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, October 29, 2013

NCPC study on height limit: hearing, comments due Wednesday October 30th

See the NCPC webpage on the topic.

I will try to whip off some comments.

The recommendations by the NCPC are not to do very much ("Few changes for D.C.'s Height Act, panel recommends" from the Washington Business Journal), allowing residential occupancy of the penthouse floor on commercial buildings, while DC Office of Planning recommends a different course, ("D.C. proposes major changes to the Height Act" from the WBJ).

From the second article:
The existing Height Act is based on a 1-to-1 ratio, generally restricting building height to the width of the street, plus 20 feet along commercial roadways. Few buildings exceed 130 feet.

The District suggests, within the traditional L’Enfant City, shifting the ratio to 1-to-1.25, which would, for example, allow for a 200-foot-tall building along the 160-foot wide Pennsylvania Avenue. Within areas zoned for medium and high density development, the change would allow for roughly 37 million square feet of new space.

Outside the traditional L’Enfant City, where the federal government has less interest (even “non-existent” interest, the report states) D.C. suggests lifting the Height Act entirely, and allowing the city to determine its own appropriate height limits.
I agree with the DCOP recommendations, although I don't think that allowing even taller buildings outside of the core will make much difference, at least not for the next 50 years, because those places, with the possible exception of a couple blocks in Friendship Heights, isn't where demand is most pronounced.

Tradeoff between historic preservation and economic growth

I think, despite the loss of certain viewshed elements, that the value of retaining the primacy of the center city in the context of the metropolitan economic landscape, especially in terms of commercial property, but also residential property, means that the city should be allowed to be taller, especially in the core, where the demand for height is the greatest.

Even London has allowed taller buildings in the face of its great number of historic buildings and viewshed issues.

But we have to accept it will take decades, beyond our lifetime, to see the full economic impact

The theoretical reasons that support my position on the height limit are based on Jane Jacobs' precepts in Death and Life of Great American Cities, that you need density to support a wide variety of uses and a large stock of old buildings to support innovation.

A big reason why DC is less competitive on amenities compared to other larger cities is the loss of density, especially in the face of a "biggening up" of how the retail sector is organized.  You need more people to support retail in terms of how it is offered now.

And the reason that rents are high in the city is because the supply of property is constrained.  This displaces all the uses except for those most motivated to pay the highest rents--law firms, trade associations, and lobby firms and contractors who need convenient access to the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government.

A height increase helps us deal with both issues.  But because the time frame on which this occurs is so long, it will take many decades to see the full effect, as I argue here, "Reprint: Height Act: It's important to discuss but too late to make any difference on what has already happened" and "DC height limit revisited."

Green Metropolis versus Triumph of the City on density

I read Green Metropolis finally but haven't gotten around to writing about it.  The author contrasts DC and NYC unfavorably.  He makes the argument, rightly, that the low density of the core necessarily drives sprawl, pushing development outward.

Frankly, I think his arguments about the environmental efficiency and sustainability supporting density are more convincing than the urban economics arguments laid out by Edward Glaeser in Triumph of the City

I also don't see things changing much--which is very depressing--because the opposition to densification is so high.  If it weren't so advantageous to the city and to developers now, we wouldn't be seeing this march towards change.

Don't get me wrong.  Residents will benefit greatly, but over time, from the change, albeit at some cost (viewsheds, light downtown, etc.).

Transit expansion in the core won't happen without a height increase

The biggest benefit from a height increase will be that it allows for expansion of the heavy rail transit system because of the property tax revenues generated from greater property values--37 million more square feet, when developed, is worth a minimum of $22 billion.

The benefits to residents (and downtown property owners and users) that will come from an expanded transit network is almost incalculable.

More density will allow more service to more places and more service overall.

But there is no way to economically justify creating another subway line serving the core of the center city without adding land value in the core to pay for it. Otherwise our money is tied up in funding sports stadiums.

I wrote about this more extensively here, "DC Height Study Public Meetings This Week and the long term implications for transit expansion in DC."

I haven't read it yet, but I have picked up a book about the NYC subways where the author makes the argument that without the subways, New York City was not capable of simultaneously growing and improving the quality of the life for residents and workers in terms of their mobility.

