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.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A massive example of re/urbanization failure in DC: DC Court of Appeals fosters automobile-centricity

The Northwest Current reports on the approval process for a microunit apartment building in the Shaw neighborhood of DC.  See the page one article, "Blagden Alley project drops no-parking plan."

The original proposal was to provide zero parking for automobiles, but a wide array of sustainable transportation elements. From the article:
Planned “micro unit” apartments in Shaw’s Blagden Alley will have parking after all, after the D.C. Court of Appeals reversed an approval of designs that included no spaces for cars.

Developer Saul Urban, previously known as SB-Urban, won approval in early 2015 for a 123-unit project with buildings at 90 and 91 Blagden Alley NW, near 9th and M streets. The small apartments of less than 400 square feet each are planned as fully furnished for short-term leases ...

To assuage concerns by neighbors and the Board of Zoning Adjustment about the lack of parking, the developers initially agreed to a host of strategies to ensure that tenants wouldn’t arrive with cars or choose to buy one while living there. These included informing prospective renters they couldn’t park at the site or on the street, and blocking tenants from ever obtaining a Residential Parking Permit. To provide alternative transportation options, the firm also agreed to fund a Capital Bikeshare station, set aside space for 42 bike parking spots and a bike repair facility, install electronic displays with real-time transit information, and provide free carsharing memberships to new tenants. Under Saul Urban’s latest proposal, all of those requirements have been eliminated. ...
But some residents challenged the approval, suing the Zoning Commission. Rather than go through continued iterations with the Zoning Commission, figuring that well-heeled residents would continue to litigate elimination of parking, the developer decided to conform with parking requirements, and eliminated all the sustainable mobility accommodations. From the article:
The revisions to the project resulted from a D.C. Court of Appeals decision last fall that the Board of Zoning Adjustment had been too lenient in granting the parking relief. The court ordered the zoning board to reconsider the application, but Saul Urban opted instead to amend its plans to conform with today’s requirements.
Instead of a building that attracts sustainable mobility centric residents,the building will have to charge higher rent to pay for the cost of constructing parking for 21 cars.

This is terrible.  Not a surprise.  But terrible.

How do you connect all the dots with one continuous line?

I have always been nonplussed that people who prefer to be automobile-centric demand that everyone else travel similarly, not recognizing or acknowledging that because the amount and capacity of travel lanes in the city is fixed, having more residents who reflexively choose to drive as their first choice, the worse congestion is.

See "Car culture and automobilty: 5 stories of inside the box thinking" and "DC as a suburban agenda dominated city."

You have to extend your line beyond the box.

The point of having some buildings be sustainable mobility-centric is that you attract more people who travel differently, who don't compete for scarce space against other automobiles.

It's called sorting.  And sorting for transportation, in the center city, is a good thing.

Microunit apartment buildings, density bonuses for apartment buildings in the central core, and by transit stations, and accessory dwelling units are ways to add population that strengthen the sorting effect towards sustainable mobility.

But developers will fold on this in the face of costly delays and litigation.

My best piece on developing a transit-centric land use and transportation policy is this almost 11 year old blog entry, "Comments on Proposed EYA Development at Takoma Metro Station, Washington DC."

Then, WMATA approved a proposal to build rowhouses on part of the land at the Takoma Metrorail Station, each with two backyard parking spaces.

 Instead, I proposed the construction of a multiunit building with no parking spaces, but with underground parking, to support the commercial district but also to provide space for car sharing vehicles, bike parking, etc., focused specifically on "recruiting" to the neighborhood residents who weren't car-centric.  (In 2015, WMATA and the developer moved more towards what I recommended, but the project still faces car-centric opponents.)

The foundation of my argument was a discussion of San Francisco's "Transit-First" planning policy, which is an element of the City Charter.
... recommends that WMATA adopt a transit-first development policy generally, which should guide development plans for this and other similarly situated land parcels in the WMATA land inventory.

The City of San Francisco adopted a "transit first" development policy decades ago. For the most part this means that new development in the downtown core has been built without parking, but with access to efficient transit.

Moving to a "transit first" land use and development paradigm

Most citizens and government agencies are imprinted with an approach to land use that is automobile-centric and oriented towards segregated, relatively undense uses. This is commonly referred to as a suburban-oriented land use and development paradigm. Stakeholders have an unconscious and systematic bias towards "automobility" and improving the transportation system for automobiles, at the expense of transit and pedestrian capacity, and urban design.

