membership in bike share.  For residents in the core, a bike share membership is a great way to add biking to their portfolio of trip options without having to own a bike.

Caveat:  weight and parking.  E-bikes are heavier than regular bikes, weighing between 50 and 60 pounds versus less than 20 pounds for a traditional bicycle.

Depending on where you live and where you park your bike, this can be a problem, if you have to take the bike inside your house or apartment in order to park.  Plus, many multiunit buildings provide bike parking that is insecure--while it sucks to have your $400 bike stolen, it would really suck to have your $4,000 bike stolen.

Marketing.  The reason that I think e-bikes have failed to take off in the market segments where they make the most sense is because of a failure to market e-bikes appropriately.

In marketing, textbooks always cover the "4 P's of marketing"--product, promotion, price, and place.

Product:  as discussed above, for the transportation need most typically suggested, short in-city trips, e-bikes are "overengineered."

Promotion:  E-bikes are being marketed for in-city use when in most cases, for trips up to 5 miles in mostly flat places, e-bikes are overkill

Price.  Compared to alternatives--owning a bike or using bike share, the price for an ebike is significantly higher. A lease cuts the monthly cost, but it is still financial overkill to use an e-bike to accomplish trips in the core.

Place is where the product is sold.  E-bikes are most likely to be useful in the suburbs.  Most e-bike shops end up being opened in city cores.  Many urban e-bike shops have failed, such as an e-bike shop in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, which got some start up funding from the Abell Foundation.  That's because they are not located proximate to their "natural" base of customers.

To be successful, e-bike shops ought to be placed in suburban centers--e.g., in the DC region in places like Rockville/White Flint, Reston, Tysons Corner--where trip characteristics are more likely to be congruent with the advantages of e-bikes over human-powered bicycles.

For example, there is a bike shop in Takoma Park, Maryland, The Green Commuter, which focuses on e-bikes and it has been open for more than 5 years.  That being said, I have seen an e-bike on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in DC only once, and I can't say I see a lot of people on electric bikes, even though I live within a couple miles of this store.

Conclusion.  Despite the arguments above, there's likely to be a niche segment of the mobility market in the city where the Riide bikes will satisfy their needs, and that's fine.  But it won't change the world or even the city.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Winning isn't everything when it comes to the value of (some) US sport franchises

Location, location, location; fans who still support losing teams; great stadium deals; and good media operations are key to high values.

Based on data first presented in Forbes Magazine ("The Business Of Football;" "The World's 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams 2015"), the Dallas Morning News reports ("The soaring value of the Dallas Cowboys") that the Dallas Cowboys are the nation's most valuable sports franchise, despite not being successful in terms of win-loss records for many years.  (This happens to be the topic of a current segment on "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel").  The owner of the team, Jerry Jones, is also the general manager.
NFL team financial values
They chalk up the value to the remarkable stadium.  Interestingly, the highest value teams tend to have newer stadiums which likely came with great deals and a lot of public financing.  The Redskins too are highly valued, although their win-loss record is bad.  The SF 49ers are highly valued--more than the Redskins--and have just moved into a new stadium in the Bay area, and are no longer located in San Francisco.

I've covered this broad issue in "An arena subsidy project I'd probably favor: Sacramento" and "Stadiums and arenas as the enabling infrastructure for "money-making" platforms," where I've made the point that since stadiums and arenas are the essential enabling elements of "teams as entertainment media platforms," when public financing is involved, there needs to be an allocation and realization of value made to the public purse in return.

2.  In "An arena subsidy project," I discuss those characteristics:
  • isolation or connection: how well is the facility integrated into the urban fabric beyond the stadium site and does it leverage, build upon, and extend the location and the community around it;
  • size of the facility (baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer), bigger stadiums--football stadiums specifically--are harder to integrate in the urban fabric;
  • frequency of events held by the primary tenant--baseball has 82 home games/year, football about 10 including pre-season, basketball and hockey have 41, soccer about 17--so football stadiums are very rarely used (according to the Chicago Sun-Times article "Emanuel mulling 5,000-seat expansion to Soldier Field," the facility holds about 22 events including annually, 12 non-football events);
  • how many teams use the facility, maximizing use and utility of the building--for example, Verizon Center in DC is used by professional men's and women's basketball, hockey, and one college basketball team for more than 100 sports events each year;
  • are events scheduled in a manner that facilitates attendee patronage of off-site businesses--a business isn't an anchor if it aims to not share its customers; the earlier events are scheduled, the harder it is to patronize retailers and restaurants located off-site, at night during the week, there is limited post-game spending as well, on the weekends it's a different story with more opportunity to patronize off-site establishments--teams manipulate scheduling to reduce spending outside of their on-site and 100% controlled facilities;
  • use of the facility for non-game events drawing additional patrons--such as concerts and other types of programming; and
  • how people travel to events: automobiles vs. transit--if automobiles are the primary way people get to events, then large amounts of parking usually in surface lots needs to be provided, making it difficult to foster ancillary development because of lack of land and poor quality of the visual environment, whereas if transit is the primary mode, then more land around a facility can be developed in ways that leverage the proximity of the arena.
which shape greater economic return  for local economies from payments towards sports facilities.

