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  #1  
Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 5:08 PM
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Washington, DC's boom

I'm amazed at the number of cranes that can be seen rising above Washington, DC. I'm interested in the zoning which is allowing all this development to occur. I know there was a big rezoning change a could years back, but DC has been in its boom now for over a decade.

So what's the deal, DC members? Was there always a number of areas in the city that allowed 12+ floor buildings (prior to the 2016 zoning update) and the economic demand is pushing development to underdeveloped areas (like New York Ave near Gallaudet University)? Was there a series of minor zoning changes prior to 2016 that helped encourage all this development or was it always on the books?

I'm really curious. WMATA still sucks, but I love the feel and vibe of the city.

I'm a fan of density over height, and DC does this well. The height limit in DC forces developers to be more clever about the design of their buildings, maximizing light and views, efficiently using space, and being more welcoming to pedestrians that walk by. The thing that irks me about modern skyscrapers is that the base of the building may be entirely a lobby or other useless spaces. Developers/architects can hit their required square footage just by building up. I wish architects of modern skyscrapers would give their base or podium more thought. I'm wondering if there is something in zoning that can help.
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  #2  
Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 6:23 PM
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Ok sure I can talk about this. A few things to unpack:

Things to understand about DC:

1. DC has a downtown office market that's still growing. As the general world economy has shifted to requiring less office space, new office doesn't pencil in very many places. The DC region has a relatively strong office market, and downtown DC in particular is the strongest spot in it (suburbs except for Tysons are struggling).

2. DC's urban core is way too small for the region's population. Historically speaking, DC is smaller than cities like Philadelphia or Baltimore. There are fewer historic walkable neighborhoods to go around, and more demand for new people moving in. That results in more new construction, because there's less opportunity for the growth to be absorbed by existing rowhouses. And DC has more growth than most other highly urban cities.

3. The height limit pushes downtown growth outwards. Downtown DC is always expanding, because you can't go up. There are basically no undeveloped properties or above-ground parking lots in central DC. The land is already built, up to the max height allowed. But there's still demand for growth. So downtown constantly expands horizontally into adjacent neighborhoods, especially industrial ones that are comparatively easy to build in. The growth you see in NoMa (NY Ave near Gallaudet) and Navy Yard is essentially the outward expansion of downtown. It's growth that in other cities would be at least partially captured by replacing short downtown buildings with taller ones.

4. The height limit makes above-ground parking impractical. Most cities have surface parking lots and above-ground parking garages. With few exceptions, downtown DC and new construction anywhere in DC has neither. Most large buildings have underground parking lots, because the height limit puts above ground space at too much of a premium to be used for parking. This means the lower floors of DC's buildings are generally better than in most other cities. It also means DC buildings have fewer oversized lobbies than other cities (although DC has more than New York).

5. DC is comparatively willing/able to zone for meaningful transit oriented development. In most American cities, "zoning for TOD" means allowing 5 or 6 floors and maybe a little less parking. DC (including the suburbs) has been unusually willing to zone its Metro station areas for legitimate high density buildings. This is probably a result of the height limit plus the DC region's particular county-based governance structure, which puts zoning power at exactly the level of government small enough for regional competition (each county wants their office center), but large enough for elected officials to override NIMBYs (you can piss off a neighborhood if your jurisdiction has a million people, but not if it only has 50,000). Giving suburban zoning power to counties rather than cities is a big advantage, and results in more city-like zoning in the counties.

6. NoMa in particular benefits from an infill Metro station. You mention NoMa in particular. And yes it was upzoned a decade or two ago. The upzoning was possible because DC built an infill Metro station where there had not been one before. The Red Line used to speed through NoMa without stopping, but building a station there made it possible to upzone for TOD. The same thing is happening today in Alexandria at Potomac Yard, and along new Silver Line stations as they open in Virginia.
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  #3  
Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 7:16 PM
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I'm curious as to when (if at all) DC will do away with the height restrictions. At least in some parts of town.
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Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 7:59 PM
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I can understand why anti-gentrification advocates might want to increase the height limit - denser downtown development means less displacement on the downtown fringes. Of course, right now such people hate developers, so they won't do anything that might help their sworn enemy.

