Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is proposing to widen and add toll lanes to three of Maryland's biggest highways: I-270, the Beltway, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. To do so, he'd turn management over to a private company, and the US National Park Service would have to abandon the parkway as a national park.
Hogan announced the plan at a press event this morning. This map, photographed by NBC's Adam Tuss, explains the proposal:
According to the plan, Maryland would widen the three highways by four lanes each, presumably with two new lanes in each direction. The new lanes would be tolled "express lanes," meaning drivers could likely continue to use the existing lanes for free, but would pay a toll to use the new lanes. A private company would front some of the construction cost, and would manage the lanes once open.
The three highways would ultimately look and function similarly to how Virginia's existing express toll lanes work on their side of the Beltway. It's not clear yet whether carpoolers and buses would be able to use the lanes for free, as they do in Virginia, or would have to pay a toll.
If all goes according to Hogan's plan, construction would begin in 2019, and would cost $9 billion.
Close a national park?
Maryland already controls I-270 and its portion of the Beltway, and can therefore move this plan forward on those roads. But south of Fort Meade, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway is owned by the National Park Service, which complicates this proposal tremendously. For widen-and-toll to happen on the parkway, Congress would have to pass legislation abandoning national parkland.
And regardless of the transportation planning questions involved here, the prospect of the Trump administration turning over federal parkland to state highway departments or private toll companies raises serious concerns.
Whether or not BW Parkway and its peers like the George Washington Parkway really belong as parks is a legitimate policy question. They may have been originally built for pleasure drives, but they've clearly evolved to become commuter and through highways not much different from any Interstate.
A public debate about how to treat these parkways is probably overdue.
That's a huge project on its own, hardly a tiny detail. But the bridge is now over 50 years old, and will be due for some form of reconstruction soon regardless.
Get used to talking about it
No matter how this proposal shakes out, it's going to be a major topic of debate in the Washington region for years to come.
Is widening and tolling worthwhile? Will NPS give up its land? How big a political fight will widening a highway in Bethesda be? Once all these toll lanes are in place, why wouldn't DC toll its highways too? What sort of bus connections should there be?
There are a lot of questions. Get used to talking about them.
If you rent in DC and the building owner decides to sell your building, you have powerful rights to negotiate during the sale. But, critics say, some tenants are abusing these rights. Two bills this fall would change the way the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) works for some renters.
TOPA is a law that gives tenants a chance to buy their residence before the owner sells to a third party. Carolyn Gallaher, a Greater Greater Washington contributor, wrote a TOPA overview and how it can be a tool for tenants who want to continue renting in a pair of stories last year.
TOPA has preserved affordable housing, but has created headaches for some homeowners
A man was renting the basement of a home. The owner agreed to a contract to sell the home, and the contract allowed the tenant to continue renting the basement at the previously agreed-upon rate of $1,600 per month. The tenant refused to accept the deal and threatened to drag out the sale for as long as possible, before he was finally persuaded to sign off on it — for the price of $30,000. He stayed on as a basement tenant, and he was able to extort the homeowner for the cost of more than 18 months of rent
Or in one case, where the tenants were a pair of attorneys,
The tenants took the full 60-day negotiating period but never came to a meeting with the owner, then they took the full 15-day period to match the offer, which they did not. They were then given 90 days to bow out of the transaction for good, and after holding out for 88 of those days, they finally bowed out.
There’s a big difference between a company that owns a large residential building that wants to put it up for sale and a couple living in a rowhouse with a tenant in the basement. Everyday people who are trying to sell their house don’t have the same level of experience and sophistication in real estate as companies that are in the business of buying and selling buildings.
TOPA requires someone who has a tenant and wants to sell their property to give the tenant a chance to buy it. First the owner finds a buyer and agrees on a price and other sales terms. Then the law gives tenants time at each of several steps so they can register interest in buying, line up financing, and do other things needed to buy the property. This also has the effect of delaying the sale by several months. If the tenant ends up not going through with the purchase, the seller can sell to the original buyer, who might not be interested any more because of all the delays.
Two councilmembers try to reform TOPA
The difficulty TOPA can cause for single-family home sellers is why Councilmembers Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) introduced separate bills that would limit TOPA’s application in these situations. Bonds’ legislation would exempt a second unit in a building, such as a basement, carriage house, or garage apartment, as long it takes up less than a third of the building the owner lives in the main unit. It would also shorten deadlines that tenants in single-family homes must meet in order to take advantage of TOPA.
“Analysis shows that single-family home TOPA offers of the past several years only very rarely resulted in tenant purchases of homes,” Bonds said June 6 when she introduced the TOPA Accessory Dwelling Unit Amendment Act. “Significant controversy has arisen over whether TOPA is being misused by some tenants to exact large amounts of money from housing providers in exchange for the tenants agreement to not necessarily drag out the TOPA process,” she added. “We know that this was not the intent of the law, and so we have to address it,” Bonds told NBC4 in May.
Nadeau’s bill, the Home Sale Facilitation Amendment Act, would bar tenants in owner-occupied single-family housing from doing what’s called “assigning” their TOPA rights and shorten deadlines for single-family home TOPA actions.
Under TOPA, tenants can assign their right to purchase to a buyer that plans to make money by selling or renting the property. In exchange, the tenants may negotiate favorable terms such as renovations, limits on rent increases, or a cash payment.
Nadeau’s bill would prohibit tenants in all owner-occupied single-family home situations from assigning their TOPA rights. They could still exercise the right to purchase on their own behalf, however. Bonds’ bill, on the other hand, exempts residents in certain units from TOPA entirely. That means they can’t assign TOPA right to a third party and they can’t exercise TOPA rights on their own behalf.
“If you look at the purposes of the act, one of the purposes was to increase bargaining power for tenants,” Rick Eisen, a D.C. real estate and housing attorney who wrote TOPA for the Council in 1980, told me. “Having the right to assign your rights increases bargaining power.”
“Their ability to assign their rights at least gives them some control over the situation and what happens going forward so they can use their assignment rights to negotiate a continued tenancy, rent freezes, or cash buyouts” they can use to find a new place to live, said Andrew McGuire, an attorney who represents tenants and tenant assignees in TOPA situations. “The reality is it does give the tenants some amount of leverage.”
Bonds couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, but an aide told me her approach to TOPA has shifted since she introduced the legislation. The bill she introduced in in June was a starting point for discussions Bonds has held with stakeholders in the housing community, which led to changes she will propose to improve the legislation, the aide said. The aide declined to elaborate, saying the proposals will be laid out at a Sept. 21 hearing. Nadeau’s bill hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing, though it’s possible some of the ideas would make it into Bonds’ revised bill.
Streets in the United States are ubiquitous with car use, but the idea of car-free zones is making a resurgence. Governments around Greater Washington are proposing to increase the number of car-restricted areas around the region, including certain hours on 18th Street Northwest in Adams Morgan, 18th Street North in Rosslyn, 7th Street Southeast near Eastern Market, and The Wharf in Southwest DC. As the region considers more car-free zones, we should consider what other urban areas have done.
American pedestrian malls: A history of mixed success
A number of American cities have incorporated pedestrian-oriented streets into their central business districts. These “pedestrian malls” are closed to car traffic, but they have a variety of storefronts and housing that are reachable on foot, as well as by bike or sometimes transit. Many cities with pedestrian malls integrated them into their historic downtowns. In most car-dominated cities, street access and parking is often available surrounding the malls, allowing automobile users to park and continue to the malls on foot.
Pedestrian malls in America are controversial. Dozens of cities tried to incorporate them into their central business district during the middle of the 20th Century to revitalize downtown areas, but most failed. Accordingly, many cities returned cars to downtown streets, and the idea is not nearly as popular as it used to be.
Regardless, many advocates maintain that the chief problem with failed pedestrian malls is mainly due to poor design, zoning restrictions, and the larger trend of 20th Century urban decay. Following this logic, pedestrian malls should be able to work under the right circumstances. Here are some examples of where they have worked:
College towns have had success
Of the approximately 15 remaining pedestrian malls, a number are in college towns.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, the city’s downtown has been positively shaped by the presence of an eight-block car-free zone. Lawrence Halprin & Associates designed the retrofitted Main Street to revitalize the downtown area. Opened in 1976, the street is sixty feet wide and laid with brick, extending to storefronts, trees, and groups of inviting seating. The pedestrian-friendly Charlottesville Mall has been a vital anchor for uniting the community.