Metropolitan trends: sprawl vs. refocusing at the core.  I have to concede that these are criteria focused on those factors that favor in-city locations, especially communities well served by transit.  In those regions still characterized by sprawl and where the "back to the city" movement is still anemic such as Atlanta, facilities are still moving from the city to suburban locations, whereas the professional basketball and hockey teams moved from suburban Maryland back to DC and the New York Islanders have moved from suburban Long Island to Brooklyn..

Also, there are different considerations for minor league teams in what we might call minor league cities and practice facilities (see "Sport team practice facilities and public subsidy (a practice facility for the Washington Wizards)"), such as the new facility being constructed by the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros in Palm Beach County, Florida ("Major-league celebration: Work on spring training stadium begins," Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel).

And for lightly used behemoth football stadiums, which in my opinion are better located in the suburbs than in center cities, at least those cities like Washington or San Francisco, where alternative uses for the space are likely to generate much greater benefits than what typically comes from football-related events.

3.  From stadiums and arenas to sports districts.  There is another trend with teams building allied multifaceted mixed use developments around the stadium/arena in order to generate greater economic term more days of the year.  Staples Center in Los Angeles was the first and perhaps best example of doing this.

This is an evolution from what we might call "naturally occurring sports districts" like Wrigleyville adjacent to the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field in Chicago.  In the naturally occurring districts, the economic benefits of proximity accrue to other property and business owners.

In the new iteration of districts where the properties (not necessarily all of the businesses within them) are owned by the same interests as the sports team, the team ends up capturing more of the ancillary revenue opportunities associated with the team and its events.

The way that the Washington Nationals stadium is anchoring a new Capitol Riverfront district and the way Barclays Center anchors the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn are more recent examples.

But compared to Staples Center, the Nationals aren't benefiting from the ancillary development--even though the owners are real estate developers, they don't control much in the way of other property around the stadium, while the lead owner of Barclays Arena, Forest City, is the master developer for the Atlantic Yards project, and will continue to benefit as it pursues ancillary property development adjacent to the arena.

Developments like Ballpark Village in St. Louis, a $650 million mixed use development built on the site of the old Busch Stadium, next to the new one ("Heading to Ballpark Village? Here's your guide," St. Louis Post-Dipatch), and Buffalo's HarborComplex built by the owners of the Sabres hockey team ("$200 million later, HarborCenter is among the city's biggest developments," Buffalo News) are examples of this type of ancillary integrated real estate development associated with sports teams in smaller cities.

And big "sports district projects" are underway in Detroit and Sacramento ("Dreams of a Hip, High-Tech Sacramento Hinge on Kings' New Home Court," New York Times) too.  The arena district in Detroit is branded as "The District/Detroit" ("Display provides a glimpse into Detroit arena district," Detroit Free Press).

4. The increasing value of media broadcasting rights to sport teams. Earlier this week, it was reported  ("New Comcast SportsNet deal for Wizards and Caps," Washington Post) that Monumental Sports, the parent of the Washington Wizards basketball team and the Washington Capitals hockey team, has bought into/received a portion of the Comcast regional sports television network for the Baltimore-Washington region.

Washington Post photo by Sarah Voisin.

While it is the case that the predecessor firm paid for the arena without direct public financing when it was first built, significant public investments in infrastructure by the DC Government were made in association with the construction of the facility, and later, admission tax rebates (technically a TIF) have been provided to fund arena improvements.  Also, the city has changed signage laws to allow the placement of large video screens on the arena building ("Verizon Center's flashing billboards," Washington Post), which are used to market events and for advertising.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

An argument for the aesthetic quality of the ensemble: special design guidelines are required for DC's avenues

Thomas Circle in the middleThomas Circle is in the middle of this photograph, taken by Jason Hawkes for the Washington Convention and Tourism Corporation.

