Housing Complex

How Brookland—And Dupont Circle—Are Killing the American Economy

A proposed new apartment building in Dupont Circle, which some neighbors say is too large.

OK, not by themselves. But Brookland, in its fight over the years against additional density at its underutilized Metro station, is exhibit A in Arlington-based economist Ryan Avent's new argument—also summarized in Sunday's New York Times—that our failure to build more housing in America's most opportunity-rich cities is choking economic growth. I'm sure Avent must have been delighted to watch, as his 90-pager came together, the neighborhood's first big mixed-use project shrink as neighbors fretted that the building would increase traffic, destroy an "historic" building, and just be "unreasonable."

The case has been made before in bits and pieces by people like Ed Glaeser and Matt Yglesias, who figure that packing more people closer together in cities gives more people greater access to social and intellectual capital, fostering entrepreneurship and productivity. But Avent is the first to wrap it all together and cast things restrictive zoning and home-killing NIMBYism as an existential threat to the nation's economic health, leading people to move to Houston and Phoenix instead of places like San Francisco and New York City, where the jobs pay the best, energy use is lowest, and quality of life is high.

As it happens, I was scanning through the little book last night while sitting through a Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission committee meeting on a new apartment building at 17th and O Street NW. I passed on word of the new building back in July, expecting little opposition; it was just a church development project that would fill a hole in the urban fabric, after all.

But of course opposition cropped up anyway. At the meeting—where commissioners were considering whether to grant a zoning variance that would simply allow the building to achieve the same 90-foot height of its neighbors—I listened to complaints about the fact that you might actually be able to see the building from 16th Street, that a "party room" on the roof might be audible to neighbors, that too many small rental apartments would destabilize the community, that parking would become impossible, and that the building just looked "too commercial."

At the point where I hit upon Avent's phrase, "A NIMBY neighborhood thrives by capturing available opportunities and then pulling up the ladder," I started to feel physically nauseous.

The development team, a partnership of First Baptist Church and Keener Squire Properties, will probably get their signoffs from the Historic Preservation Review Board and Board of Zoning Adjustment. But the more disturbing thing was how they had preemptively scaled the building back, in anticipation of neighborhood opposition. The existing zoning would actually have allowed 40 percent more square footage, but they decided to create more open space near the church by packing the mass to one side (thus creating the need for a variance). There are no balconies on the O Street side of the building, which might have infringed on the privacy of the residents of the Richmond Condominium to the north. They're building more parking spaces than tenants will likely use just to avoid fighting on another front.

"We know it's a loss leader," says a rep from Keener Squire. "We're just doing it because we're asking for one variance, we don't want to ask for another variance. We're building more vacant parking spaces, because we don't want to listen to people complain about parking."

That, of course, means rents will have to be even higher in order to pay off the cost of building unnecessary spaces.

Not to sound like a broken record, but with some of the highest rents and lowest vacancy rates in the country, the District is also the most confined of American cities, kept low by a federally-imposed height limit that isn't changing anytime soon. That only creates an additional burden to take advantage of what density we're allowed.

Avent's prescriptions for dealing with anti-density activism might sound a little outlandish. Tax developers for additional units they want to build and give the money to close-in neighbors, for example, to give them a stake in new housing nearby. Or, conversely, require neighbors to buy the site if they think the proposed building is too large.

The point, though, is that property rights need to be stronger so that NIMBYs can't kill a project for being too ambitious. As Avent outlines, the stakes are actually rather high.

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