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.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Why doesn't WMATA monetize air rights of station entrances?

I could write a long post about this but it isn't really necessary.  There are a number of instances where Metrorail station entrances abut buildings, but for whatever reason it doesn't appear as if WMATA was at all interested in entertaining offers for incorporating the air rights above the space into the adjoining project.

There are a couple exceptions, involving public projects.  The Washington Convention Center rises over the Mount Vernon Metrorail Station on 7th Street.  So does the Park Place Apartment Building on the west side of the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metrorail station.  The latter project was built on land formerly owned by WMATA.

U Street Metrorail Station entrance, 1200 block. Image from Google Maps.

By contrast, station entrances on U Street, on 7th Street at S Street NW, 8th and P Street NW, and in Columbia Heights, are distinctly separate from the private buildings constructed adjacent to the respective stations.

In each of these instances, had the air rights been incorporated, not only could WMATA generate additional revenue from a long term lease of the air rights, but the city would generate more revenues in property taxes, commercial and personal income taxes (from employees or residents) and sales tax (from retail spaces) and depending on the nature of the project, could accommodate more residents.

Park Place Apartments.  The west side station entrance is at the far right of the photo, in the "black section" to the left of the farthest right section of the building.

The entrances would also be weather protected, like the one at the Park Place Apartments, were they incorporated into buildings.

For example the block around the 8th and P Street NW entrance is comprised of affordable housing, and had the Metro station air rights been incorporated into the current project, more housing could have been provided.

7th and S Streets NW entrance to the Metrorail station
Building at the 7th Street NW-Shaw Metrorail station, 7th Street NW

Channing Phillips apartments, including a newly constructed section, on 7th Street NW across from the Watha T. Daniel Public Library and adjacent to the P Street station entrance in the upper left of the photo.
New construction apartments, Channing Phillips Building, 7th Street NW, Shaw neighborhood, DC

Flickr image of the Highland Park Apartments at 14th and Irving Streets NW by Alice Crain.
Highland Park Apartments at Columbia Heights Metro

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At 6:26 PM, Blogger ardecila said...

Actually, I really enjoy the idea that the station entrances create a little void space and breathing room in the city. Heading down to the platforms is a grand departure, stepping out of a station is a formal arrival.

Is Penn Station a better place because developers built a stadium and office building on top of it?

You seem to be focused on revenue, and with WMATA's fiscal issues it's tempting to dig in the couch cushions for potential revenue sources like this. However, I don't think Metro should sell out its identity as one of the world's most distinctive and well-designed transit systems. That wouldn't be good for DC residents or for the nation.

At 9:11 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

It is a toxic blend of corruption and incompetence.

WMATA could have been doing a lot more with property, and also leveraging station income. They really don't want to be in that business.

Developers would rather save the money. Outside of downtown, the money to do air rights probably is not quite as lucrative.

(And example would be the Rosslyn Metro station, which did sell air rights but have chronically underused the station area).

The 13th and U is of course the HQ of DGS. There is another stretch of alley land there that WMATA owns but has not done anything with.

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No surprise. WMATA is not know for managing their assets well.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ardecila -- you raise a good point. But the way that most of the station entrances were created tends to make for "bad spaces" on the surface, although there are some exceptions.

And WMATA not only isn't in the business of maximizing revenue, they aren't in the business of managing spaces around stations to enhance place (see my posts on transit, stations, and placemaking, and the Silver Spring Transit Center).

Some spaces lend themselves to maximizing revenue from buildings, others don't.

Some are incredibly forlorn, like the space on P St. across from the Watha T. Daniel Library.

At 6:25 PM, Blogger ardecila said...

^^^ Richard, I'm not super familiar with the one on R St; it does seem forlorn from Google Maps. But not all entrances are this way.

I'm envisioning the area around the Eastern Market entrance, where I spent several hours one time waiting for a friend. There was a real energy and vibrancy there, with street performers, vendors, and a diverse group of people coming and going from the station. Much of this seemed to have very little to do with how the space was managed, or with any kind of organized "placemaking".

Also the northern entrance to Dupont Circle, which is architecturally really great (circular hole in the ground) without being fussy or historicist. Or the entrance to Foggy Bottom, which has a lot of organic Jane Jacobsy vitality but nothing that seems planned or sanctioned.

I can't believe these entrances would be improved if a developer plopped condos or office space above them.

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

1. WMATA *does* develop these parcels. Lots of examples.

2. Building over an existing WMATA entrance isn't exactly cheap. Just because you might be able to use that FAR doesn't mean it's worth it - particularly if you can easily just incorporate that FAR elsewhere on your site.

Look at the Half Street entrance to Navy Yard and the size of the transfer truss required to hold up the building over the entrance and escalator shaft. That's not cheap, particularly not compared to a regular ol' office building.

3. Building it is one thing, but WMATA's not legally set up to monetize everything.

At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Great point on #2. I completely forgot about that. Plus how station entrances from buildings are integrated at Metro Center, although the buildings above were never developed by WMATA.

It's true as you and others have pointed out about the difficulty to do both engineering-wise and time-wise that some developers will just blow it off.

AND OF COURSE your #3 point is key too. But unfortunately that reality is no longer affordable in a severely revenue constrained environment, which WMATA is likely to face for a long time.

But the Navy Yard and Georgia Avenue examples are the exceptions that prove the point. It is doable. WMATA probably gets more money and more ridership as a result too. And the city makes more money over time from greater property and income tax revenues compared to an undeveloped state.

At 2:15 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

Yes, it is doable. It's been done.

I guess my point is this: what is the goal?

If the goal is to sell the development rights, that often doesn't matter. Metro gets some money annually from joint development agreements, but it's not huge. They often get one-time agreements from selling easements/air rights.

If the goal is to build over the entrances, that also often doesn't matter if the additional development capacity can be accommodated elsewhere. Overbuilding the station entrance has costs.

In short, I think your intro ("but for whatever reason it doesn't appear as if WMATA was at all interested in entertaining offers for incorporating the air rights...") is incorrect.

In your comment above, you write "WMATA probably gets more money and more ridership as a result too." And that needs some additional evidence. If the same FAR is built, then there's no additional ridership potential. And if either developers don't want to pay or WMATA doesn't want to sell an easement, then there's little in joint development revenue left on the table.

There are lots of examples throughout downtown of metro entrances nestled into both existing structures and new structures, both public and private. It's one thing that WMATA's done pretty well as a part of their adjacent development program.

If anything, the focus should be not on the existing entrance canopies, but on the much larger parcels that are more easily developed and will bring a substantial increase in TOD.

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