I can also understand why developers might want to increase the height limit - bigger projects are more efficient to build, it would enable cheaper design features like above-ground parking podiums and allow them to make more money with less land.

Right now it seems like these two powerful forces are sort of in a stalemate that keeps the height limit untouched and preserves the status quo of an expanding downtown.

But from a planner's perspective - isn't the height limit working exactly as intended? New development is spread over a pretty large area. More and more parts of the city are becoming dense and walkable. Developers are building neighborhood-scale projects that often integrate new public space and even (minor) transit improvements, so it takes some of the burden off of government to provide these things. The only planning argument against this is that the city is now struggling to provide full-fledged transit to these newly developed areas. However, even with more intensity in the core, WMATA would still be struggling with severe capacity issues at places like Metro Center and Farragut. Arguably, their current plan of building a streetcar network to serve the downtown fringe is much cheaper than expanding subway stations and building whole new relief lines...
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  #5  
Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 8:31 PM
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DC could just establish an area for high-rises like Paris' La Defense or London's Canary Wharf. Arlington would be the best place for it. In fact, would it harm Washington if they just reannex Arlington?
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  #6  
Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 8:41 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jd3189 View Post
DC could just establish an area for high-rises like Paris' La Defense or London's Canary Wharf. Arlington would be the best place for it. In fact, would it harm Washington if they just reannex Arlington?
Arlington is in Virginia thus DC cannot merge with or annex it.
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Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 8:57 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JManc View Post
Arlington is in Virginia thus DC cannot merge with or annex it.
Oh, sure, but I bet you know it's more complicated than that:

Alexandria (and Arlington) was originally part of DC.

Quote:
The effort to retrocede, or remove themselves from the District and rejoin Virginia, started in 1804 but became serious in the 1820s and 1830s. Thomas Jefferson had imposed an embargo on some commercial shipping that nearly destroyed Alexandria’s economy, Georgetown blocked an effort to extend the Cheseapeake and Ohio canal to its southern neighbor and “Alexandria wanted out of the ‘ruinous evil’ that was the District of the Columbia,” Pope writes.

But the real reason for retrocession might have been “shackled in the basement of the slave-trading operation on Duke Street” but largely unspoken in official transcripts, Pope writes. The slave trade was a major industry in Alexandria, and city fathers feared that Congress would outlaw it in the District, which is exactly what happened in the Compromise of 1850. By rejoining Virginia in 1846, Alexandria assured itself of another decade or so of the unfettered sale of humans beings.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs...=.c6a89c85880d

Since, in 1846, Congress allowed the retrocession, one wonders if they couldn't revoke it. Politically that might be impossible. Constitutionally, one wonders.

Still, as a born and raised Washingtonian (spending my eariest years at 14th & Colorado Ave.) I know the height limit was intended to keep the Capitol dome a prominent landmark and has resulted in a fullfillment of L'Enfant's vision of Washington as a city in the 18th century French mode. One could wish some of the commercial architecture were better, but this native would not wish for high rises in the city itself. Arlington, whether part of DC or not, and Silver Spring are pretty good places for them.
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  #8  
Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 9:35 PM
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Wow, thanks Cirrus. That was very helpful and answers many of the questions I had.

Quote:
Originally Posted by JManc View Post
I'm curious as to when (if at all) DC will do away with the height restrictions. At least in some parts of town.
As has been mentioned. Arlington, VA is probably the best bet for future skyscrapers.

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Originally Posted by ardecila View Post
I can understand why anti-gentrification advocates might want to increase the height limit - denser downtown development means less displacement on the downtown fringes. Of course, right now such people hate developers, so they won't do anything that might help their sworn enemy.
This is logical, but NIMBYism and the anti-gentrifies don't use logic. It's really sad when I see the anti-gentrifies, who have a true passion of love for the community and their residents, end up blindly support policies that are either directly or indirectly causing gentrification.