One year later on the other side of the country, Boulder, Colorado opened its own four-block long pedestrian mall on Pearl Street. As in Charlottesville, downtown Boulder faced great economic distress during the 1970’s. Luckily, in 1970, the state of Colorado passed the “Public Mall Act,” allowing cities such as Boulder to close off streets to automobile traffic. Today Pearl Street serves as the cultural and commercial center of the city.
Pedestrian Malls can work in large cities, too
Other Colorado cities, such as Denver, also took advantage of the state’s Public Mall Act. Denver opened its own 16th Street Mall downtown in 1982. Renowned modern architect I.M. Pei designed the mall, which also includes a number of trees and outdoor cafes. The 16th Street Mall is built for pedestrians, but it also incorporates transit with a free bus which runs up and down the street every few minutes. Although the route is primarily aimed at transporting people within the mall rather than to or from it, it demonstrates how non-car modes of transit can be integrated into a pedestrian street.
Austin, Texas – both a college town, and a large city – has also had a great success with Sixth Street downtown. Unlike the previous examples, Sixth Street is open to car traffic most of the time, and only functions as a pedestrian zone during the weekends. Sometimes called ‘Dirty Sixth,’ the downtown street is known for its nightlife and (to the dismay of some locals) reputation for college student debauchery. Nonetheless, Sixth Street has gained an international reputation for nightlife, and its integration of pedestrian-only traffic during the weekend is certainly one reason why. Sixth Street’s college student character has some parallels to 18th Street Northwest in Adams Morgan, where the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission is considering various options to partially close the street off to cars during certain hours.
Seattle also recently concluded its 2017 “People Street” program for the Pike-Pine area. Following a series of pilot runs in 2015 and 2016, the city decided to close a six-block area to car traffic for 10 Saturdays this summer. Notably, Seattle is continuing to look for feedback in order to decide how to plan the future of People Street.
A final example is New York’s Times Square, which created a large, permanent pedestrian zone in 2014 after it temporarily removed cars from part of the intersection due to safety concerns in 2009. As is happening now in Adams Morgan, transportation officials looked at reducing the use of cars in the area following a number of traffic accidents in the area. Although the measure was meant to be temporary, the popularity the pedestrian zone led Manhattan to create a new design for the square. Echoing Sixteenth Street in Denver, a world class modern architectural firm – Oslo-based Snøhetta in this case – created the design, which added over 100,000 square feet of pedestrian space.
Since a majority of American pedestrian malls failed, it is important to consider why before promoting them in our own area. Public space advocate Adam Greenfield points out that planners did not tailor the designs of these pedestrian zones to accommodate the areas they served, leading to their eventual demise. Greenfield likewise notes that businesses affected by the street design changes must be involved in the dialogue in order to make the idea work. In practice, pedestrian malls must incorporate business-friendly design elements such as allowing early morning delivery trucks to park on the mall.
Flexibility was also key in the cities listed above where pedestrian zones were successful. In many of these cases, streets were only closed to automobile traffic during certain times. New York and Seattle also tested the pedestrian zones as trials before making them permanent.
Not every place is ideal for a pedestrian zone. Areas that are pre-existing gathering places are more likely to succeed than single-use commercial districts. Higher population density is also a major asset, since people are already likely to naturally gather in these areas.
Another consideration is equitable access. Pedestrian malls that are isolated from transit are not as accessible to lower-income individuals, or to those without a car.
In successful cases, creating pedestrian zones has been a boon for local businesses and the community. These examples show that car-free streets – perhaps even 18th Street Northwest, 18th Street North, or 7th Street Southeast – can be even more appealing to cities than they were before.
News that Amazon is interested in locating a second headquarters in some city has sparked a fascinating set of comparisons and urban planning analyses of cities across the nation. It's also become an opportunity to see how national writers view the Washington area, including many who live here.
Downtown DC, or even anywhere in the District west of the Anacostia, indeed seems like an unlikely place for a new Amazon headquarters. Most notably, there just isn't a whole lot of empty space, especially not with transit, ready infrastructure, and zoning for a large office complex, Office space is expensive and has to compete with the high demand for new housing.
East of the Anacostia River, though, might be more of a possibility, as it still has a few large, mostly-empty areas planned for new development like Poplar Point and Saint Elizabeths (if Amazon goes there, expect a lot of Alexa queries for "why isn't there an apostrophe in Saint Elizabeths?")
There's more to Washington than DC
Also, the District is not the entire Washington region. It's not even the entire walkable urban part of the region. It's been interesting to see how many national analyses comparing Washington to other areas forget about areas like Arlington, Alexandria, Silver Spring, or Prince George's County.
One of the most obvious potential Amazon sites is Crystal City, a very large, very dense, walkable neighborhood of primarily office buildings, right near metro and an airport, which is (unfortunately) largely vacant thanks to federal officeholders leaving.
Crystal City has been working hard to remake it's image and attract new, private office tenants, but there is still an enormous amount of space for a potential Amazon campus. And, it's almost all controlled by one property owner, formerly Vornado, now JBG Smith.
Prince George's County has many areas right at Metro stations which could make an excellent new tech campus with, with the added benefit of helping to alleviate the regions significant east-west divide. So would a site in eastern Montgomery County, like White Oak, though that does not have a Metro station.
Washington shines in walkability outside DC
Whether Denver, or Philadelphia, or another metro area with a highly-educated workforce is a better site is certainly worth debating. But many of the analyses simply did not consider sites outside their cities' cores.
It's important to make this point, not so much because I am pushing so hard for Amazon in our region, but because the existence of walkable urban places with transit outside the center city is actually a major defining quality of our region.
A 2016 report from Christopher Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez from the GWU School of Business and Smart Growth America ranked the Washington area #2 in walkable urban places, largely because of the many "WalkUPs" in the region but outside DC.
Why our suburban jurisdictions are (and aren't) walkable
This is thanks in large part to foresighted planning decisions by Arlington and Montgomery county in particular. Arlington moved the planned Orange Line from a highway median to under Wilson Boulevard specifically to create places for new transit-oriented villages. Montgomery County also planned extensively around several stations to create new urban centers.
Fairfax County missed this chance, and had to build a new (Silver) line to bring transit to its office centers and create walkable urban places. Nodes like the Mosaic District, which is just one huge boulevard too many away from Dunn Loring Metro, suffer for it, but to its credit Fairfax really trying hard to make Tysons walkable.
Prince George's County did a particularly poor job of locating its metro lines in areas right for urban growth, or planning urban growth where possible around Metro stations. Now, it is hamstrung by metro stations hemmed in by rivers and low-density single family neighborhoods.
But it, too, is trying. More than most other US cities, elected officials at least pay lip service to walkable urbanism. That means any analysis comparing Washington to other cities needs to look just a bit farther than "blocks from the White House."