Last week the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual conference was held in DC.

But sadly it felt like DC as a node in the story of preservation policy and practice was a negligible piece of the conference agenda.

I expected that "pressing issues in 'preservation'" as reflected by present day DC experiences would have been central to the meeting's agenda.

There is a lot to learn, positive and negative.

For example, while I lament that far more buildings are unprotected rather than protected, DC has arguably the strongest local historic preservation law in the US, where interested parties who are not owners can submit nominations for landmarking, and the city's regulatory body, the Historic Preservation Review Board, makes decisions, not recommendations--in other cities, final decisions are made by the legislative branch, and recommendations made on historic preservation grounds are often rejected in favor of other considerations.

Still, there are many gaps in the protections that exist.  DC's laws are all or nothing.  Where buildings are designated, the protections are extensive.  But there are virtually no protections for buildings eligible for historic designation, but not designated.

For example, ensuring high quality architectural and urban design treatments on DC's "avenues and boulevards" and at entry points into the city, when those areas aren't historically designated is one such issue.

Greetings from Washington DC (c. 1930s)In my comments a couple years ago on the DC preservation plan, I recommended that we move to managing the city's urban design qualities as if the entire city were a heritage area, which would mean mandatory design review, regardless of whether or not a particular area, building or site were designated.

I argue it's shifting from thinking of and regulating the built environment on a building by building basis and instead considering these questions more broadly in terms of the built environment on a larger scale, as a "cultural landscape."

This is an extension of arguments made by Stephen Semes ("The Bias Against Tradition," Wall Street Journal).  His book, The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation, argues in favor of classical design as a way to protect and strengthen the architectural character of existing places, when new design is frequently discordant and diminishes the strength of the built environment as an ensemble. From the article:
"Maintaining a broad stylistic consistency in traditional settings is not a matter of 'nostalgia,'" he says. "It's a matter of common sense, of reinforcing the sense of place that made a building or neighborhood special to begin with. But many academically trained preservationists want to impose their inevitably subjective notions of what the architecture 'of our time' is."
Corridors.  Thinking about aesthetic quality of streets as ensemble elements in urban design is not a new concept, although much of the work on the topic in the post-war era has been focused on suburban strips, the impact of sprawl, automobile-centric design, and a cacophony of signage, and has focused on commercial buildings.  Ed McMahon, now of the Urban Land Institute, and others are known for their work in this area.
Nature of commercial strips, slide from a presentation by Ed McMahon
Slide from a presentation by Ed McMahon.

Yet, the corridor problem predates the widespread adoption of the automobile. Cities that had extensive streetcar systems, such as Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia (e.g., Germantown Avenue, Girard Avenue), Toronto, Washington, DC and others developed in a similar pattern, lined for miles by storefronts.

Today, these streets are difficult to improve, except at nodes, given fundamental changes in how people live, work, shop, and get around.  Note that the recommendations in the Urban Land Institute report, Ten Principles for Reshaping America's Suburban Strips, are no less relevant to center cities.

In plans I produced for Cambridge, Maryland, Baltimore County, Maryland, and Brunswick, Georgia, recommendations were retained that called for special attention to the urban design qualities of corridors both for quality of life and placemaking reasons as well as because of how the built environment along the city's main streets and entryways shapes the identity of the community for residents and visitors.

DC created a "Great Streets" program with the intent of leveraging transportation infrastructure investments for broader revitalization improvements, in part based on the commercial district revitalization effort on H Street NE, which was built on a revitalization plan and targeted investments including transportation infrastructure and streetscape improvements.

Being one of the founders of the H Street initiative, I have written extensively about it ("The community development approach and the revitalization of DC's H Street corridor: congruent or oppositional approaches?" and pieces cited within) and commercial district revitalization ("The long term shake out of local retailers and independent commercial districts") more generally.

I argue that much of the reason for corridor decline in the urban renewal period ("The five periods of urban revitalization> since WWII") was the construction of new buildings with designs that rejected local identity and spirit of place.  Instead of repairing the built environment and microeconomy of neighborhoods, the community development and urban renewal approach exacerbated the problems.

The 21st century revitalization program for H Street focused on adding population and suggested context-sensitive design for infill construction.
H Street, Block by Block
Washington Post graphic from the H Street Revitalization Plan produced in 2003.

It's been successful on H Street, but the program pre-existed the "Great Streets" initiative, and it has been difficult to reproduce H Street's success on other commercial corridors elsewhere in the city. Mostly, areas around transit stations and districts in the core of the city improve, while areas outside of the core or without transit stations continue to languish.

