The Dis­trict’s two fu­tures

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - DAVID ALPERT The writer is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington.

Af­ter a gen­er­a­tion of los­ing pop­u­la­tion, the Dis­trict is at­tract­ing peo­ple of all ages, and hous­ing costs have sky­rock­eted as a re­sult. While growth has slowed, costs con­tinue ascending be­yond the reach of not only poor res­i­dents but also many mid­dle­and up­per-mid­dle-class fam­i­lies.

As long as this tra­jec­tory con­tin­ues, the Dis­trict faces two fu­tures: A city in­ac­ces­si­ble to all but the most af­flu­ent, with ram­pant dis­place­ment pric­ing out peo­ple in all corners of the city (as in San Fran­cisco); or a di­verse city that has planned enough hous­ing to fit all of the new res­i­dents along­side long­time ones.

Which course the Dis­trict takes de­pends on the fore­sight (or blind­ness) of its lead­ers. They can plan for a grow­ing and in­clu­sive city or ig­nore the dan­gers ahead.

A 2013 Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity study an­tic­i­pates the Dis­trict will need about 100,000 new hous­ing units, and a June up­date pro­jected the same trend. The Sus­tain­able DC Plan, which the D.C. Coun­cil en­dorsed in 2013, calls for plan­ning for 250,000 new res­i­dents over 20 years. The Metropoli­tan Washington Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments projects the Dis­trict could ap­proach 900,000 res­i­dents by 2040. The D.C. Of­fice of Plan­ning pro­jected it will need 158 mil­lion to 200 mil­lion square feet of news­pace.

But given to­day’s house­hold sizes and laws that limit rent­ing out rooms or garages, cur­rent zon­ing doesn’t al­low the space for 850,000 to 900,000 peo­ple, the Of­fice of Plan­ning also con­cluded.

Those who re­mem­ber the days, not long ago, when much of down­town was empty, Mount Ver­non Tri­an­gle fea­tured block af­ter block of sur­face park­ing and strip clubs filled what’s now the ball­park area might find it amaz­ing to con­ceive of the Dis­trict run­ning out of room. And com­mer­cial cor­ri­dors still clamor for the kind of re­vi­tal­iza­tion that has come re­cently to Lo­gan Cir­cle and Columbia Heights.

Re­de­vel­op­ment in these ar­eas was counted in the above re­ports. And many nearby res­i­dents don’t want the warp-speed price rises that have come to Lo­gan Cir­cle. While they welcome re­de­vel­op­ment, they’re as ner­vous about fun­da­men­tally chang­ing the char­ac­ter of residential com­mu­ni­ties as peo­ple in fancier ar­eas.

Long-ex­pen­sive neigh­bor­hoods have es­tab­lished more reg­u­la­tions, such as zon­ing over­lays and his­toric dis­tricts, that limit growth that would oth­er­wise come. This squeezes the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of growth into a nar­row band of so-called “gen­tri­fy­ing” neigh­bor­hoods.

Those com­mu­ni­ties want to man­age growth, too. That was the im­pe­tus be­hind re­cent rules lim­it­ing “pop-up” ad­di­tions and ex­pan­sions to row­houses. There have in­deed been some low-qual­ity or even dan­ger­ous ad­di­tions by “flip­pers” who scam home buy­ers. The Dis­trict’s Com­pre­hen­sive Plan re­serves some row­house zones for one- and two-fam­ily res­i­dences rather than apart­ment build­ings.

The big prob­lem, how­ever, is that each zon­ing pro­posal that ex­pands hous­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, such as the Dis­trict’s seven-yearsand-count­ing zon­ing up­date, which would have le­gal­ized rent­ing rooms or base­ments in lower den­sity ar­eas, en­coun­ters con­sid­er­able op­po­si­tion. Mean­while, other pro­pos­als, such as pop-up rules or new his­toric dis­tricts, lower the “ceil­ing” of avail­able zon­ing space even if well- in­ten­tionedand re­spon­sive to a real neigh­bor­hood con­cern.

Any given neigh­bor­hood has many ways to fit more hous­ing. Build­ings near Metro sta­tions and bus lines could be taller. Or row­houses could all get a lit­tle taller, or have more but smaller units. Or de­tached houses could have rental units in base­ments or garages. Or some park­ing lots or other open spa­ces could be­come build­ings. There are pros and cons to each.

What we need, ul­ti­mately, is a process to en­gage res­i­dents of each neigh­bor­hood to weigh the op­tions and reach con­sen­sus on a way for­ward. The key is to pick a so­lu­tion. “Just put all the growth in some­one else’s neigh­bor­hood” is not a fair an­swer. Each neigh­bor­hood should welcome new res­i­dents and pre­serve hous­ing for ex­ist­ing ones. Let’s al­low com­mu­ni­ties to choose how — not whether— to grow.

A great op­por­tu­nity will come when the Dis­trict be­gins the process of re­vis­ing its Com­pre­hen­sive Plan. The Of­fice of Plan­ning could en­vi­sion, with some speci­ficity, the city of 850,000 that city­wide plans and fore­casts an­tic­i­pate. It could con­vene dis­cus­sions in in­di­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ties to fig­ure out how to grow, in­clu­sively.

If each neigh­bor­hood pitches in, the Dis­trict can meet the fore­casts with­out los­ing the qual­i­ties res­i­dents most trea­sure about their neigh­bor­hoods. The work to en­gage res­i­dents and make such plans is not sim­ple, but it is ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary if the Dis­trict is to re­main an in­clu­sive and ac­ces­si­ble place where any­one who wishes to share in its won­der­ful qual­i­ties can and any­one who wants to re­main in his or her com­mu­nity has that choice.

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