Mayor Bowser's bill to reform the homeless services system has been delayed due to discussions over the increase in residency requirements. People seeking emergency shelter would have to provide twice the proof to show they were DC residents. (Martin Austermuhle / WAMU)
More people are working at home, so the nation lost a share of bike commuters, but DC actually set a record at 4.6%, 0.5% higher than last year. This places DC just behind Portland for the nation's highest rate in a major city. (WashCycle)
Derelict properties owned by foreign embassies dot the District, and the DC Council and State Department want foreign countries to clean them up. There have been complaints, but options are limited while they're considered "foreign soil." (Jenna Portnoy / Post)
The Greater Washington Partnership, a coalition of business people from the region and Richmond, wants to improve transportation, provide more jobs, and help the DC region's economy grow. (Sarah Gantz / Baltimore Sun)
For the past few years, more people have left than people have moved in, and the trend poses a real threat to the region's economy if it persists. Baby boomers and retirees are the most likely to leave, while educated young professionals are most likely to move here. (Andy Medici / WBJ)
Since the last American Community Survey in 2009, District residents have become wealthier, are less likely to work in the public sector, and are more likely to commute by bike. (Nena Perry-Brown / UrbanTurf)
DC's Department of General Services is replacing 3 artificial turf fields after more than 12 failed inspection. Mayor Bowser will convene a working group to decide how to handle the city's 52 artificial fields, and many of which will need to be replaced soon due to age. (Rachel Sadon / DCist)
When a 14-year-old girl was hit by a driver outside Philadelphia, the local police and news were quick to blame her, saying she wasn't paying attention. They only changed their tune once they found out the driver was going 21 miles per hour over the speed limit. (Angie Schmitt / Streetsblog)
As dockless bikeshare spreads its wings here in DC, encouraging news comes by way of Seattle, whose dockless bikeshare program has increased the average number of bikeshare rides from 0.7 to 2.2 per day over their old, station-bound system. (David Gutman / TheSeattleTimes)
A new Proterra bus has broken the previous record for an electric vehicle (1,013.8 miles) with a staggering 1,101.2 miles on a single charge. This E2 model bus is expected to hit the streets of LA later in 2017. (Jon Fingas / Engadget)
In other news: I went bowling with co-workers last week and broke 100 (rare for me), and I went cabin camping in Eastern Maryland last weekend and got to sing a lot and canoe. Price: bug bites. Not too bad.
Dockless bikeshare has come to DC. On Wednesday morning, Mobike opened service to the public. At least two other companies, LimeBike and Spin, are not far behind.
How's it working so far? I took a ride to the office to try it.
Finding a bike
After downloading the app, I had to enter my phone number, get a code, and then "top up" my account with a credit card. Rides cost $1 for a 30-minute ride; all of the systems poised to launch seem to be planning the same pricing structure.
The app was pretty simple, a little more austere in its wording (perhaps because it hasn't been live in the United States until today). My Wi-Fi has been finicky, and the app seemed to freeze some when the Wi-Fi was giving problems; it was smooth once I turned off Wi-Fi. But it was all self-explanatory and straightforward.
There were a lot of Mobike bikes available in my neighborhood of Dupont Circle. Presumably, Mobike itself put most of them there, since they were in clusters around bike racks. There was a solitary one even closer, just a block away on P Street. I used the "reservation" function to make sure nobody else could take it (you can reserve a bike for 15 minutes), then walked over.
As I got to the pin on the map, I didn't see the bike. Oh, no—did someone keep the bike inside their house or something? Wait, there it is across the street from the pin where I couldn't see it at first because of the parked cars.
GPS isn't more precise than about 16 feet, and so I did notice a few cases where the bike pins seem to be just a little north of where the bikes actually are. So a bike on the south side of the street appears to be on the north side.
I didn't try it, but it looks like if you can't find the bike you can click "Ring" and it'll make a sound. Once I found the bike, it was a snap to scan the QR code, the bike unlocked, and I was on my way.
Riding the bike
The bike seems pretty smooth and well built. (And, it's brand new!) It's heavier than most personal bikes but lighter than the CaBi bikes, which is nice as long as the bikes hold up to abuse over time or the company is prepared to replace them more often.
It has 3 speeds, like a CaBi bike. The bell is in the grip, just like the twist-style gearshift but on the opposite side. There's a basket which also doubles as solar power when there's nothing in the basket.
Some trucks were parked in bike lanes on the route, and the Secret Service, as so often happens lately, had roped off Pennsylvania Avenue except for the sidewalk adjacent to Lafayette Park. (None of which is specific to Mobike, of course!)
Parking the bike
The app shows a red perimeter around all of DC but with the Mall and nearby federal lands (the White House complex, Capitol, West and East Potomac Park, etc.) outside the line, suggesting bikes can't be parked there. However, I was able to lock the bike inside the White House area. So I'd suggest they work on code so that it'll refuse to lock in inappropriate areas like this.
There's not going to be a way to stop bikes form being locked on, say, small federal triangle parks, because of the aforementioned GPS inaccuracy. (This isn't a Mobike-specific thing; it's just the way GPS is). But, the central federal park area is big enough that it can know if you're inside that area by more than a few meters).
I rode over to my office, found an empty spot on the sidewalk, and locked up. You lock the bike not by using the app (I was confused about that at first), but by manually pulling a lever on the locking mechanism, which then makes the bike beep and your app will update to reflect the trip is over.
Whether Mobike put them there or others rode them, there are a lot of bikes in this part of downtown DC, according to the map. But it certainly doesn't look like the streets are all crowded with bikes everywhere or anything. Bike systems are limited to 400 bikes per the DDOT permit, so even with 4 systems there would be about 1,600 bikes—much fewer than the 2,500 CaBi bikes based in DC. (The system has almost 4,000 bikes, but spread around more jurisdictions).
Mobike seemed easy to use and very convenient. I was able to get a bike closer than the nearest CaBi station, and then park it right in front of my office building.
Of course, I live in Dupont and our office is downtown. Right now, the app doesn't show any bikes east of the Anacostia, or in the ballpark area, or LeDroit Park, or Columbia Heights, or Cleveland Park, or Brookland, or even Adams Morgan. They're all in the central area. That's okay for a launch, but it'll be interesting and important to see if they end up spreading out.
As we identified in the DCST recommendations, DC has spent money in both capital (to place stations) and operating (to rebalance bikes there) in many lower-density, more distant areas. Maybe dockless bikeshare will ultimately serve all of those needs. I certainly am not judging Mobike based on where the bikes are after they've been launched for a mere few hours. Or, maybe dockless bikeshare will mainly center on the core of the city, and CaBi will serve the outer areas better.
If the latter, we just need to ensure that dockless doesn't take the high-value riders away from CaBi, hurting its budget, without a corresponding payment. That's why DCST has recommended, first, that dockless bikeshare companies have to publicly share a lot of usage data, and second, a system of "in-lieu fees" where companies can either serve a broad area, or pay into a fund so CaBi can serve it instead.
I'll let one DCST member staff comment sum up the conclusion, which I share: "I think it has a role in the biking landscape, and while there will be some growing pains, it's probably a good thing."
LimeBike and Spin have announced plans to launch imminently as well. (Perhaps by the time you read this, they will be operating)!
Have you tried Mobike or another service in DC? What did you think?
Top image: Mobikes near Farragut Square. Image by Brian Barrie used with permission.
Recent data from the 2016 American Communities Survey has spoken: at 18.3 percent, DC now has the highest percentage of commuters in the country walking and biking to work, while another 37 percent take transit. However, the way employer benefits are currently set up gives the biggest reward to people who drive. This means more traffic and longer commutes. A proposed bill called “parking cash-out” could give employees the chance to trade in their parking space for extra cash and encourage drivers to explore other commuting options.
Parking cash-out will give more people access to transit benefits
Right now, employers can provide their workers with a tax-free commuting benefit that covers up to $255 a month for parking and another $255 a month for public transit. This means that an employee who takes advantage of both the transit and parking benefit can set aside over $500 of tax-free income toward parking and transit. They can also get a bike benefit — but it’s capped at $20 a month and can’t be combined with the parking or public transit benefit. People who walk to work, meanwhile, are on their own.
While a parking subsidy is not very useful to people who work where parking is free and abundant, the value of it can add up for people driving into a place where parking is at a premium. In parking-scarce areas like downtown DC, the parking subsidy makes driving more attractive for workers — and contributes to more congestion and longer commutes.
DC Councilmembers Charles Allen, Mary Cheh, and Brianne Nadeau have introduced a plan to give people an equally strong incentive to bike and walk to work: the Transportation Benefits Equity Act. This bill would require employers of a certain size that already provide their employees with subsidized parking to give their employees the option to trade in that benefit for cash. That means employees who walk or bike would now have the chance to pocket the value of their parking space as taxable income, or use the parking benefit for transit. Employees who drive to work could still use their parking benefits to commute in and park at work.
DC residents already prefer to get to work in ways that don’t rely on driving. This flexible commuter benefit (known as “parking cash-out”) would give these employees an incentive to keep up their habit and encourage more people to walk or bike to work instead. Cheryl Cort, Policy Director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, estimates that a benefit like the one proposed in the Transportation Benefits Equity Act would lead to a 10 to 12 percent reduction in the number of people driving alone to and from work.
