In my two and a half years covering housing and development at Washington City Paper, I’ve been (mostly) constrained by the limits of reality. Now that I’m departing, I no longer feel so bound. Here, in my final Housing Complex column, are a few not-so-modest proposals for how to make D.C. better.
Build new Metro lines
The city is growing, physically and demographically, but there are few Metro-accessible areas left to develop. As a result, D.C. is losing people to the suburbs and to more isolated parts of town where they’re reliant on cars, which further clog our roads. Meanwhile, developers are resorting to dirty tricks to kick out low-income tenants in high-demand parts of the District and build more lucrative properties. It’s not sustainable.
Fortunately, the time is right to start building new Metro lines. Interest rates are historically low, making it cheaper to finance such a big undertaking. It’s still very expensive, of course, but the city could impose assessments on property owners near the future lines to help pay for the project (assuming, as is likely, that the feds and suburban jurisdictions are less than excited to build new D.C. stations), since they’ll profit hugely from the enterprise.
Imagine new lines up Rhode Island, New York, and Georgia avenues; along Benning Road and Martin Luther King Jr. and Minnesota avenues; not to mention better connections through downtown of the sort Metro’s already discussing. Then imagine the housing and retail boom if you upzone the areas along those routes. The benefits of transit accrue to parts of town that have missed out. Commutes shorten, neighborhoods revive, and roads become less congested and more pedestrian friendly. With better tunnel-boring technology, the disruption won’t compare with the initial building of the Metro in the 1960s and ’70s. And just as we can’t fathom a Metro-less city now, in 50 years residents won’t be able to picture a District with just six (and, in the city center, just three) puny Metro lines.
At the very least, add some infill stations
One spot in particular is crying out for a station: the former Pepco plant just east of the Anacostia River, right along the Blue and Orange lines. It’s only about a mile’s walk from the Minnesota Avenue station, but it’s also the city’s ripest venue for catalytic redevelopment of the sort that only an on-site Metro station can really spur.
Once it gets cleaned up, it should become a vibrant riverside community, at the top of any developer or retailer’s list. And the city, in addition to generating tremendous tax revenue, will finally get a chance to demonstrate its commitment to create areas east of the Anacostia that are just as desirable as their west-of-the-river counterparts.
Stop building streetcar lines in mixed traffic
Who ever thought it was a good idea to build streetcars that crawl at the pace of rush-hour car traffic and get stuck altogether when someone double-parks? It’s too late to turn back the clock on the H Street-Benning line. But for future lines, it should be dedicated lanes or bust.
If we can’t build new Metro lines, let’s at least get a streetcar up Georgia Avenue with its own lanes. Yes, it’ll slow traffic, but imagine the alternative: a massive new Walter Reed development without any speedy means of access other than cars. There and elsewhere, it’d be nice to have a streetcar that’s actually useful as a mode of transit, not just eye candy for tourists who are scared of the bus.
Move MLK Library back to Carnegie
The city is preparing to undertake a $200 million, years-long renovation of the grimy, obsolete Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library building. Meanwhile, three blocks north, D.C.’s former central library—the gorgeous 1903 Carnegie Library—sits under-utilized, rented out occasionally for events. Why not move MLK back into a building worthy of the city’s central library?
Sure, the space is a little small, but perhaps the preservation authorities could be persuaded to allow, for the public good, the kind of expansion they rejected when the Spy Museum was trying to move into Carnegie (particularly if some of the expansion can be underground). The library could then focus on being a library, built around books.
The city could fund the move by selling off MLK to a developer to expand it and turn it into the office building that would better fit its aesthetics, while retaining control of the ground floor, which could become a community center with the computers and other non-book functions the library currently houses. It could also double as a daytime homeless-services center, something the city is looking to establish downtown to alleviate the pressure on the library.
Everybody wins—particularly the prestige of a city whose central library has long been an embarrassment.
Name the nameless neighborhood north of Columbia Heights
The purists say Petworth doesn’t extend west of Georgia Avenue. Sixteenth Street Heights can’t possibly encompass one of the two Petworth Metro station entrances. And North Columbia Heights doesn’t exist. So what to call the neighborhood bounded by Spring Road NW to the south, Georgia Avenue to the east, and Arkansas Avenue to the northwest? No one seems to have a good answer, which is why it needs a new name.
I propose Twin Oaks. The neighborhood already has the Twin Oaks apartment complex and the nearby Twin Oaks Community Garden. The name is attractive and marketable. And most important, it’s a name.
Make diversity a priority for design review
When the city’s historic preservation and zoning authorities review development projects, they emphasize “compatibility” with surrounding buildings. The end result: Anything remotely novel gets weeded out and streets wind up looking blandly homogenous.
Instead, they should give points to proposals that bring diversity to a block. Variety of color and shape is what makes D.C.’s distinctive rowhouse blocks special. Let’s prioritize new projects that accomplish the same thing.
Buy properties to preserve affordable housing
The more expensive D.C.’s housing gets, the more expensive it becomes for the city to create and preserve affordable housing.