The suburban land use approach is particularly inappropriate for center cities generally, and Washington specifically, especially because the city is so well connected by transit, in particular the subway, and relatively efficient bus service throughout most of the city, and because of the importance of leveraging the tremendous public investments that have been made in building and maintaining this system. (Note that the polycentric design of the WMATA subway system is criticized because it promotes sprawl even more than it improves access to and within the center city.)

A "transit-first" policy would establish and emphasize that the basic framework of how the City of Washington should grow is through the linkage-articulation of land use and transit. Intra-city and regional mobility can be improved and congestion reduced by investing in the capacity of our transit system, and by linking land use policies to these investments.

Furthermore, every parking space is an automobile trip generator. We cannot simultaneously expand parking and reduce congestion. The concept of induced demand presented both by parking spaces and roads is well understood throughout the transportation planning profession.

WMATA, as a transit agency, should not be in the business of promoting automobility, especially through its land development and disposition practices.
Moving from "Transit First" to a "Sustainable Mobility Platform."  Now I would move somewhat beyond "transit first," not focusing exclusively on transit, and more about the development and extension of a robust "sustainable mobility platform," with walking, biking, transit (including new microtransit options), carsharing, and delivery services.

For this platform to work and be robust, it needs an active user base.

The development of the sustainable mobility platform and a large user base comes from:
  • focusing development around transit stations and mobility hubs
  • intensifying land use appropriately (while respecting the historic building stock and urban design of the city)
  • by discouraging privileging of the automobile, and 
  • by actively recruiting people who don't look to the automobile as their first choice for transportation.   
Part of the way this is done is by building multiunit buildings with no or very limited accommodations for the automobile.

It's also done by building a wider variety of housing types, including microapartments and accessory dwelling units, that support living, if not "car free," very much "car light," by enabling additional population in sustainable mobility rich environments that are in-demand places where they normally could not afford to live, because of the high cost of traditional housing (primarily single family housing) and nonexistent alternatives.

San Francisco through its Transit First policy, mostly discourages or prevents construction of parking as part of new development projects in denser parts of the city.

Similarly, Seattle eliminated parking minimum requirements in its downtown and about 11 years ago they extended this policy to areas of the city where light rail transit stations were planned (such as Capitol Hill and University Village).

Failure to eliminate parking minimums at some level turns out to be a major mistake within the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Rewrite.  DC's Comprehensive Plan calls for transit-centric development and the zoning rewrite was supposed to reduce parking minimum requirements.

To assuage opposition, rather than eliminate parking minimums, parking elimination was encouraged, on a case by case basis, through a special review process involving "proffers" that support sustainable mobility (i.e., paying for transit shelters, bike sharing stations, accommodating, car sharing, etc.).

But the downside of the negotiation process is that it can be legally challenged independently of "the government."

And developers, not willing to rock the boat or spend a lot of money to prove a principle, will choose instead to go with the flow, and conform to parking requirements, to make it easier and faster to get building approvals.

Because of this reality, not eliminating parking minimums within the Comp. Plan, at least in the core, was a big mistake.

And therefore, even through automobility is less efficient and fundamentally anti-urban. we are not making nearly enough headway in discouraging automobile use in the center city generally and the core specifically.

Another example of the need to revise the Comprehensive Plan (and zoning) concerning parking.  At least this can be addressed through the city's Comprehensive Plan revision process, which is currently underway, but I am not optimistic about the capacity of the Office of Planning to be particularly forward acting, despite the many recent negative holdings--in terms of their lack of support for what is called "Smart Growth"-- by the Courts

This happened because the Comprehensive Plan is written to be deliberately hazy to satisfy pro-growth and anti-growth sentiments.  The city wasn't willing to take decidedly pro-growth positions and push them forward, making the arguments despite opposition.

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At 3:17 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

The failure here is the inability to designate certain building as not getting a RPP.

This is what is done in Arlington. Multiunit (more than 2?) outside certain corridors won't get permits.

Thoughts on moving OP outside of DMPED?

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

would have no problem moving OP out of DMPED. Don't know how to fix DMPED though.