Parking cash-out is easy to turn into reality
This bill would be easy to implement because it builds on DC’s Commuter Benefits Law, which requires all employers with 20 or more employees to provide them with the option to use their own pre-tax money to pay for transit. The parking cash-out bill will use the systems employers already have to make to their payroll systems to administer pre-tax benefits under the Commuter Benefits Law. If an employee wants to opt for transit rather than a parking benefit, their benefit would just be switched from parking to transit in the system. If an employee wants to use their parking benefit to walk or bicycle, they would receive the value of the parking space as taxable income.
Proponents point out that the bill could even wind up benefiting employers in the long run. According to the World Resource Institute, converting a non-active employee into a bike commuter saves $3,000 in employer health care costs and reduced absenteeism.
The DC Council is considering passing a parking cash-out bill
The DC Council will hold a hearing on the Transportation Benefits Equity Acton September 25. You can tell the Council you support more incentives to get people biking, walking, or riding transit to work by testifying in person or by sending a letter of support. You can also sign a petition with the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Earlier this month, Amazon released a request for proposals (RFP), seeking a suitable development site for a second headquarters campus. The commerce giant is looking for jurisdictions to offer what it calls "incentives" to build its HQ2 in their particular location. Is this a co-investment opportunity? Or is this just a public play for corporate subsidy?
Many initial analyses of the RFP focused on which North American cities might best meet the criteria specified in the RFP, such as access to transit, airports, a "business friendly" climate, and an educated workforce. These initial scans, including Dan Reed's here at GGWash, identified sites in the Washington area as strong contenders. In fact, Mayor Bowser has announced – in a flashy marketing video – that DC is putting together a proposal. The University of Maryland is also looking to make the case that College Park in Prince George's County checks all the boxes on Amazon's wishlist, though Governor Hogan is already hustling on behalf of the Port Covington site in Baltimore. Across the Potomac in Virginia, multiple jurisdictions are also looking at the RFP.
What is Amazon offering?
In the RFP, Amazon lays out a case for why jurisdictions would want to incentivize the company to choose their location: $5 billion in capital expenditures, up to 50,000 highly paid employees, and other positive economic impacts.
Some of the economic impacts that Amazon is marketing are fairly conventional, such as tax revenue from hotel stays, payroll, and property. The RFP also emphasizes indirect positive economic impacts of their Seattle base, claiming additional indirect job creation and wage growth in Seattle through their presence.
Notably, they do not specifically measure any of these benefits in tax revenue, highlighting instead the total Amazon expenditure. This framing suggests that Amazon is looking for a place to co-invest with them in infrastructure, people, and prosperity. In this, Amazon is an unusual corporate expansion, because they do not define themselves as a tenant that might relocate in the future. They are looking for a place to put down up to 8 million square feet of roots.
What might Amazon get?
In recent history, jurisdictions in our region have offered incentives (or given subsidies) for far less than what Amazon is offering. Jurisdictional competition for jobs and sales tax revenue have inspired these notable deals:
Earlier this year, Nestle received over $16 million in subsidies – including $10 million in cash – to relocate from California to Arlington, VA. Nestle became the anchor tenant of a Goldman Sachs-owned Class A office building that had been vacant since the day it opened in 2013.
Marriott, the largest hotel chain in the world, may get up to $62 million in subsidies to move five miles from an office park inside the 270 spur off the Beltway to downtown Bethesda, near CEO Arne Sorenson's home in Somerset, MD.
The Advisory Board signed on to a $60+ million package from DC in 2015 to prevent a jump to Arlington (into the same building Nestle ultimately occupied).
Costco has received millions in subsidies to open locations in Montgomery County and in the District, as jurisdictions seek to capture sales taxes within their borders.
All of these deals have attracted significant criticism from various quarters. WAMU reported on the correlation between subsidies from DC and campaign contributions. The Washington Post editorialized against Northrup Grumman's $57.5 million payday from the State of Maryland, which they received not to relocate to Maryland, but simply in exchange for a promise not to leave. Watchdog group Good Jobs First has created an online tracker for these subsidies, and they also ranked jurisdictions in 2011 by how savvy they are in attaching conditions and targets to incentives. While Maryland and Virginia ranked in the top 10, the District came in last. Even at that, the heavily criticized LivingSocial deal resulted in less than $3 million in payouts thanks to attached strings.
The size of the Amazon proposal dwarfs any of these deals by orders of magnitude. Thus, they make it clear in their RFP that they want everything that's been on the menu for these deals and more: "land, site preparation, permitting, and fee reductions."
What makes sense for a greater Greater Washington?
The sheer size of the potential Amazon deal suggests that no one jurisdiction in the DC area could possibly have the capacity to offer them a deal comparable to what Nestle, Northrup Grumman, The Advisory Board, and others have received. Last Wednesday, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments board voted unanimously to investigate the feasibility of a regional joint bid for Amazon. The vote is a light in the dark for critics who see these subsidies, and similar deals for stadiums and sports teams, as a regional race to the bottom with no evaluation of their effectiveness. Such regional coordination is not without precedent – since 1971, the Minneapolis-St. Paul region has pooled commercial tax revenues under a state-mandated framework known as "fiscal equalization" or "revenue sharing."
What do you think of competition for corporate locations?
Top image: The South Lake Union line of the Seattle streetcar system passing Amazon HQ. Amazon, along with other SLU major employers, makes a direct annual contribution to the city to reduce headways on this line from 15 minutes to 10 minutes. Image by Joe A. Kunzler licensed under Creative Commons.
Recently Metro unveiled the latest proposed changes to the Metrobus network which includes a major restructuring to the 16 series bus lines on Columbia Pike in Arlington. The long-awaited restructuring is aimed at simplifying and improving bus service in the corridor.
The changes are based on Arlington County's 10-year Transit Development Plan, which includes a number of planned bus initiatives for the county. The most significant of these is a "Premium Transit Network" for Columbia Pike.
To make up for the streetcar project cancelled nearly three years ago, the County's plan includes increased frequency, especially on the weekend. It also implements an improved and more cost-effective version of the now-scrapped Super Stop, with features like near-level boarding, real-time arrival information, and off-board fare collection.
However, one the most overlooked benefits of the streetcar would have been its simple, accessible service pattern. Currently, there are ten different routes on the 16 line, each with different operating times, service levels, and destinations. It's a bit daunting to figure out the most efficient route, and the complex timetables may intimidate some riders.
The Premium Transit Network is attempting to improve accessibility by simplifying the number of routes on the 16 line to as few as four. Currently these changes are up for the riders' review and consideration.
There are proposed changes to nine of the ten Columbia Pike routes, divided into two groups:
16A, 16B, 16E 16J, 16P, 16X
Option 1: Would increase service on the 16A to operate every day. The 16J and 16P would be eliminated. The 16E and 16X would be consolidated into the 16B with evening and peak service extensions into the District. To speed up travel times, both the 16A and 16B would have limited stops within Arlington County, similar to the existing 16X.
Option 2: Would not make any change to these existing routes, but would implement limited stop service within Arlington County for the 16A, 16B and 16J.
16G, 16H, 16K
Option 1: Simplifies these three routes into just the 16H, which would run seven days a week and be extended at both ends – north to Crystal City, and south to form a loop around Skyline City. Coverage lost from the elimination of the 16G and 16K in Columbia Heights West would be replaced by Arlington Transit service.
Option 2: Same as Option 1, but also retains the 16G, which would similarly be extended to Crystal City.
Option 3: Same as Option 2 without the southern extension of the 16H, leaving its terminus at Skyline City unchanged from what it is today.
Option 4: Would not improve or eliminate the 16H or 16G, but would drop the 16K which currently only operates in the very early mornings on weekends.
It can be difficult to parse these changes with so many routes being altered. Here is a graphic that helps visualize the effects of both Option 1 proposals:
The end result is a less intimidating and easier to understand service pattern, on par with other Metrobus lines around the region.