Quote:
I can also understand why developers might want to increase the height limit - bigger projects are more efficient to build, it would enable cheaper design features like above-ground parking podiums and allow them to make more money with less land.
I have no doubt developers would love to increase the height limit. Even if it was upped by six or so floors, the demand for space is probably there to keep the parking underground and use the additional height allowance for residential/commercial sqft.

Personally, I wish more cities would just ban above ground parking facilities. Remove parking minimums in the zoning text and require it be surface or underground only. The market will determine how many below ground spots are needed and the appropriate rate for a space. Above ground parking has an impact of the pedestrian environmental, and parking minimums indirectly subsides car ownership by folks that don't drive.


Quote:
But from a planner's perspective - isn't the height limit working exactly as intended? New development is spread over a pretty large area. More and more parts of the city are becoming dense and walkable. Developers are building neighborhood-scale projects that often integrate new public space and even (minor) transit improvements, so it takes some of the burden off of government to provide these things. The only planning argument against this is that the city is now struggling to provide full-fledged transit to these newly developed areas. However, even with more intensity in the core, WMATA would still be struggling with severe capacity issues at places like Metro Center and Farragut. Arguably, their current plan of building a streetcar network to serve the downtown fringe is much cheaper than expanding subway stations and building whole new relief lines...
That would be my sense, too. The height limit has been beneficial to DC's development over the years. But I would be interested to hear from a planning perspective on this.

Quote:
One could wish some of the commercial architecture were better, but this native would not wish for high rises in the city itself. Arlington, whether part of DC or not, and Silver Spring are pretty good places for them.
I hear this a lot from DC folks, but personally I find the architecture for the new buildings in DC rather interesting. I think you guys are spoiled in that the rest of the country, it's not unusual to see new developments like this:

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  #9  
Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 9:49 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JManc View Post
Arlington is in Virginia thus DC cannot merge with or annex it.

Well, based on what Pedestrian said, it could be a possibility. I think it would be good way for DC to expand beyond its political roots.


Plus, like he said, DC looks better as a mostly lowrise city. Gives it a European feel and shows how the US is a continuation of the Western tradition with the great monuments and government buildings at the center. Plus almost every major US has a skyline and except for NYC, Chicago, and a few others, all of the other skylines are unremarkable.
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  #10  
Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 9:59 PM
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Originally Posted by jd3189 View Post
Well, based on what Pedestrian said, it could be a possibility. I think it would be good way for DC to expand beyond its political roots.


Plus, like he said, DC looks better as a mostly lowrise city. Gives it a European feel and shows how the US is a continuation of the Western tradition. Plus almost every major US has a skyline and except for NYC, Chicago, and a few others, all of the other skylines are unremarkable.
It's not a possibility...

If there was political will, Congress could admit the Dominican Republic as the 51st State. It's theoretical Constitutional, but never going to happen, much like DC recededing (or whatever the word would be) Arlington from Virginia.

Way off topic, but fun history lesson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annexa..._Santo_Domingo
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  #11  
Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 10:04 PM
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Originally Posted by jd3189 View Post
Well, based on what Pedestrian said, it could be a possibility. I think it would be good way for DC to expand beyond its political roots.
It would be a long drawn out court battle and VA would win. The federal government has no authority over existing state boundaries (states are sovereign)...other than create new states so VA would have to be willing to return Alexandria back to DC. MD/VA volunteered the land initially. Both sides agreed to retrocede the land back to VA...
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  #12  
Old Posted Jan 3, 2018, 7:28 AM
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Originally Posted by JManc View Post
Arlington is in Virginia thus DC cannot merge with or annex it.
Well they could if Virginia gave back its original portion of the DoC. That means Alexandria would also go back as well. I'd hope they don't do that, it was pretty cool seeing the Washington skyline from Embassy Suites in Alexandria. As long as the suburbs are relatively low rise, it provides unobstructed views of the heart of Washington from afar.
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Old Posted Jan 10, 2018, 7:52 AM
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Originally Posted by jd3189 View Post
DC could just establish an area for high-rises like Paris' La Defense or London's Canary Wharf. Arlington would be the best place for it. In fact, would it harm Washington if they just reannex Arlington?
Interesting idea. I wonder how much square feet could be built on the lots right around RFK (and the stadium itself). There isn't a lot of space but if you maxed it out you could build a nice vertical district.