... but I would also put DDOT's transpo planning into "OP" and also give OP review over planning by other agencies, especially DCPS and DPR, and DGS, not to mention health care, emergency services, etc.

Like how Norman Krumholtz wanted to do it in his heyday in Cleveland. But even more than what he anticipated.

What some other cities do is farm out ec. dev. work to a semi-independent CDC.

E.g., the Baltimore Development Corp., the Boston Redevelopment Authority (it has a different name now).

But that has most of the same issues.

DC did have two independent corps., the Redevelopment Land Agency, later NCRC, and the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. Mayor Fenty dissolved those orgs. and put them into DMPED. Bulked up DMPED. Maybe beyond its capacity.

Plus the separate CDCs for sub-city action, and most have had serious issues. (Our philanthropic community, unlike Cleveland's, never read the riot act to CDCs about getting their "stuff" together.)

But there are issues with the Exec. Branch being so directly active with developers. It's not that it can't be done right, but there are issues, and appearances of impropriety even when there isn't any.

(But there is plenty of not good action, if not unethical per se. E.g. MB abrogating various commitments made by VG, e.g. Grimke School or Franklin School, to be able to spread around some goodies to her supporters, not because the previously approved projects were problematic.)
IF we had a much more robust planning operation, it wouldn't concern me as much.

We do things backward. We don't plan, or at least we don't plan enough. We issue RFPs. But as I say, "an RFP isn't a plan." A response to an RFP represents the interests of the respondee.

Plus, even when we have plans, they can be very circumscribed and lack vision, e.g., Walter Reed. But once it's approved, everything else is set off along that path, and the govt. is very reticent to review and change course, even if the alternative is superior.

cf. my writings about "we are all asset managers now."

If we did the right kind of capital budgeting planning, included TIFs, eminent domain, alley closings, and property sales in the "capital planning process" that I envision, I'd feel a lot better about things.

2. wrt RPP, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY DDOT/DMV can't make work RPP access restrictions by address.

... don't you just create a field by address that would be Y/N for "this property eligible for RPP".

3. That being said, (1) we should have a car registration cost with more categories, by size of vehicle and its energy efficiency -- bigger vehicles should cost a lot more.

(2) RPP should be weighted too. First a lot more expensive. Second, goes up with each additional vehicle. Third, goes up with size of vehicle. Fourth, goes up if you have off street parking spaces. (E.g. in Toronto an RPP when you have off street parking is 2.5X the cost of a regular permit.)

In Miami Beach, Seattle and Vancouver, instead of a flat RPP price across the city, permits cost more in neighborhoods of highest demand. In Miami Beach, the highest RPP is close to $300/year.

Plus you have to pay for visitor parking permits. (It's not much, $1 to $3/day. But they don't just hand out a blanket permit that is easy to abuse.)

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: RPP. I may be wrong about this, but the DMV systems already recognizes some addresses as "business" and won't grant them.

Did DC make it more expensive for additional vehicles? I though some change was implemented.

What is funny about moving to DC is I thought the issue of intra-ward parking was a myth. But I live next to an unmetered block now, and I see a steady stream of people at 5:30 coming from the metro, going to the cars and leaving. DC plates as well.

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

DC doesn't make it more expensive for additional vehicles.

Yes, wrt commercial property being exempted from RPP (even though residential is a legal use).

And non-RPP blocks must be set up in the system too. (I live on a non RPP block.)

And yes, depending on the location, plenty of intra-DC cars use nonmetered blocks for access to Metro. (a block next to Takoma Rec. Center, about 3.5 blocks from the Metro, is used this way)

Theoretically, W4 is parking permit zoned by ANC, to limit this, but my understanding is that it isn't enforced.

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the Ward 9 legacy Barry era people who drive huge cars from the 70's must be running this court

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Was the CHDC a CDC?

The Krumholtz reference is timely. Not sure it was entirely positive. I certainly saw the aftereffects (complaints in the 1980s about overinvestement in CRE downtown vs investing in neighborhoods) but a large part of his legacy seemed to be tearing down old houses.

Saw that in Ohio City; seeds were planted in the 1970s, but not until post 2000 did they grow.

Would be interesting to compare to Toronto of that period.

My point on the RPP is the computer systems can easily do it it they want to.