While these changes are far from the original streetcar plan, these improvements would likely have a noticeable positive impact on travel in the corridor. Hopefully Arlington County will continue these improvements with higher capacity buses and dedicated lanes to help inch the service closer to a full bus rapid transit system that could keep up with the growth on Columbia Pike.
What do you think of these changes? If you haven't yet be sure to submit your comments on these and other proposed Metrobus changes to WMATA. You have until October 2nd, so make your voice heard.
Look for a Mobike today and a Spin or LimeBike bike later this week. These new dockless bikesharing services are rolling out operations in DC, letting customers pick up and drop off their GPS-enabled bikes anywhere when the ride is done. (Luz Lazo / Post)
Black Fairfax residents cluster in a few parts of Fairfax County, a new housing report says. The distribution is not due entirely to housing cost, but also to discrimination in mortgage, lending and real estate practices. (Max Smith / WTOP)
The Purple Line judge has still not ruled on whether to allow tree cutting along the Purple Line route, instead asking for more information on why the project was approved in the first place. The contractors say they will start cutting trees Monday. (Andrew Metcalf / Bethesda Beat)
DC Councilmembers have been trying to get the federal government to remove a statue of a Confederate general from Judiciary Square, but the National Park Service now says it can't without an act of Congress. (Mikaela Lefrak / WAMU)
Arlington County gave $100,000 to the Legal Aid Justice Center to provide legal services to refugee and immigrant residents. The county is not a "sanctuary city," but does provide immigration resources for Arlingtonians born in other countries. (Rachel Sadon / DCist)
DC Councilmember Mary Cheh asked DC to review and potentially revise the city's speed cameras that issue over $1 million in fines to ensure they are enhancing road safety and are not simply "speed traps." (Fredrick Kunkle / Post)
The National Zoo is moving forward on plans to build a parking garage with at least 1,000 spots due to be completed by 2020. The existing parking lots at the zoo fill up quickly, and over half of the visitors arrive by car. (Michael Neibauer / WBJ)
A developer wants to put a 100-unit building on what’s now a grassy area in front of a Friendship Heights office building in Maryland. They say they've proposed a building twice as tall as the 90-foot height limit to preserve public amenities. (Bethany Rodgers / Bethesda Beat)
London's mayor wants to do something about the large number of high-value residences owned by the elite that sit vacant in a city with a serious affordable housing crunch. (William Booth and Karla Adam / Post)
Just ask college students. A fifth of undergrads now say it’s acceptable to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes “offensive and hurtful statements.”
A fifth of undergrads? No. A fifth of the 1500 undergrad students they surveyed. That's 300 or so.
Villasenor conducted a nationwide survey of 1,500 undergraduate students at four-year colleges.
Nationwide? There are far more than 1,500 four-year colleges (for those of you not American, the word includes universities). How were the colleges chosen? How were the students chosen? How many were chosen at each university? How many overall were from the same discipline? There's no way to know. We don't even know if he chose accredited schools, or those pay-for-a-degree places. Did they ask at Ivy League schools, the majority of whose students come from well-off families? Did they ask at places like City College of New York, where the tuition is much lower and people who are there are from a variety of backgrounds, not wealthy? Ag and tech colleges, out in the countryside, or only urban colleges?
Further down it says the margin of error is 2-6 percent, "depending on the group." Oh, really? Which group is 2% and which is 6%? We aren't told. It appears we are to be grateful that a margin of error was even mentioned.
The whole thing is supposed to be about undergrads' understanding of First Amendment-protected free speech. Since we are not told the exact wording of the questions asked, it's impossible to know if the responses were appropriate to them, or if the questions were leading the students to a specific response.
And then there's this:
Let’s say a public university hosts a “very controversial speaker,” one “known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” Would it be acceptable for a student group to disrupt the speech “by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker”?
Astonishingly, half said that snuffing out upsetting speech — rather than, presumably, rebutting or even ignoring it — would be appropriate. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to find this response acceptable (62 percent to 39 percent), and men were more likely than women (57 percent to 47 percent). Even so, sizable shares of all groups agreed.
It gets even worse.
Respondents were also asked if it would be acceptable for a student group to use violence to prevent that same controversial speaker from talking. Here, 19 percent said yes....
Let's look more closely, ignoring the editorializing sentence for the moment. Half of who? Half of 1500 people is 750 people, scattered across the US. And then again -- 19% of who? Everyone? Women? Men? Democrats? Republicans? We aren't told.
Meanwhile, the entire other side of this survey is ignored. By stressing the minority and ignoring the majority, the minority's views are inflated and made more important. Let me turn this around for you: more than 80% of undergrads say that violence is not acceptable in dealing with an unwanted speaker. Try turning around all the other numbers, and the story falls apart. Instead of "students" substitute "students surveyed", and it also falls to pieces. Who cares what 1500 people out of 200 million think? If we don't know why those 1500 were specifically chosen, why should we care?
I have worked with surveys, written surveys, conducted and analyzed surveys. It is possible to have a statistically perfect survey with 1500 people surveyed, but only if the respondents are very carefully selected to avoid bias. There is no way to tell if that was done with the evidence given in this story. For all we know, those respondents could have been selected from the same departments or majors at all the colleges. The colleges could have been technical schools or enormous state universities or religion-affiliated schools. There is no way to know. Why does this matter? Liberal arts, political science and pre-law students are more likely to have read about the First Amendment than optics majors or engineers, for instance. I'm not saying the optics majors or engineers would be more conservative or liberal -- but they are less likely to have discussed free speech in a class. Improper choice of respondents can provide very slanted results -- for example, the survey that said Dewey would win over Truman was conducted by telephone, and the calls went to houses on the corners of two streets; this meant that people who were wealthier (because corner houses pay higher taxes, based on road frontage) were questioned, while their less wealthy neighbors (who voted for Truman) were ignored.
Also, by not including any context relative to current events, there is no way to know if the small percentage who thought violence was acceptable was the same as during the Vietnam War, for instance, or Desert Storm. I guarantee you, it was not the same percentage as during the Revolutionary War, when those who spoke against any prevailing view to an audience who disagreed would have been lucky to have been ridden out of town on a rail, if not tarred and feathered. (Feel free to do the research if you wish; be sure you have a strong stomach for the details of what happens when boiling tar is applied to skin.)
What it all comes down to is this: this story is written poorly by someone who does not understand how statistics should be used, and was not properly edited. It was published in order to scare people, although the publisher may not have realized its propaganda value. By not including the whole story, and by allowing editorializing in the middle of it, it slants the results.
This would not have been published during the time when Kay Graham was publisher. Editor Ben Bradlee would not have let this story pass. He would have told the reporter to rewrite it, clean it up, and get more depth into it.
And the reason I am writing this is that this is not the only paper that misleads with statistics, and you need to be aware of this, and of what to look for when someone is quoting a study, badly, misleadingly, in a way that bids fair to be used for propaganda. Be cautious and critical when you see numbers and statistics, and look for whether the writing is made personal/editorialized. It matters.
On Friday, people around the world transformed parking spots into tiny, temporary parks. The goal of Park(ing) Day is to draw attention to the need for more public spaces and generate debate around how that public space is allocated. The event began with a San Francisco art studio back in 2005, and has since grown into a global phenomenon.
Fairfax County is gaining a number of beautifully-designed public places along the Silver Line, but not enough attention has been paid to Reston Station.
Phase One of Metro's Silver Line opened in 2014 and four new stations have popped up in Tysons Corner. A fifth has opened in Reston near Wiehle Avenue called Wiehle-Reston East, which for the moment marks the end of the Silver Line. (Phase Two will stretch the track to Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County.) Much of the Silver Line buzz tends to be about Tysons Corner and the ongoing efforts to transform the area into a true downtown for Fairfax County. However, though not as well known or publicized, there are some big changes afoot in Reston as well, notably the Reston Station development.
"Reston Station" doesn't actually refer to a train station (although there is a metro stop called Reston Town Center opening soon) but rather to a number of new buildings recently constructed near the Wiehle-Reston East stop. Fairfax County worked with the Station's developers, Comstock, to build a plaza that connects the new buildings to the metro stop. Amenities also include parking, the county's first secured bike room, a bus loop, and a kiss and ride.
