Housing Complex

Where to Put the Jobs?

250 M Street SE is waiting for tenants before getting started. (W.C. Smith)

Matt Yglesias responds to David Alpert's analysis of the Gray transition's weirdly non-transit-oriented economic development report by saying that we can't start thinking about how to move people in and out of the city until there's more space for them to work:

Downtown DC is full. There’s basically no land left to build on, and you’re not allowed to build higher. If you make it a more attractive place to locate jobs, no additional jobs will be created because there’s noplace to put the jobs. The improved quality will show up as higher rent for landlords, and our rents are already the highest in the nation. If you relaxed the height limit, the high rents would spur new construction (=jobs) which would lead to lower rent per square foot which would make downtown, DC a more attractive employment destination.

True enough. I'm certainly on record in enough places opposing height restrictions, not least because I think developers should be able to build tall in places where it's economically advantageous to do so, and the office rent pressure is strongest downtown.

But to say that "there's noplace left to put jobs" is simplistic. Although many office projects stalled during the recession, they're starting up again in a big way around the city, from Mount Vernon Square to Anacostia. On the longer term horizon, massive office capacity is planned for McMillan, L'Enfant Plaza, and the Capitol Riverfront. Recent changes in who gets what at Walter Reed–the District may now get all of the Georgia Avenue frontage–has Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning thinking about "more ambitious uses" like a "major employment center." The list goes on. So yes, rents are high, but jobs are still coming, and there's plenty of space to put them–in places that could really use the lift.

  • Skipper

    Most of Yglesias' analysis when it comes to local DC stuff is simplistic and superficial.

  • Ron

    Not just simplistic and superficial, but moronic. The height limit argument is a myth. There is still plenty of space in the District for denser development without disrupting the height limit. And noplace isn't a word.

  • T

    Exactly. There are very few places in town that are built up to the height limit. In most cases it's zoning that limits the height instead. NoMa, Capitol Riverfront, and other Metro accessible areas can still accommodate millions of square feet of development.

  • Brooklander

    There is easily a half mile of vacant lots and underutilized space between RI and NY/FL Ave stations on the Red Line. This is not counting several acres of abandoned buildings directly north of RI station.

  • blkwrrestl

    Why not build over in the Washington Highlands area? It is accessible to both 295 and 495. There are major bus lines and at least 2 subway stations. It would also help revitalize Far southeast with much needed jobs

  • Ryan

    What about Reservation 13 in Hill East -- There is an enormous amount of space around the RFK metro stop that has been slated for development FOREVER and all of us in the neighborhood are waiting on the mayor's office to announce development bids. Totally underutilized metro stop and land area.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    The downtown-adjacent areas like Capitol Riverfront, NoMA, etc should all be developed, and developed densely.

    We should also remove the height limit.

    The office market in downtown DC isn't competing with NoMA, it's competing with Midtown Manhattan, London, Paris, Chicago, etc.

    The height limit restricts the space available, and thus forces areas like NoMA and Capitol Riverfront to develop to take some of this pressure off. Those areas would still develop without the height restriction, but they'd focus on different submarkets for office and residential.

    The end result would be a more healthy economy for DC, one that has lots of affordable opportunities for start-up firms and innovation to take place.

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

    1. You and Alex B. are both right.

    2. The issue with the height limit is that it leads to a reproduction of space in the city in two dimensions, each with different negative consequences:

    a. all commercial space becomes higher priced because of the limit on supply. This crowds out start up and other innovative uses. See the discussion about the need to have a large stock of old buildings in _Death and Life_.

    b. the other is that because the central business district can't expand upwards, it expands outwards, thereby reproducing urban residential and industrial neighborhoods like what NoMA used to be into office districts, although fortunately, now that means mixed use including residential districts.

    But this also increases prices.

    3. That being said, even in the current developmental paradigm, with the negative impacts described in 2a there are probably millions and millions and millions of developable square feet of commercial and multiunit residential space in DC, not just in NoMA and adjacent to downtown, and on M St. SE, but in places like the 20 acres that CUA owns (ex-AFRH space), ARFH, McMillan Reservoir, Poplar Point, in underutilized space along commercial corridors, Reservation 13, RFK Stadium parking lots along Benning Road, Hechinger Mall, the air rights of the SE-SW Freeway, etc.

    Certainly, there is far more retail space capacity than there is demand.

    Matt doesn't have a good grasp of the real estate market in DC and the various submarkets.

    4. I haven't read GGW for a couple days, but wrt David's post, I know my reaction to the Ec. Dev. and Transpo transition reports for the Gray team is negative and makes me rueful, that maybe the next 4 years look pretty bleak in terms of vision and understanding of the city's opportunities and imperatives. Those reports are pretty simplistic and not very advanced, let alone cutting edge.