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, February 04, 2023

Another attempt to raise discussion about the DC Height Limit

As it happens, for economic reasons that these days are mostly theoretical, I am not against raising DC's Height Limit. 

Because of the pre-covid demand for office space, the height limit "forced" a constant demolition and reconstruction of the buildings Downtown, to maximize their value and usable square footage.

As a result of this "recycling/upcycling," rents have always been comparatively high.  This forces less high value uses out of the city, counter to the Jane Jacobs point that successful cities need "a large stock of old buildings" -- based on the assumption of lower rents -- to support the development of innovative uses, and lower value uses that add to the diversity of a city (like a sewing machine repair shop).

Because that kind of space doesn't exist in DC anymore (some remnant spaces like that still existed into the 1990s), either innovative uses don't develop -- such as the nonprofit advocacy sector, which as cheap spaces disappeared groups stopped being created counter to the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s -- or they develop in or relocate to the suburbs.

A change to the Height Limit by allowing taller buildings, would reduce the pressure to recycle and reconstruct every building, providing opportunities for lower rents.

But only over multiple decades, which is why the concept from the urban economics standpoint is somewhat moot.

-- "Height Act: It's important to discuss but too late to make any difference on what has already happened," 2010 

Around 2012 under Mayor Gray and Planning Director Harriet Tregoning there was interest in pursuing a change, because the then Republican Congressman Darrell Issa--he chaired the House Committee with oversight over DC--was amenable.  

-- "DC height limit revisited," 2012
-- "More discussion of the height limit #1: Grant height increases conditionally, in return for significant public benefits, not as matter of right," 2012
-- "More discussion of the height limit #2: Without adding high capacity transit service, there should be no increase in allowable heights," 2012

But it didn't go anywhere.

I argue this was because the DC side was full of hubris--we have the city's interests at the foremost they intimated, but they failed to think in the slightest in how to make the argument about how the current residents would benefit.  Residents and legislators like Phil Mendelson weren't convinced.

Today... Earlier in the week there was a not particularly enlightening oped by former DC Planning Director Andrew Trueblood suggesting a reconsideration of the Height Limit ("A monumentally modest change to D.C.’s height limit could reinvigorate downtown").  I guess that was an opening salvo for Mayor Bowser, as the Post ran an article today about her wanting to address this ("As D.C.’s downtown struggles, Bowser looks skyward for answers"), because of the decline of Downtown in the face of Work From Home ("Downtown D.C.’s struggles mount as many workers remain remote"). 

My first response is that it's a great example of the failure to be proactive.  When your commercial real estate market has tanked, it's a bad time to come up with a way to triple the amount of office space, although sure they want housing too, and focusing on adding housing is what Trueblood suggested was the value of pursuing a change.

In other words, do the change because you're desperate. Not because the market is favorable.

Although they ain't talking about anything substantive, an increase of 30 feet, from 130 feet to 160 feet.  This will have very limited impact.  And to make housing conversion of empty office buildings a little easier.  Again, not substantive.

Regardless of what they think, there isn't that much demand for multiunit housing in the central business district.  Sure there is some, but it's not like 150,000 people want to live there, and that's the kind of number that would be substantive.

-- "The unintended consequences of converting office buildings to housing: the need for public safety; schools; amenities," 2022

Real benefits from lifting the Height Limit.  Again, I think that Mayor Bowser is likely to be weak articulating potential benefits to residents.

I'll give two primary and one secondary:

1.  Transit/Transportation.  Use the monies to fund and expand transit, especially Metrorail within the city as discussed above and in various postings such as "More on Redundancy, engineered resilience, and subway systems: Metrorail failures will increase without adding capacity in the core" (2016).   

That called for a Separated Silver Line serving Georgetown, Union Station, H Street NE, and Bladensburg Road, and new routing for the Orange Line within the RFK campus.  And separating the Yellow and Green Lines too.

I'd also include my proposal to add streetcar service to the National Mall between Union Station, Georgetown and South Capitol (Nationals Stadium/Navy Yard/Wharf), "Revisiting: a proposal for heritage streetcar service on the National Mall | adding service to the DC waterfront" (2022) and streetcar service in other parts of the city, double deck buses ("Making bus service sexy and more equitable," 2012) and bus service East of the River ("mproving intra-city bus service in DC: a reaction to the DC Policy Center report on improving transit access East of the Anacostia River," 2018).

And Maglev and the Central Business District, which is another inducement for a Height increase, one completely unseen by DC's planning and economic development officials ("DC, Transformational Projects Action Planning, and the Baltimore-Washington Maglev project," 2021).