The Plaza, located on the roof of the bus loop and bike room, is an exciting new public space. The area is inviting and easy to navigate despite the train station being in the middle of a highway. Small shops–including bakeries, booksellers, and home wares vendors–line the main walkway, inviting travelers to linger and browse rather than rush to their next destination. A nearby outdoor concert stage includes plenty of space for families to spread out.
The surrounding buildings (including one designed by renowned architect Helmut Jahn) help the plaza feel like an outdoor room, an important feature of many great urban squares. Walking out from the bridge over the highway into the plaza makes you feel like you are not just getting off the train, but are actually arriving somewhere. It's a genuinely enjoyable place to spend time while waiting for the bus.
The site also includes a Capital Bikeshare station, part of Reston's new network. The station is close to the W&OD Trail, providing a convenient way to pedal to places such as Reston Town Center, whose own Silver Line station opens as a part of Phase Two.
Local restaurant chain Founding Farmers is slated to open a location on the plaza later this year, which will likely attract even more people to the area.
The plaza at Reston Station isn't the only new public space on the Silver Line. In 2014 GGWash's Dan Malouff wrote about the new plaza outside of Tysons Corner Mall. That plaza is also elevated to be at the same level as the Tysons Metro Station (elevated above Route 123). Now that space become a signature feature in an area of Fairfax County that has its sights on becoming a vibrant and truly urban place.
With its inviting design and user-friendly features, Reston Station gives the plaza at Tysons a run for its money when it comes to public space along the Silver Line. As more development opens along the line, it's important that its public amenities help transform the area from a bunch of new buildings into real communities tied together by transit.
The original version of this post misstated the official names of Wiehle-Reston East and Reston Town Center. It has been updated.
Top image: Plaza out into Reston station. This and all the pictures were taken around 10:00 AM on a Thursday. Image by the author.
Test scores for DC’s public schools are out, and policy-makers and the Post are touting steady progress citywide. Meanwhile, parents are evaluating the city’s many school choices in anticipation of the winter lottery. Academic outcomes matter to them, certainly, but for parents who also seek out affluent school communities, some surprising results on last spring’s tests will challenge common notions about school quality.
Our analysis finds that a good number of public schools–district-run and charter–are outperforming expectations but get overlooked by affluent school-seekers because of their demographics. These schools are getting results as good or better than schools with long waiting lists and fewer students in poverty. Parents (and policymakers): they’re worth a look.
Demographics affect parent preferences
When choosing a school, parents consider location, academic outcomes, curriculum, instructional model, and intangible factors like fit and school culture. However, research drawing on data from the MySchoolDC lottery suggests something Washingtonians might hesitate to admit: parents prefer to be in schools with families like theirs. The study’s authors concluded: “Academic performance was not the only factor...parents choose schools based on the race and income of students, but did not weight that as strongly. Parents tend to rank schools higher if there are more students in the same racial or ethnic group as their own children.”
The good news, though, is that parents (of all racial backgrounds) also might seek out diverse schools: “If the own-group percentage is low, parents show a strong preference against a school. But as the percentage rises, the relationship weakens and even becomes negative, suggesting a taste for diversity.”
Conversation on parenting forums like DC Urban Moms and Dads exemplifies the tradeoffs parents consider. Commenters ask about “in-boundary” students, with the implication that in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood, more in-boundary students will create a more affluent parent body. Looking at in-boundary percentage data helps parents “see if the school is on an upward trajectory with higher SES [socioeconomic status] families IB [in-boundary],” wrote one commenter. Other comments cite the benefits of active PTAs and “on grade level” peers.
The assumption parents make is that schools with affluent parent bodies are higher quality than schools serving mostly high-poverty students, an assumption GGWash has written about in the past.
Concentrated poverty correlates with lower student achievement–but not everywhere
Diving into schools’ 2017 PARCC data–the standardized assessment that DC students take each spring, starting in 3rd grade–reveals interesting trends about the effects of poverty in schools, some reinforcing and some breaking down the Washingtonian parent mythology.
In the District, income levels vary for students classified as qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch–schools’ long-used indicator of poverty. A far better indicator is the District’s “at-risk” designation, an additional funding stream designated for the highest-need students–identified as those who are homeless, in foster care, qualified for food stamps or TANF, or over-age for their grade level. The District classifies half of DC public school students–44.3%–as at risk of academic failure for these reasons, as of the 2016-2017 school year.
In general, students experiencing significant challenges outside of school also experience challenges in school. That’s why the District invests additional dollars for at-risk students. PARCC data backs up this correlation, both at the school level and student level. In 2017, 15.8% of at-risk students were on grade level in reading and 14.2% in math, on average. And at the school level, the percent of at-risk students is the strongest predictor of a school’s overall PARCC results.
To assess schools, look beyond demographics
Demographics, however, don’t determine school quality. In-school factors–like a strong principal, great teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and a safe and nurturing school climate–have a significant effect on student outcomes, too, for both affluent and poor students. It’s one reason that the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) reports on growth scores–available later this fall for 2016-2017–as well as raw achievement levels.
We find that student growth in proficiency over the last two years is not statistically significantly correlated with poverty levels in schools. In high-growth schools with excellent educators, including many serving high-poverty populations, students often achieve strong academic results–even far surpassing expected performance.
Using testing data released this month, we conducted an analysis of all public schools in DC, calculating their Projected Proficiency (PP), which is the dashed line in the figure below, and Percent Proficient Above Expected (PPAE). We found that 21 DC public and public charter schools, represented by blue dots below–which we call “Bold Performance Schools”–outperformed the trend line by more than 10 percentage points. These schools vary in academic model, school culture, and neighborhood. (District Measured conducted a similar analysis of 2014-2015 high school results.)
*Schools with fewer than 25 at-risk students could not be included in the analysis.
Digging into actual school performance vs. expected performance might change parent opinions about school quality in gentrifying DC neighborhoods. For example:
Ludlow-Taylor Elementary, a stone’s throw from Two Rivers-4th Street Public Charter School, which boasts the longest waiting list in the city, outperforms Two Rivers on PARCC and outperforms the expected proficiency trend line. Ludlow serves nearly double Two Rivers’ population of at-risk students in tested grades. Despite the school’s strong performance, many white families at Ludlow leave after the early childhood years.
Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, where only 30.7% of tested students are at-risk, performs 9 points below expectations, with 28.2% of students on grade level in reading and math combined; whereas Center City - Shaw Public Charter School, with nearly double the percentage of at-risk students (56%), performs 10.8 points above expectations, with an average of 34% of their students on grade level on PARCC reading and math exams. Perhaps more interesting: there’s almost no gap in proficiency between at-risk and non-at risk students at Center City - Shaw. (At Stuart-Hobson, only 5% of at-risk students are proficient in math and 20% in reading.)
Comparing schools with similar PARCC scores, but dramatically different student bodies, also challenges conventional wisdom:
Ketcham Elementary in Ward 8, where more than 90% of students are at-risk, performs at about the same levels as Bridges, a charter school popular with upper-middle-class parents in the District, which performs below expected proficiency levels.
Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School, with a waiting list of more than 800 students, has an average of math and reading scores combined only 1 percentage point higher than Thomson Elementary, a DCPS school located downtown and serving a student body that is 4.2% white and 51% at-risk. Of students tested last spring at Inspired Teaching, 28.1% were at-risk and 29% were white. (Inspired Teaching serves even more white students in early grades.)
Your school hunt just got more complicated
In a city with more than 200 public school choices, it’s easy to overlook some good ones if you rely only on word of mouth and what’s nearby. And it’s easy to feel like you have few choices if you consider only the most popular schools.
Progressive parents and DC residents who value equity should care about in-school factors, not just demographics. It’s true that a school’s test scores reflect challenges that students come to school with, but our analysis shows that beating the odds is very possible. The stereotype might be that these schools just focus on test prep to achieve strong results -- but if you visit many, as we have, you’ll find joyful classrooms, a well-rounded curriculum, and a focus on critical thinking.
Schools with strong leadership, excellent teaching, and a rigorous curriculum can exist anywhere. You can find them in DC–and, thus, have more school choices–if you care to look.
