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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Has DC reached revitalization critical mass, so that local government missteps don't matter?

People on the street at 555 Massachusetts Ave. NW
555 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

Most of the local pundits, such as Gary Imhoff and Dorothy Brazil at DC Watch, are focused on the various ethical failures in the city, as Imhoff writes in the latest issue of themail, the twice weekly e-letter on good government:

The year began, at least for me, with great hope that the obvious corruption in the Fenty administration — the favoritism in awarding city contracts, the appointing of obviously incompetent nominees to boards and commissions, the ignoring of community and citizen input in running the public school system — which had been overwhelmingly rejected in the 2010 election, would be cleaned up by the new administration. But then the Gray administration not only didn’t clean up the corruption of the Fenty administration that Vince Gray had campaigned against. Gray embraced that corruption itself, ignoring the Inspector General’s and DC Auditor’s reports condemning Allen Lew’s mismanagement of the school construction and renovation program, and rewarding him for it by naming him his City Administrator. Gray named a series of appointees of dubious ability, some tainted by nepotism. Councilmembers were involved in scandals involving misappropriating their campaign funds and city tax funds, misspending their “constituent service” funds for their own personal and political purposes, and engaging in conflicts of interest between their legislative duties and their outside employers.

And granted, the local schools situation isn't very promising in terms of long term attraction and retention of families with school-aged children, although charter schools and certain high quality and magnet programs in certain DCPS schools provide some hope. (Basically, what people call the "reform" process that started with Michelle Rhee could be more accurately described as school destruction--robust systems needed to be created in order to address and mitigate "achievement gaps" but instead personnel has been roiled by too frequent changes of principals and a focus on firing teachers.)

But according to last Thursday's Post, the "Number of District residents skyrockets."

The District has gained more than 16,000 residents since last spring, growing at a pace that outstripped anything seen in the boom years preceding it.

Census figures released Wednesday estimated the city’s population was 618,000 in July, up 2.7 percent from the census figure in April last year. The current growth spurt is so rapid that the District is on track to draw more newcomers in two years than it did in the entire decade before.

The District’s expansion is all the more remarkable when compared to the rest of the country, which is experiencing its slowest growth since the end of World War II.

The District’s population figures cap a decade of success in maneuvering a turnaround in the city’s fortunes, and its image. Barely 15 years ago, the District had a widespread reputation for having streets that wouldn’t get plowed after a winter storm and that were crime-ridden in any season. Now, the District routinely shows up on lists of cool cities where young people gravitate, and it is drawing as many young adults as ultra-hip Austin and Portland. Three in four newcomers in recent years have been between the ages of 18 and 34. They have zero interest in the suburbs.

Why, in the face of an almost meltdown in local government ("Can D.C. council go back to legislating?" Post) not to mention over-reach ("Is D.C. overgoverned? Or undergoverned?" Post) is the city's population continuing to grow?

Sure DC has a lot going for it:

• (expensive) historic housing stock in attractive neighborhoods (saved in the down years by historic preservationists now reviled as holding improvements back);

that are walkable and bike-able ;

• plus bike lanes, a developing network of cycletracks and trails, and bikesharing;

• a decent (but declining) subway system complemented by Metrobus service for the transit dependent, and Circulators for people afraid of or find it too difficult to navigate Metrobus service;

new multiunit housing units in interesting already urban areas such as Downtown, 14th Street, Columbia Heights, U Street, and H Street NE;

re-created urban areas such as Capitol Riverfront, NoMA, and the Southwest Waterfront District;

• some interesting (Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Adams-Morgan) or revitalizing (H Street, 8th Street SE, U Street) entertainment-commercial districts;

improving retail Downtown ("Downtown Land Baron Doug Jemal Thinks F for Fashion Street" from the City Paper), including at CityVista (Busboys & Poets, 5th Street Hardware, a very nice Safeway), mostly steady retail in Georgetown and Friendship Heights, a Target and BestBuy at DC/USA and a Best Buy and Container Store in Tenleytown--who cares that Sears is closing 100+ stores, they closed their department stores in DC almost two decades ago;

the relatively steady employment engine surrounding the federal government--especially for contractors, lobbyists, and lawyers, although the picture isn't as bright for career government work;

• a location on the East Coast not too far from New York City (and Philadelphia and Boston);

• a bunch of new (Harris-Teeter, Safeway) or significantly refurbished(Safeway, Giant) supermarkets;

• a baseball team, stadium, and big convention center (mostly built with public funds);

• and soon, 6 Walmarts.