At 7:58 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. yes about the computer systems. And interesting that it just isn't the Comp. Plan being hazy, but about IT "under-competence" having serious policy implications.

2. the thing with CRE vs. neighborhoods is that this is a tension everywhere, including here. And in _Urban Fortunes_ too, they denigrate historic preservation as a sop to the middle class.

BUT, you have to balance social justice and investment in your prime income generating areas. And you need amenities -- not just downtown -- in order to attract and retain residents who don't just consume revenue but generate it.

(As you know DC is uniquely fortunate in retaining its income tax revenue, even if we can't tax nonresident earners.)

The thing is that most communities don't have good paired programs for the CBD as well as "for neighborhoods."

DC's doing a better job, in terms of investing in parks and rec., and the business districts are coming back on their own. But sub-city ec. dev. and revitalization initiatives are still very weak structurally, from a systematic improvement perspective.

And I have been thinking about how one sided the "bike lane/dog parks" arguments are.

For one, who is to say that communities should only be investing in basketball courts and rec. centers. DC has spent many hundreds of millions of dollars on such since 2000, mostly in African-American communities, and I am fine with that. But why then is it ok to spend that money, and racist to have a dog park?

Or the money on schools. Granted many schools have been shuttered in African-American neighborhoods. But many have been built or rehabbed too.

Similarly, transportation infrastructure is transportation infrastructure. Why is it ok to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over time and tens of millions of dollars per year on bus service, when most bus riders are African-American, and not on other elements of the mobility system?

I don't think that I am that blind to white privilege.

... I also think one of the "problems" of the new book by Derek Hyra is that his writing about "white invasion of a historically black neighborhood" will be accurate, because it is about Shaw, which has remained black majority for 100 years or more.

But it isn't fair to extend those arguments of invasion across the board, because demographic change waxes and wanes, and most DC neighborhoods that are "historically black" have only been so since the mid-1950s. Even Anacostia was probably majority white, or plurality til about 1960.

I worry his arguments will be overextended. (I reacted to the dog park story at that conference last week, and he did say "you've only heard about one small discussion from the book.")

At 10:02 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I suspect Mr. Hyra wants to run for office. Oh wait, he already has!

Interesting that he lives in Alexandria and is so passionate about making sure DC is safe for poor people.

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY DDOT/DMV can't make work RPP access restrictions by address."

They don't do this because there's no legal framework to regulate this by address. And there's no political will to change the legal framework.

At 7:39 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

if the ZC approves a development with such a restriction, why would that be outside of a legal framework for enforcing the limitation?

At 10:20 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

yes, CHDC, technically, Dev. Corporation of Columbia Heights is/was CDC. It doesn't seem to be particularly active, and like most CDCs in DC, doesn't/didn't have a more broad ranging "community economic development" agenda, as opposed to "community development" which in practice mostly meant building replacement housing for the disadvantaged. Although I don't think DCCH did much of that.

Groups like Jubilee Housing or Community Preservation and Development Corp., nonprofits but not really CDCs, have been more effective.

The first more creative in acquiring and maintaining housing stock, supporting developments of cooperatives, etc.

The second in rehabilitating and maintaining buildings within the broader portfolio of affordable housing.

At 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ZC cannot create transportation regulations, that is beyond their authority.

For the ZC to mandate a kind of parking permit that does not currently exist and is not currently enabled by DC regulations would be a rather amazing case of legislating from the bench. Even if they did, I don't think it would be enforceable.

At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

be interesting to know where these judge types actually live- do they live in Maryland or Virginia or in - as Richard puts it- a suburban portion of DC? Ant of these places would certainly have an effect on how they think and view the city and our situation. In the future it would be best for DC to elect people who live closer in to maximize the essentials. Of course- there are those close in who are also suburban centric-car centric. We can pretend they do not factor in on any of this........

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yes, wrt commercial property being exempted from RPP (even though residential is a legal use."
Actually, if you check the RPP database on the DDOT web-site there are quite a few commercial properties included on the list. Of course, in order to get an RPP, it needs to be a car registered by a resident, using their residential address, but a resident of a mixed use or residential property with commercial zoning will have no problem getting an RPP.
And if you go to any residential neighborhood near a Metro station, you can easily observe the on-street parking fill up each weekday morning, with vehicles from intraward commuters with RPP.


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