Metro is working to fix persistent leaks in areas where bedrock is especially wet, like around the Bethesda and Medical Center stations. Leaks pool in the tracks and cause deterioration and smoke incidents. (Max Smith / WTOP)
Activists want a ballot measure on whether restaurants have to pay workers minimum wage. Right now, workers get a low wage and the difference between that and minimum wage is made up of tips. Businesses and lobbyists are challenging the move. (Martin Austermuhle / WAMU)
If Amazon put HQ2 in the DC area, it would bring in a significant number of new residents. Although speculation at this point, the housing market would respond to the influx, but home prices wouldn't change much. (Nena Perry-Brown / UrbanTurf)
A flaw in the docking lock mechanism of Baltimore's bikeshare has left bikes vulnerable to thieves. So many bikes have been stolen or damaged that the operator has temporarily shut the system down. (Luz Lazo / Post)
Sheika Reid, a 26-year-old graduate of Howard University, is attempt to usurp Ward 1 council member Brianne Nadeau from her seat. Reid's campaign seeks to bridge the gap between millennial voters and local politics. ( Rachel Chason / Post)
There were four times as many noise complaints lodged against Dulles and National airport last year versus 2015. As in 2015, many complaints were from the same individuals, but a majority came from one-time-only complainers. (Rachel Kurzius / DCist)
The Church of Latter Day Saints may also be one of the country's largest real estate developers. Originally based on Joseph Smith's 1833 City of Zion plans, temple-centric real estate has now shifted to a more luxury retail model. (Scott Beyer / Market Urbanism Report)
Today, Monday, September 18: Creating cities that work for everyone means seeing them from different perspectives — literally, says Charles R. Wolfe's latest book, Seeing the Better City. Hear more at a book talk hosted by ULI Washington, CNU DC, NCAC-APA, and Island Press, at 6 pm at 1301 K Street. This is a paid event.
Today, Monday, September 18: Learn about the more than 130 proposed changes and updates to the Montgomery County Master Plan of Highways and Transitways at a meeting tonight at 7 pm on the first floor of the Rockville Library (21 Maryland Ave) Meet staff and provide comments.
Wednesday, September 20: The 100,000 Opportunities Hiring Fair is an opportunity for youth 16-24 years old who are not working or in school to interview for a wide variety of positions, or work with coaches to improve their interviewing technique and resumes. The free event runs from 9 am to 3 pm at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Hall C.
Thursday, September 21: Trees and other greenery in an urban environment are great for capturing stormwater runoff. The District Department of Transportation wants to bring trees and green spaces to the Ivy City neighborhood. Head out to a public meeting at 5:30 pm at Central Place NE near Capitol Avenue NE to learn more about the project and weigh in.
Saturday, September 23: The Action Committee for Transit, along with other advocacy groups, were integral to the successful campaign to build the Purple Line. Join them for a gala in celebration on Saturday, September 23 at 3 pm at 648 Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring. This is a paid event.
Sunday, September 24: There are tons of great things produced right here in DC! Check out the DC State Fair from 11 am to 8 pm at the Waterfront Station in Southwest DC (375 and 425 M St. SW) for a free showcase of the District’s agricultural and creative talents and a daylong celebration of all things homegrown.
Next Tuesday, September 26: WMATA is planning to change or alter many different bus routes across the region, including the 50 bus route down 14th Street that we successfully advocated for earlier this year. They are holding a public meeting at Metro Headquarters Building (600 Fifth Street NW) where you can weigh in on the changes next Tuesday. The open house begins at 5:30 pm and public comment is from 6 pm to 7 pm. Sign up to testify and make your voice heard for better bus service!
Who exactly owns all of those new buildings around town, and where does their money come from? Many of the owners who profit from high-profile real estate developments around Washington might surprise you.
While you may have read the names of developers who splash their logos onto scaffolding and cranes at construction sites, we rarely hear about the companies who ultimately provide the funding to keep all those workers busy. In fact, many are companies whose job is to invest ordinary people's retirement savings.
When we do hear about real estate financiers, it's often in hushed overtones
In a 2015 Guardian article, sociologist Saskia Sassen reported, "We are witnessing an unusually large scale of corporate buying of whole pieces of cities in the last few years," insinuating that shadowy pools of offshore money are wiping away local sovereignty. Craig Karmin writes in the Wall Street Journal, "Big sovereign-wealth funds, Chinese investors and other buyers have pushed values of office buildings, apartment complexes and hotels to record levels in many top markets in recent years, from New York to Los Angeles."
The reality is usually less dramatic
It's nearly impossible to precisely examine how money flows when it comes to real estate. For liability reasons, most commercial real estate is held in trusts or private entities. However, many of the investors who buy and sell large buildings in this area do report their activities as a matter of public record. As investors that use other people's money, they have to report to their stakeholders.
Many of those investors are large pension funds, which aggregate retirement savings from millions of individuals into huge pools of money. Almost all of us contribute to at least one pension fund: Social Security. Many public sector employees have pensions, and millions of Americans have private-sector pensions as well.
Real estate in metro DC is a great investment for a pension fund
The region's economy is relatively stable since it's buffered by the federal government. In fact, the federal government is the biggest renter of space in the local office market. This fits pension funds' purposes nicely: They can spend lots of money up front to buy large properties in DC, hold the investment for many years, and can count on a steady and stable flow of rent checks that can later be paid out to their retired pensioners.
In addition, restrictions on new construction here keeps competition muted and prices high. Tenants have a harder time moving to something newer and cheaper. Investors call this situation a "high barrier-to-entry market," and the fact that they'll pay more for that situation has the perverse effect of raising the price barrier even higher.
DC, Gateway City
Because pensions and other investment funds like to invest in this region, DC is known as one of America's few "gateway cities". This term is given to areas where, historically, there's always been a ready pool of buyers willing to purchase real estate. That makes investing here less risky than in smaller or more volatile real estate markets. Investors are willing to pay more for that lower risk, which raises property prices. Property owners–whether faraway corporations or local landlords–all benefit from the higher prices. However, local renters and employers, who have to raise wages to compensate, literally pay the price.
This situation isn't new; urban theorist Jane Jacobs identified as a key concern in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She worried that the then-novel practice of having insurers write big checks for large urban real estate developments would result in sudden, "cataclysmic" changes to urban neighborhoods.
To demystify this not-so-high finance, we made up a few fictional characters who represent a handful of the millions of future retirees who will someday draw pensions from the rents paid at the highest-profile real estate developments around DC.
Teachers in California receive pensions through the California State Teachers Retirement System, whose investments include a 90 percent stake in LCOR, a developer that's active around the region. It's developing the land above the White Flint Metro station into North Bethesda Town Center, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission offices and the Harris Teeter-anchored Wentworth House.
Elsewhere, LCOR will soon start redeveloping The Commons of McLean, an existing apartment complex east of the McLean Metro station, and has purchased a development site near Union Market.
Bank loans will cover half of the construction costs. DC government bonds, backed by the additional property and sales taxes that the Wharf will generate, have paid another 14 percent. Those bonds offset the cost of public amenities that are inseparable from the development including parks, piers, a higher seawall, a riverwalk, a bike trail, and affordable housing.
Many people who work in academia (and others; membership is now open to anyone) invest their retirement savings with TIAA. TIAA is a large investment fund originally set up by Andrew Carnegie as a way to underwrite educators' retirements. Participants can choose to direct their savings to the TIAA Real Estate Account, which is one of the largest owners of DC real estate.
Among TIAA's recent purchases in DC are the Louis on 14th, Constitution Square in NoMA, and The Woodley. TIAA is unusual among defined-contribution pension plans in that it directly owns real estate.
Canada's unique brand of federalism means that Quebec runs its own social-security scheme. Those funds, along with Quebec's government pensions, are managed by the CDPQ (Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec). CDPQ has historically used much of its holdings to facilitate local economic development by taking large stakes in many Quebec-based businesses. It also owns a development firm named Ivanhoé Cambridge, which recently partnered with Greystar (a large apartment manager) to develop 801 New Jersey Ave. SE, a new apartment tower three blocks north of the Navy Yard Metro station.