One reason is that comparatively speaking, housing in DC will hold its value more when compared to other cities in the country. Because even when the governance function of the federal government is doing "badly" ("Politicians in denial," Post) people still work for it, bills are paid, etc., so that creates a high positive equilibrium for the housing market ("DC housing market one of two in nation's top 20 to post price increase," Examiner). Although, with federal government gridlock and a focus on budget reduction and contraction, this growth and steady state position is going to diminish somewhat, but still, compared to most other locations across the country, DC in particular (and the region as well, depending on local conditions) will remain attractive.

And during the recession/Depression since 2008, for the most part, housing in DC has held its value, especially compared to most other markets nationally.

Sure, the stratospheric price escalation stopped--you aren't finding neighborhoods like Petworth or Manor Park or Brookland where flippers are trying to get $650,000 to $700,000 for a house that now sells for $400,000-$450,000.

But you don't have the kind of price drop in DC where houses are selling for under $200,000. Even in Mount Rainier, Maryland, just across the border with DC, houses there are selling for half or even less of what they would sell for in DC (depending on the neighborhood), because of the big inventory of foreclosed houses in Prince George's County.

But the big issue, at least, is that the wave of new in-migrants to the city are young, and how the city runs--except for public safety and access to cool restaurants and taverns--doesn't matter all that much to them, now.

One of the advantages of the push over the past 8-10 years to build multiunit housing in neighborhoods where it didn't exist before in a substantive fashion is that it adds significant diversity to the housing stock, and enables more people with a variety of incomes and household types to participate in the housing market, when before, when most housing in the city's neighborhoods has been comprised of single family attached or detached housing, many potential housing market segments had been closed out of the market.

Interestingly, on H-URBAN, the e-list for academics concerned with urban history and urban studies, there is a discussion about DC's population from 1940 to 1950. While the city's highest population as of the decennial Census is 802,000 in 1950, according to annual population estimates published year-to-year in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, DC's peak population was 899,000 in 1946. (The thread is accessible from the H-URBAN webpage.)

DC Population figures (estimates from 1941-1949)

1940 -- 663,000
1941 -- 758,000
1942 -- 817,000
1943 -- 891,000
1944 -- 881,000
1945 -- 876,000
1946 -- 899,000
1947 -- 888,000
1948 -- 840,000
1949 -- 807,000
1950 -- 802,000.

The trick will be to maintain and/or grow population as household types change--singles to marrieds, marrieds to marrieds with children, etc.

As you age and as your household status changes, so too changes what matters to you, where schools don't matter now, and access to craft beer salons does, over time, that flips, and the quality of municipal services, schools especially, and governance begins to matter more, especially for those people who own houses, condominiums, co-ops, and flats.

Has DC reached critical mass of positive trends (see the entry from yesterday, "The fifth phase of center city revitalization (reprint)") so that population will continue to grow despite the ethical cloud that hangs over the city's governance class, or will the failures within local government reverse the current positive trends?

E.g., the bandwagon for Walmart isn't the kind of policy action that typically is attractive to the young creatives moving to cities like Washington.

Going forward, the District's leadership is going to need to be more conscious of managing for the future rather than pandering to the past.

From "2012 resolution tips for D.C.'s newsmakers" by Mike DeBonis in the Post:

Vincent C. Gray, mayor: Look alive. A year into his mayoralty, Gray (D) has pretty well figured out it’s tough to be top dog. Try as he does to tout new economic development projects, reduced unemployment, improved city services and a growing population, he has yet been unable to animate his administration with anything more inspiring than his threadbare “One City” mantra. Filling the vacuum instead have been blown vettings, dismal approval ratings and a strange, scorned employee in sunglasses. A new cadre of top staffers have been brought on to help, but will their boss ever get the “vision thing”?

Bikesharing +1 | Walmart -1
Online gaming -1 | Food Trucks +1
A Cabi bicycle sharing bike, North Capitol and Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC

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