With regard to the proposed zoning increase in Midtown Manhattan, I argued that the area is already at maximum capacity in terms of transit ridership and infrastructure, and to allow greater usage density for commercial and residential space is unsupportable transit-wise and should be accompanied by transit expansion to be allowed.  See "The Battle for Building Intensification around Grand Central Station."

The same goes for DC's core.  Without a simultaneous commitment to expand transit, a height increase should not be allowed.  See "More discussion of the height limit #2: Without adding high capacity transit service, there should be no increase in allowable heights."

Because a height increase will add significant value to existing property, new building approvals should be tied to proffers or impact fees

Arlington County is well known for tying building size bonuses to the provision of public benefits.  DC should do the same as it relates to allowing taller buildings in the core.  See "More discussion of the height limit #1: Grant height increases conditionally, in return for significant public benefits, not as matter of right."

But rather than have a willy nilly system, a consensus for what should be funded should be developed and adhered to in negotiations.  Alternatively would be to impose developer impact fees to pay for the improvements to transit, provision of other civic assets, etc.

DC doesn't charge impact fees.  Other jurisdictions, like Montgomery County, do.

See "Times have changed with regard to funding infrastructure improvements that make land more valuable," "Monetizing community benefits for public space conversion and other considerations: Seattle," "DC is turning me into a nimby," and "Maybe DC can learn that it has something that developers want."

That might be better as such a process is less likely to be gamed, unlike the current process that is associated with "community benefits agreements" now (see "Deputy Mayor’s Office (Finally) Makes Public Closing Documents on Hine Development" from the Capitol Hill Corner blog, which discloses that the city will allow the developer to deduct the cost of providing public benefits from ground lease payments).

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At 9:35 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Richard, all good points.

However, while it is nice to call for linkages (fees + transit) in reality is that isn't on the table. It isn't in Congress's scope to make those changes. (maybe they should, but that isn't what this is about).

Not sure the Green Metropolis theory will work here. I don't have the figures off the top of my head, but you'd have a to agree a very large percentage of the workface in DC either takes the metro or walks. It isn't density but subsidiy. Not sure an increase in density is going to change that.

Commerical real estate is expensive here (to lease) because of the price stickiness and that there is a GSA floor.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

There is nothing to prevent DC from instituting impact fees.

That's a different decision from Congress as it relates to this matter.

Anyway, I started writing a piece, but I don't have time to really develop it right now, so it'll have to wait, about the issue of people/residents "feeling" like they get something in return for allowing these kinds of changes in their community/neighborhood/city.

Most people feel, rightly or wrongly, that the equation is one way, that "developers" get all the benefits.

I would argue that DCG should demonstrate that this wouldn't be a one way transaction, by instituting complementary changes to the development approval regime that would include impact fees and/or a much more rigorous program of proffers.

When I say rigorous, I mean structured. The current system is deliberately vague I argue, to reduce costs to developers. OTOH, in the current regime, you don't get much development bonus, so it's hard to monetize a lot in the way of benefits.

Remember as to your general point, that I am making "theoretical" arguments about the long term impact of a change in heights.

It will take decades to "recreate" the kind of built environment where the JJ points about density and "a large stock of old buildings" would be congruent with the reality on the ground.

Plus, as far as Green Metropolis goes, can you really put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to sprawl?

But Owen is absolutely right that much of the growth of office space in various NoVA submarkets has been generated by the height limit, and this generates sprawl.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh, I didn't state it directly, but the imputed value of the added developable space would allow DC to increase its tax base and expand the amount of bonding authority it could use (to fund infrastructure of various sorts) whereas the city has reached the current capacity and can't do much more beyond the current commitments.

Related to the other piece about value added for residents would be a list of projects that "I" would want to commit to. But such a list would have to be generated by a kind of consensus, developed city wide.

I wrote a piece before semi-related:

I'm a little embarrassed by that piece now, because it doesn't rise to my normal level of creating master semi-unassailable frameworks.

I'd also include this kind of stuff:

And other improvements like a separated yellow line and streetcar funding.

I'd still try to get a transportation withholding tax instituted in any case. Which is a completely separated issue.

At 10:17 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

well, yes, sprawl and the 1950's desire to get out of DC in case the russians bomb us. Before they got the hydrogen bomb, that is. And much easier access to the pentagon.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

it's true that sprawl, or "deconcentration" in part due to fear of nuclear threat was specifically part of the NCPC Washington plan. I have a document from around 1962 about this.


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