Last edited by nomarandlee; Jan 13, 2018 at 10:23 AM.
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Old Posted Jan 10, 2018, 11:03 AM
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Interesting idea. I wonder how much square feet could be built on the lots right around JFK (and the stadium itself). There isn't a lot of space but if you maxed it out you could build a nice vertical district.
The flight paths for National Airport constrain high rises along the Potomac corridor. The fact that the airport is still in operation tells a lot about how seriously politicians actually take the terrorist threat relative to the convenience of having an airport so close in. The airport site would be the ideal spot for a regional skyscraper area. A new bridge across the river would probably have to be built though.

Last edited by Pavlov's Dog; Jan 10, 2018 at 11:15 AM.
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Old Posted Jan 2, 2018, 8:30 PM
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The height limit is federally-imposed. It could be overturned probably fairly easily, but DC local politicians are so afraid of what they believe would be the ensuing NIMBY backlash that when the issue came up a few years ago they asked Congress ***NOT*** to give DC authority to decide its own heights.

Right in the middle of a big push for DC statehood, too. It was a massive abdication of responsibility, and gave serious ammunition to the argument that DC doesn't deserve full home rule.
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Old Posted Jan 3, 2018, 1:30 AM
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Good comment Cirrus, but you forgot - DC loves to pat itself on the back for all the growth but much of it is because the federal government is based there. People can claim and stutter otherwise but numerous corporations have moved to the area to be close to the federal government. Not too mention all the direct federal jobs and endless contractors etc who suck on the government teat - as well as the insane and always growing defense industry. And yet, despite all of this incredible financial stimulus, African American incomes in the city are actually stagnant or decreasing while shooting thru the roof for whites and Asians. SMDH
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Old Posted Jan 3, 2018, 2:03 AM
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Virginia is booming as well. The Ashburn, VA area is ripe with activity. A lot of the growth is cascading into the burbs and surrounding counties.
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  #18  
Old Posted Jan 3, 2018, 3:57 AM
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Good comment Cirrus, but you forgot - DC loves to pat itself on the back for all the growth but much of it is because the federal government is based there. People can claim and stutter otherwise but numerous corporations have moved to the area to be close to the federal government. Not too mention all the direct federal jobs and endless contractors etc who suck on the government teat - as well as the insane and always growing defense industry. And yet, despite all of this incredible financial stimulus, African American incomes in the city are actually stagnant or decreasing while shooting thru the roof for whites and Asians. SMDH
Isn't one of the counties surrounding DC the wealthiest majority African American county in the nation?

This intro sounds like the type of argument coming from the anti-gentrifiers. A group not as bad as NIMBYs, but equally misguided. More growth is needed if there is a large segment of the population that is economically disenfranchised. Residents in the southwest corner of town should be petitioning city government for widespread rezoning to bring in the money, jobs and development that have revitalized many other segments of the city. Instead, why do I have the feeling the exact opposite occurs. Some folks rather just whine and point blame rather than develop a solution and force a difference.
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  #19  
Old Posted Jan 3, 2018, 4:21 AM
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Isn't one of the counties surrounding DC the wealthiest majority African American county in the nation?
Yes, Prince George's County in Maryland.
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  #20  
Old Posted Jan 3, 2018, 4:24 AM
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Originally Posted by Eightball View Post
Good comment Cirrus, but you forgot - DC loves to pat itself on the back for all the growth but much of it is because the federal government is based there. People can claim and stutter otherwise but numerous corporations have moved to the area to be close to the federal government. Not too mention all the direct federal jobs and endless contractors etc who suck on the government teat - as well as the insane and always growing defense industry. And yet, despite all of this incredible financial stimulus, African American incomes in the city are actually stagnant or decreasing while shooting thru the roof for whites and Asians. SMDH
That's a good point.

Normal economic fundamentals simply don't apply to the DC area for that reason. It wasn't even really affected by the Great Recession.
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