And to fully leverage Maglev, expanding Union Station ("DC State Rail Plan," 2015) and both integrating and expanding regional rail passenger service ("A new backbone for the regional transit system: merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg Lines," 2017).  And undergrounding New York Avenue's regional transportation element ("Maglev as an opportunity for DC to underground through traffic on New York Avenues," 2020), doing some freeway decking ("Bloomingdale Village Square Initiative will be holding its third Community Forum on the proposed North Capitol Deck-over Park," 2020),, undergrounding the Anacostia Freeway ("DC and "city repair" of the urban grid," 2020).

2.  Social urbanism and equity planning.  Use the monies to fund the implementation of a social urbanism development program in the low income areas of the city ("Social urbanism and equity planning as a way to address crime, violence, and persistent poverty: (not in) DC," 2021 and "A glaring illustration of the need for comprehensive health and wellness planning in DC: Providence Hospital," 2018).

3.  Repositioning and refocusing positive attention on DC in the face of suburban outmigration and repositioning and refocusing attention on the Central Business District in the face of decline.

Funding.  If everything broke right, the first new tall building could maybe come online in 12 years.  So changing the Height Limit today won't impact the city's tax revenue stream * for decades.  

So the only way to fund it is through the creation of a Tax Increment Financing District covering the entire Central Business District.  Selling bonds against future tax revenue increases, and use that money to fund transit expansion and social urbanism projects.

But because it will take so long to come to fruition revenue wise, the District will have to be formed to last for at least 50 years--often with this kinds of initiatives, the expectation is that everything can be wrapped up in 20 years.  By contrast it took about 30 years to see substantive change resulting from the Metrorail subway system.

And the first bonds shouldn't come to term for at least 25 years.  And they'll have to be sold in tranches to get the best value.

* Note wrt commercial property tax values and assessments.  Well, one way increasing the Height Limit (substantively) now is that it would actually help the property tax revenue stream is by stabilizing value. Properties are worth less today because they aren't being used for offices, or at a much lover percentage, given the high number of work from home employees post-covid ("Real Estate Values in the Time of COVID," NBER).

But by adding build out capacity to every property they are worth more assessment value wise, likely making up for the loss of value otherwise, even if the value won't be captured in actual taller building for many years.


DC and economic development.  When I first got involved in revitalization, comparing places like Pittsburgh and Baltimore to DC, I used to say "those cities have a desperate willingness to experiment because they have no other choice."  By contrast, DC wasn't much interested in innovation.

DC's been pretty fortunate that it regained its value as a place to locate businesses and to live.  But the development that occurred was pretty homogeneous.  Office buildings with retail on the ground floor, focused on organizations serving the federal government.  Residential buildings with retail on the ground floor.  They never figured out how to develop sectors other than those federally related.  That's really a problem now.

-- "Could bringing premier regionally headquartered business enterprises to the Pennsylvania Avenue Corridor be key to its renewal and revitalization?," 2014
-- "Naturally occurring innovation districts | Technology districts and the tech sector," 2014
-- "Why Mayor Bowser is right to be leery of systematic lowering of taxes," 2015
-- "Better leveraging higher education institutions in cities and counties: Greensboro; Spokane; Mesa; Phoenix; Montgomery County, Maryland; Washington, DC," 2016
-- "The East-West Divide | DC area regional economic development: anchors and where they are placed matter + airports | But military spending matters the mostThe East-West Divide | DC area regional economic development: anchors and where they are placed matter + airports | But military spending matters the most," 2021

Before I learned more, I thought DC's economic development officials were pretty good.  But as I continued to learn, they seemed to stay the same.  

My point about DC's arts ecosystem is analogous--it focuses on consumption, not production, taking/using, not making/doing.

And now that the city's facing serious exogeneous shocks to its business model--office workers coming to the city are down by half, diminishing the value of office space, wrecking the ability of ancillary stores and restaurants to make money off office workers, and diminishing the value of the transit network generally, especially rail transit, because the demand for travel to the center city has been reduced significantly--not being able to pivot is a problem, and having been very homogeneously focused on "economic development" in particular ways is far less productive.

Also see:

-- "Portland, ‘repelling its current citizens,’ is Seattle’s cautionary tale ," Seattle Times
-- "Seattle faces a moment of truth to save downtown," Seattle Times

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At 11:00 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

America’s offices are now half-full. They may not get much fuller.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

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