Fortunately, there’s a mechanism that allows the city to step in and buy properties that are at risk of losing their affordability, and it has the potential to be cheaper than existing means of creating affordable housing. The hitch? Since becoming law in 2008, the District Opportunity to Purchase Act has never been used, largely because the regulations for it haven’t been written. Now’s a good time to start putting it to use.
Pop the Ivy City bubble
As recently as two years ago, residents of Ivy City complained that their neighborhood was the city’s “dumping ground,” with nothing but undesirable facilities like garbage-truck parking lots. Since then, things have changed mind-blowingly fast.
The neighborhood now has an organic grocery store, yoga studio, gym, and new breweries and distilleries opening seemingly each week. On the way: a bicycle shop and three new restaurants from the owner of Ghibellina. One thing that won’t be coming is a Busboys and Poets restaurant, after owner Andy Shallal pulled out recently. He might be onto something.
Ivy City is an isolated sliver of a neighborhood, hemmed in by railroad tracks, a cemetery, and a highway-like stretch of New York Avenue NE. It has poor transit connections and a small and impoverished population. The boom there is starting to feel like a bubble. Retailers might want to look elsewhere before they learn it the hard way.
Create pedestrian zones
In 1995, President Bill Clinton closed the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue NW in front of the White House to vehicular traffic for security reasons. How much have we missed the ability to drive there? Not at all.
Let’s create similar pedestrian zones elsewhere, starting with 7th Street NW in front of the Verizon Center, and maybe nearby F Street (where a pedestrian mall was ripped out in the ’90s). Not only would that foster a safer and livelier atmosphere for the tourists and sports fans who already clog those blocks, but it’d also make it much easier to run a streetcar on 7th Street, between Buzzard Point and Georgia Avenue, without conflicting with cars.
Make non-soccer investments in Buzzard Point
The main argument in favor of subsidizing a soccer stadium at Buzzard Point has nothing to do with soccer and everything to do with economic development. But for the $150 million the city’s putting into the site (not to mention the tax breaks it’s giving D.C. United, against the advice of its own chief financial officer), the city could make an even bigger investment in this neglected waterfront neighborhood.
Why should a soccer stadium attract more nearby development than transit improvements (an efficient streetcar line or even a Metro station) and development subsidies?
Twenty years from now, when Buzzard Point is booming, we might regret devoting a sizeable chunk of it to a stadium for a sport whose D.C. fandom ranks somewhere between snowball fights and drag races.
Banish all talk of a new football stadium
Never mind the racist team name. Why would we want a lovely stretch along the Anacostia River to remain dominated by a stadium and parking lots?
Let’s kill the idea now and get started on the neighborhood-serving development that residents have long demanded.
Mandate homeless shelters in every ward
The city’s trying to close the troubled D.C. General family homeless shelter and replace it with a network of smaller shelters. But the plan’s bound to run into the same NIMBYism that strikes whenever a new shelter is proposed.
So let’s require those replacements to include one shelter in each of the city’s eight wards. That way, ward councilmembers will stop saying “no” and start saying “where,” and the responsibility of sheltering the homeless will be equitably shared by all corners of the city.
Stop ANC and community-group shakedowns
In order to secure the approval of Congress Heights community groups, the would-be developer of a project near the neighborhood’s Metro station had to agree to give the groups hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Southwest Neighborhood Assembly dropped its opposition to a Shakespeare Theatre development project in exchange for $60,000 and other concessions. The Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the Trinidad area backed a plan for a pop-up entertainment venue only after the venue agreed to give neighbors a 10 percent discount.
ANCs and community groups have made these “community benefits agreements” a precondition for support of development and retail projects that require special approval. It’s hard to argue that these deals, which sometimes amount to shakedowns, are in the city’s interest.
Let’s get rid of community benefits agreements and replace them with concessions that are deemed useful by more than just a few neighbors.
End parking minimums
As part of the comprehensive update to the city’s zoning code, the Office of Planning recommended getting rid of parking minimums in new buildings near Metro stations, then reinstated them after opposition from some vocal residents.
Instead of backtracking, the city should go even further by eliminating them altogether. Mandated parking spots add costs for developers, who then pass them along to tenants, even those who won’t use the spaces, thereby making D.C.’s housing stock even less affordable. If the market demands parking, developers will build it. If not, let’s not force them.
Repeal the Height Act
This one won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read this column before: The Height Act is an abomination for D.C. residents in three ways.
First, it means that Congress, not D.C., retains control over the District’s skyline (making it all the more mind-boggling that the D.C. Council voted almost unanimously to urge Congress to leave the law intact).
Second, it imposes a huge economic cost on the city. Housing is unsustainably expensive; allowing more supply would ease price increases. We’re losing employers to the suburbs because they have more space and lower rents; why would anyone choose soulless Rosslyn or Tysons over D.C. if we eliminated that discrepancy?
And finally, D.C.’s skyline is boring. The city’s prettiest streets wouldn’t be affected by taller buildings, since zoning would keep them intact. But adding some 15- or 20-story buildings to Maryland-adjacent Friendship Heights or ugly K Street or economically starved Ward 8 wouldn’t do any aesthetic damage, and it’d bring major benefits to the District as it tries to remain competitive, affordable, and livable in the future.
File photos by Darrow Montgomery