DC's Urban Design Element calls attention to the city's avenues but substantive actions have yet to be made.  The Urban Design Element of DC's Comprehensive Land Use Plan discusses the importance of the city's avenues as defining features of the city and its identity.  From the Urban Design Element:
Design decisions should reinforce the city’s pattern of axial, radial, and diagonal streets, and enhance the public spaces formed where these streets intersect one another. (p. 9-4)

UD-1.4 Reinforcing Boulevards and Gateways. Grand streets in the form of avenues and boulevards are another defining element of Washington’s urban form. The avenues originated as part of the L’Enfant design for the city. By overlapping a system of broad,
diagonal thoroughfares on a grid of lettered and numbered streets, streets like Pennsylvania Avenue were given immediate importance, creating memorable views and a strong sense of civic identity. Beyond the heart of the city, these avenues extend to the outer neighborhoods, in some cases forming dramatic points of entry into the District of Columbia. Over time, several other streets in the city grid were designed or redesigned to display similar characteristics. (p.9-12)
An entire policy section is devoted to "Reinforcing Boulevards and Gateways" but in the almost 10 years since the Comprehensive Plan was approved, necessary actions to put protections in place have not occurred.  For example, there has been no movement on this recommendation:
Action UD-1.4.A: Zoning and Views: As part of the revision of the District’s zoning regulations, determine the feasibility of overlays or special design controls that would apply to major boulevards and gateway streets. The purpose of such overlays would be to ensure the protection and enhancement of important views and to upgrade the aesthetic quality of key boulevards.
If this recommendation had been actualized, it wouldn't be necessary to write this piece.

Apartment buildings as a type.  Besides arguments in favor of treating avenues and streets as ensembles and signature elements of the city's built environment and identity, similarly we should consider the design of new individual apartment buildings in terms of the city's ouevre of apartment buildings, especially the body of work constructed before 1950..

It happens that DC has a wide range of distinctively designed apartment buildings, and four streets in particular--Connecticut Avenue, 16th Street, Wisconsin Avenue, and Massachusetts Avenue--are defined by this type, block after block, mile after mile.

Generally, the collection is harmonious, unified by the use of brick and stone but marked by a great variety of designs, shapes and sizes.

James Goode's Best Addresses is probably the most definitive work on DC's apartment buildings as a type.  But what is lacking is a more full-blown thematic study of apartment buildings, treating apartment buildings as a thematic category within the nation's and city's built heritage.  Unlike for "historic residential suburbs," I don't believe that the National Park Service has developed a thematic study on apartment buildings as a type.

With such a framework in place, it would be easier to justify setting higher standards and expectations for the construction of new apartment buildings, especially on an infill basis, in DC and other cities.
13th & Mass
Belvedere Apartments, 13th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW.  Flickr photo by Josh.

Gateway entry to DC from Montgomery County Maryland at Eastern and Georgia Avenues NW. In the last week, an article in the Washington Business Journal, "Douglas Development to bring Harris Teeter to Shepherd Park," discussed a proposed building (with a Harris-Teeter supermarket on the ground floor) at the intersection of Eastern and Georgia Avenues NW, on the border of DC and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Rendering of the proposed Georgia-Eastern Avenues gateway building by Hickok Cole.

The property owner specifically calls attention to the proposed architectural design in terms of the the site's centrality as a key entry point into the city. From the article:
The application refers to the site as a "gateway," as it touches the very northern edge of the District at its border with Silver Spring. According to the rezoning package, “the proposed building will effectively become a new landmark at the edge of the District.” The design, from Hickok Cole, features projecting bays, window wall glazing, brick and stone.
Despite the assertions by the property owner, the design for the building at Eastern and Georgia Avenues isn't noteworthy, at least it isn't noteworthy from a positive standpoint.

The design of the building is pretty typical of the city's new apartment buildings.  It's unmemorable, but not to the point of execrable. Average, banal, sure.  If the developer is going to make claims about great architecture, then the results as currently projected should not go unchallenged.
Morris Miller Llquor store
Interestingly, while most of the buildings that will be demolished at the "Eastern Avenue Gateway" site lack heritage qualities, there is a subset that have been designed in a simple but attractive art deco style that if referenced, could yield a design that rises and projects gateway character.

This building at 2800 N. Milwaukee in Chicago's Logan Square presents much more gateway character and is an example of the kind of art deco design that could distinguish the DC site in question.   

