Housing Complex

Tall Buildings and Gentrification

Over at Market Urbanism, Stephen Smith responded to my Height Act story, taking particular interest in our little map suggesting places where it would be most advantageous to allow taller buildings. Smith notices that I didn't include many places in wealthy Northwest neighborhoods, and argues that this is the kind of policy that would hasten gentrification, rather than alleviate its effects. It's a fair point, but a couple things:

  1. This might seem like a cop-out, but I didn't mean the map to be exhaustive, by any means. There could just as well be dots around the Tenleytown and Van Ness Metro stations, which would be excellent places to boost heights. Further in, you start running into historic districts, which could pose problems from an practical standpoint—crazy that we're even talking about this from a practical standpoint!—although Smith rightfully points out that a 200-foot-tall dorm might solve a lot of Georgetown's problems with the neighborhood.
  2. The really wealthy areas, like Palisades and Spring Valley, aren't necessarily great places to put residential or office towers: They're not served by Metro, and they're not terribly attractive for the types of people who might live in a tall building, whom I generally think of as more cosmopolitan and wanting the kind of street life that the owners of palatial estates haven't tried particularly hard to attract. Wisconsin Avenue—which I identified on the map—is the most logical location for tall buildings anyway.
  3. What's the harm in bringing tall buildings to poor neighborhoods, exactly? If they attracted people of diverse income levels, that would bring retail investment, which Marion Barry yells about wanting every chance he gets. There's enough land east of the river to build housing at a rate that could keep prices stable, even with secondary displacement caused by rising property values. I don't buy the argument that "allowing condo towers along a streetcar route on Benning Road will price blacks out of the neighborhood": Inclusionary zoning rules require a certain percentage of their units to be affordable, so more condo towers—or nice rentals—mean more affordable housing, not less. In fact, the only way to avoid poor people being displaced from along streetcar routes is to build as much as possible. With this in mind, the city has been buying up land along these routes in order to foster the preservation of units within reach of families that don't make lawyer/doctor/lobbyist salaries. And finally, lots of people in Ward 8 will tell you they welcome housing for higher-income folks, because it'll help businesses that employ residents and allow the area's economy to grow.
  4. Am I trying to be politically palatable? I guess I'd put it this way: I'm trying to bring this whole discussion from vague theorizing into the realm of the possible.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    I don't know if it's true or not, but say 8-9 years ago, I argued that allowing more intense redevelopments of places such as Capitol Hill Hospital and adding housing, would reduce displacement pressures (in particular conversion of rental housing to owner occupied, either rowhouses or small [ 4 to 6 unit] apartment buildings).

    It all depends on how much demand there is. If there is heavy demand as there has been post-Joe Englert on H Street, maybe adding 1,000 to 4,000 units of additional housing won't matter, in terms of displacement, because the demand is higher still.

    The real problem with the height act argument is that it will take 50 years, if enacted tomorrow, to see the kinds of necessary substantive impacts.

    And it can do nothing about the problems that already occurred as a result of the limitation, i.e., reproducing downtown into same sized boxes of boring architecture, displacing independent retail and new developing start up businesses, and a constantly expanding central business district + the making relevant of commercial districts like Bethesda, Silver Spring, Alexandria, and Arlington as lower cost alternatives to DC (also for hotels).

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    I'd also note that Smith failed to mention the fact that many of the Ward 3 areas that are served by transit already have quite a bit of density - Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues could always use more, in my humble opinion, but they're also far more developed than some of the other corridors you mention.

    His post, which assumes development means gentrification, just highlights the lose-lose situation planners find themselves in. If you ignore one side of the city, then you're perpetuating the poverty that exists. If you bring transit infrastructure and development, then you're encouraging gentrification. Which is precisely why the common usage of the G-word isn't very useful when talking about the real processes at play here.

  • Rick Mangus

    Gentrification, YES! Tall Buildings, NO!

  • Hypocrite Much?

    Gentrification, the conversion of socially marginal and working-class areas of the District to middle-class residential use is NOT being discussed in the Council or with Mayor Vince Gray and his One City Transition Team, not really.

    Private-market investment capital being brought East of the River seems to be a dirty word and Mayor Gray lives East of the River and should be championing these endeavors along with CM Marion Barry.

    A shift in corporate investment and expansion seems to do harm to the residents East of the River because they don't benefit.

    I have watched the District grow and thrive over the past 10 years however, that growth has not come East of the River. Why? It just became a geographical reshuffling, among neighborhoods in the most affluent parts of the District where your most populated managerial, and technical employees who work in corporate, government, and business services and not your city services or underemployed residents reside.

  • Sally

    Lydia - You really need to do more homework on how inclusionary zoning would work, especially if getting concessions like density would no longer be relevant since the Height Act would be negated. IZ does not mandate that any new, matter-of-right development include affordable housing.

  • phoebe

    A well-traveled international friend visited a city in the midwest recently. I asked her what she thought of it. Her response: "A generic American city." Can't help thinking that Washington is becoming more and more a generic American city, made so by gentrifiers with a clear disregard for history, architecture and green spaces. Franchise shopping and eating and the advent of Wal-Mart just accelerate its banality. Soon the only distinctive aspect of Washington will be the escalation of security incursions.

    I live east of the park; for years we have sought dialogue with city planners to no avail. Dense development or nothing--what's wrong with neighborhood improvement and development scaled to the community?

  • Lydia DePillis


    You make a good point that currently, inclusionary zoning only kicks in if a developer wants additional density. But the regs could easily be tweaked to compensate for higher limits, by making IZ apply to anyone who wants to exceed historic caps. This is something that should be done comprehensively, not piecemeal.


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