Teachers in Ontario claim a 14.7 percent stake in the company that owns half of Tysons Corner Center -- the behemoth of a mall that recently began expanding skyward with mixed-use towers adjacent to the Silver Line, and the most valuable single property in the DC area. The mall's managing partner and half-owner is the Macerich Company, which is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REITs)–a corporation whose sole business is owning real estate and whose shares are usually traded on the stock market.
Amanda's $5,000 balance in Vanguard's 2055 fund includes $1.83 of stock in Vornado Realty Trust, one of the DC area's biggest landlords. Vornado owns most of Crystal City's commercial buildings, which accounts for about half of its DC-area office spaces. Vornado is also developing apartment towers and a Whole Foods Market in the blocks between Pentagon City's Costco and the Doubletree hotel in Crystal City. Vornado recently announced a deal to combine its DC area holdings with those of JBG, the DC area’s most prolific developer, into a new company called JBG Smith. JBG is currently privately owned, but its largest investor is the Yale University endowment fund.
Amanda's $5,000 also includes a $0.20 investment in Washington REIT, the nation's oldest REIT, which specializes in owning real estate in and around DC. It's been in the news lately for its plans to build upon the parking lot next to the Crate & Barrel store on Massachusetts Avenue NW.
Norges Bank Investment Management runs tremendous savings accounts (projected to surpass $1 trillion in a few years) that squirrel away Norway's oil revenue. As the bank's website says, "One day [Norway's] oil will run out, but the return on the fund will continue to benefit the Norwegian population." This fund owns a few DC office buildings together with TIAA, such as this shiny building near the Old Executive Office Building, for which it paid a then-record price in 2014.
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Metro's request for $15.5 billion in long-term funding is important not just for what it includes, but for what it doesn't. The funding addresses safety issues, but not projects critical for the system's growth and reliability. (Justin Wm. Moyer / Post)
An arcing insulator on Friday near the Rosslyn Metro station resulted in Metro's second fire of the week, provoking single-tracking for portions of the Blue, Orange and Silver lines that afternoon. (Justin Wm. Moyer / Post)
Metro wants more articulated buses (the ones with the accordion-like connection in the middle) on popular routes like 16th Street NW because they can carry more people. However, Metro's garage in northwest DC isn't large enough. (Max Smith / WTOP)
Gov. Hogan's offer to improve Baltimore's transportation system as a part of efforts to lure Amazon's new headquarters to the city won't include a revival of the Red Line, a light rail project he cancelled in 2015. (Josh Hicks / Post)
Building heights in downtown Silver Spring are capped at 145 feet, but a new bill heading to the Montgomery County Council would allow developers to build up to 270 feet so as long as they include a grocery store or other public facility. (Bethany Rodgers / Bethesda Beat)
Downtown Silver Spring's first recreation center will come in the form of a fitness and aquatic center at Second and Apple streets. It's part of the 2020 Elizabeth Square development, which will include over 400 apartments. (Bethany Rodgers / Bethesda Beat)
A DC man who was arrested for standing in an alley filed a lawsuit saying that a law prohibiting sidewalk-blocking is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Attorneys cited long lines outside Georgetown Cupcake as an example of the law's uneven application. (Jeanine Santucci / City Paper)
Long-time DC developer Doug Jemal has used his unconventional tactics to preserve the District's historic buildings and to incorporate their architecture into modern construction. (Jonathan O’Connell / Post)
For decades, the only DC hospital with a Level I trauma center and a helipad has been Washington Hospital Center. The George Washington University Hospital wants to change that and add a helipad, but it requires DC Council legislation to amend a 1987 law which prohibits helipads in residential areas. Right now, the Council is looking to the Foggy Bottom/West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2A) for input on the proposed helipad.
Here's why I’ll be voting yes.
Patients with traumatic injuries are frequently taken to hospitals by helicopter, as their injuries need to be treated quickly. But Washington Hospital Center is the only hospital in the District that can accept them, as it has both a helipad and six beds for trauma patients. Other hospitals in the District, including Sibley and Georgetown, have helipads, but are not Level I trauma centers.
As a Level I trauma center, the most specialized of all trauma center designations, GW Hospital is able to provide comprehensive care for all aspects of trauma injuries. Seeking to meet that unaddressed need from trauma patients arriving by helicopter, the hospital, located in Foggy Bottom, has decided to ask the District Council for permission for a helipad. The landing pad will be located on the southwestern portion of the hospital building, by the intersection of 24th and I streets NW.
However, GW University Hospital can’t currently add a helipad because of the Helicopter Landing Pad Public Nuisance Act in 1987, which prohibits helicopters in residential areas. Some neighbors are opposed to the helipad, expressing concerns about safety issues from helicopters flying so close to their homes. The main concern, particularly in the Foggy Bottom Historic District, centers around increased noise that may occur due to helicopter traffic. They’re asking the ANC and Council to not support an amendment to the law.
The helipad will save lives without disturbing neighbors
Helicopters allow for quicker transport of patients, which will save lives. Earlier this year, Representative Steve Scalise, who along with three others was wounded during a practice for the Congressional Baseball Game in Alexandria, was airlifted by helicopter to Washington Hospital Center.
While things are looking better for Representative Scalise, the next time a tragedy occurs, Washington Hospital Center might not be able to handle all critical patients. The nightmare scenario - a mass shooting during rush hour - would make it extremely difficult to transport all patients by ambulance to receive the care they need. When every second counts, having more than one highly capable, Level I trauma center with a helipad in the District will undoubtedly save lives.
Despite neighbors’ concerns about the safety of helicopters using the helipad, pilots within restricted airspace are subject to stricter vetting by the federal government, and the safety record of helicopters in the District backs this up. Additionally, due to the hospital’s location within the White House’s no-fly zone, most helicopters will arrive from or depart from the north or west, so they will not even fly over the eastern portion of the neighborhood where many homes are located.
In addition, the helicopters may actually reduce noise around the hospital. A noise study conducted between March 30 to April 5 tested the fly-in routes routes. According to data provided by the hospital, the helicopter produced an outside noise level of 85 decibels. That’s not nothing, but it’s way below the 110 decibel level of ambulances the helicopters might replace.
The hospital estimates that the helipad will be used about twice a week and nearly all will occur during the day when noise is not a concern – and noise will last an average of 90 seconds as the helicopter takes off or lands.
Other concerns are with the vibration potential from the helicopters, but the study didn’t detect issues with vibration. In any case, heavy-duty trucks and Metrorail cause heavier vibration on a daily basis than small, medical helicopters.
ANC 2A’s agreement with the hospital addresses these concerns
Because of the feedback we’ve received from neighbors, several ANC 2A commissioners, including GGWash contributor Patrick Kennedy, have worked with GW University Hospital to find a draft agreement that spells out flight numbers, hours, and a mediation process.
Among other requirements, the agreement caps the number of flights that originate or depart at GW University Hospital at 175 per year, requires pilots to “fly neighborly,” mandates that the hospital notify ANC 2A within 72 hours about any flight that occurs between 11 pm and 5:59 am, and limits the percentage of flights that can occur from the building during these late hours to 25 percent of all total flights.
The agreement also provides mechanisms for resolving issues surrounding noise, by way of requiring the hospital to maintain a helipad complaint hotline, provide semi-annual reports to ANC 2A during the first few years of the helipad’s operation, and requiring hospital representatives to meet with the ANC if flights exceed the numbers outlined in the agreement. The Department of Health can review the flights if no resolution is reached between the ANC and the hospital in these mediation meetings.
Notably, mass casualty events occurring in DC, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia are exempted from the flight cap, as are helipad landing requests made by federal agencies.
Let’s support the helipad
At a special meeting on September 7th, ANC 2A voted 5-1-1, with one recusal, to make minor changes to the draft agreement with the hospital to establish the helipad. On September 19th, we’ll take a second and final vote on the helipad agreement, pending approval by GW Hospital of the amendments made to the agreement. If you live in Foggy Bottom or the West End, please let your commissioner know you support the helipad.
Top image: Proposed helipad site, on the southwestern corner of the GW Hospital roof. Image by the author.