Also, art deco is one of the defining architectural styles of the Silver Spring conurbation in Montgomery County, the area of Montgomery County which abuts this "gateway."

As a way of connecting to the architectural heritage of the two districts, utilization of the art deco architectural style makes sense.

Designing the building in art deco style would be a much better contribution to the gateway aspect of the location, would be a respectful acknowledgement of the best designed buildings currently on the site, and if done properly would be an upgrade to the neighborhood, the Georgia Avenue corridor, and to its location on a major avenue and entryway into the City of Washington.

Note that the condominium building constructed by the same company at the intersection of 4th Street, H Street, and Massachusetts Avenue NW does project a design worthy of a gateway building.  The design responds to the triangular shape of the lot, its location on a prominent avenue and its position as an entrypoint to Downtown and the Central Business District and on major arteries into and out of the city.
Condominiums at 400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC
400 Massachusetts Avenue NW.  In a modern exception to the general "rule" of how triangularly shaped buildings tend to be designed the side elevations are accentuated with a wave form design and different colors of brick, rather than by a more background treatment.

A preliminary rendering of 5333 Connecticut from Cafritz
Cafritz apartment building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue NW. The apartment building currently under construction in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of DC is another example of the need to have extraordinary design approval processes for architecturally-significant avenues that are otherwise undesignated.

As a downtown or suburban office building this glass curtain-wall cladded building would be unmemorable, sub-average but typical of the type.

As an apartment building it is an outlier because it is rare, at least in this region (Manhattan, Miami, and more recently London are exceptions) for apartment buildings to be clad fully in glass.

2126 Connecticut Ave. NW, the Dresden Apartments

Like many older US cities, DC too has a signature collection of apartment buildings and Connecticut Avenue is one of the city's signature avenues, defined by brick and stone apartment buildings stretching from Dupont Circle almost to the Maryland border.

Comparing the 5333 building to other apartment buildings on three different scales: (1) in the vicinity of the site; (2) along the entire length of Connecticut Avenue; and (3) in comparison to the city's collection of signature apartment buildings, I would argue it fails.

It challenges convention but the ordinariness of the design--extraordinary only because of its absolute discordance-- fails to support its challenge to a more conventional approach that is more appropriate to its location within the urban ensemble that is Connecticut Avenue and the Chevy Chase neighborhood.

2001 16th Street NW, triangular apartment building
2001 16th Street NW

Triangularly-shaped buildings as a unique element of DC's avenues.  Because of the way that the avenues bisect the orthogonal street grid, DC intersections are often marked by lots that are triangular in shape instead of the rectangular form that is typical of a grid of blocks.

Over the decades this has resulted in a large number of buildings, commercial and residential, designed to accentuate the triangular shape of the lot.

This is a phenomenon not unique to DC.

Many cities, in the US such as New York City in Manhattan especially starting with the Flatiron Building and Chicago, and around the world, especially in Paris, have similar spatial conditions which have generated a large number of triangular shaped buildings, and a unique and attractive building type.
#109 Prince Street (1882) at Prince and Green Streets.  New York City, New York.  March 12 2012.
109 Prince Street (1882) at Prince and Green Streets.  New York City, New York.  Flickr photo by Dan Haneckow.

Madrid, triangular buildings
Madrid.  Photographer unknown.

Logan Square area, Chicago.

Ornate or not, typically the design of such buildings focuses attention on and accentuates the apex, while treating the building's elevations more as a background element, attractive but secondary to the unique shape of the building.

Just as an argument can be made for the necessity of a thematic survey of apartment buildings, DC needs a thematic survey of triangle buildings.

And the place of this type of building needs to be maintained and utilized going forward when considering new projects, in terms of the architectural possibilities offered by odd shaped lots and the broader urban design and placemaking characteristics of the city's avenues and how their intersections create the potential for attractive and atypical architecture.

3701 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Petworth.
Another site on Georgia Avenue that raises "gateway" issues is the sliver of land between New Hampshire Ave. NW and Rock Creek Ford Road NW at the southeast corner of the intersection of Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues.

Proposed building.

This is a "gateway" site, but at a node within the city, rather than an entry point.  It's a triangular site, currently occupied by a number of undistinguished liner buildings.

The Georgia Avenue-New Hampshire intersection is the location of the only Metrorail station on Georgia Avenue, and with the addition of new multiunit buildings, more population has sparked significant improvement of neighborhood retail and restaurant options.  The commercial area around the station and on nearby Upshur Street is on the rise.

Compared to many buildings, the proposed apartment building for the site is attractively designed.

But the design inadequately acknowledges the triangular nature of the lot, instead squaring off the building at the apex.

In the great tradition of DC's triangular buildings at avenue junctions, ideally the design would express the form of the lot in the shape of the building, focused at the apex,   (Note that the rendering shown in an UrbanTurf article about the project, perhaps generated at an earlier point in the process, is even more attractive, but still de-emphasizes the triangle.)
Intersection of Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues NW
Google Street View of the site.

1400 H Street NE/1401 Florida Avenue NE.  Failing to acknowledge the principles of the best designed triangle-shaped buildings--delineating the apex with the building's elevations attractive but subservient to the point of the triangle--is the issue with the renderings for the new apartment building on a triangular lot on the 1400 block of H St. NE at Florida Avenue  ("New gateway to H Street NE? Mixed-use building proposed for site next to Starburst intersection," Washington Business Journal).

This site is at the eastern gateway to H Street NE, which historically was a major entry point into the city from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City (also the road that British troops marched on in their sack of Washington during the War of 1812).

A gatehouse at the intersection of Bladensburg Road and Maryland Avenue, was where tolls were collected from people entering the city.

For decades, H Street was one of the city's most important commercial districts--one of the nation's first Sears Department Stores was built a short distance away--but the corridor languished starting in the 1950s as residents left the city for the suburbs.

Riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left scars on the corridor that remained for decades, but over the last 15 years the corridor has experienced significant revitalization, and will serve as the location for the city's first streetcar service.

Separately from projects around Union Station, as much as $1 billion in new construction has been built, is under construction, or planned for the corridor, since the revitalization plan for the corridor was released in 2003.

As a "gateway" building at a key entry point to an increasingly important and revived commercial corridor, there should be much greater attention to ensuring the production of a lasting architectural treatment for this site.

Note the triangular form of the site as shown in the image to the right.

Interestingly, this building and the project in Petworth share the same architectural firm, PGN Architects.

Compared to ouevre of historic triangularly-shaped buildings on city avenues, the design contravenes tradition by drawing attention to the side elevations rather than the apex.

But H Street is not designated historic and therefore there are no provisions with DC's building regulatory process to step in and suggest better design principles with the aim of generating a better outcome that will last the stand of time.

Triangular building, Culver Hotel, Culver City, Los Angeles
Triangular building, Culver Hotel, Culver City, Los Angeles

Conclusion.   High quality, often historic, architecture and urban design is the foundation of the city's identity and competitive advantage.

The built environment as an ensemble, positively or negatively, has been an issue with corridors--avenues and streets--for centuries.  Typically, commercial sections of corridors can be a polyglot while residential sections, such as on Connecticut Avenue or 16th Street in DC (or Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia) have an architectural coherence often missing in the other sections.

Today, it seems as if buildings are thrown up with little consideration for how they contribute to the built environment beyond the lot lines.  This was not the case for buildings constructed before 1945.

Construction during the urban renewal era has accentuated the split as new buildings are lot specific and generally haven't been designed to connect to, extend, and strengthen the extant built environment.400 block south, H Street NE

H Street Connection
H Street Connection, a strip shopping center, was constructed in the 1980s.  Behind it is an urban renewal era senior housing development.

Before, buildings were constructed to last and the developer typically intended to own what they built for a long time, further "incentivizing" them to build well.  Architects designed buildings to complement the existing context and building stock present around the site.

Then, it wasn't as important to "regulate" design because it was a given that buildings would be designed to be attractive and to be an improvement over what they replaced.

Today's conventions for development and design are much different, and it is much more likely for new construction to be subpar compared to buildings constructed 70 years ago, or earlier.

Because the building regulatory process is focused on individual buildings rather than the ensemble, "extraordinary" steps are required to protect and project the interest of the built environment as a whole.

That's why I argue ("Changing matter of right zoning regulations for houses to conform to heights typical within neighborhoods, not the allowable maximum") that the city's built environment should be managed and regulated as if the entire city is a heritage area.

That doesn't mean that every building has to be designed as if it were a monument, but it would provide for design review where there are no provisions for such review currently.

But to build the consensus for that will take years, and in the meantime, the architectural character and quality of the city's major streets continues to be diminished by insensitively designed infill construction.

Therefore, as recommended in the Comprehensive Plan, a process should be instituted to provide design review for gateway sites and the city's major avenues and streets, because of the extranormal position these elements play in the city's built environment. 

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