Housing Complex

Does D.C. Need Its Own Version of Privately Owned Public Space?

Yesterday's big budget news, on the Housing Complex front at least, was the restoration of funds for affordable housing. But it came at a cost for another priority: Parks in NoMa, where opportunities for public space are rapidly disappearing (the field where summer movies are screened, for example, is slated to become a new apartment building).

The NoMa Business Improvement District had been banking on the sale of a District-owned property at 35 K Street NE, currently home to multicultural health services and itself badly located for a park, to pay for the use and buildout of space at three sites described in its new public realm master plan: A triangle-shaped reservation at Florida and N Street NE, a linear plaza on L Street between 1st and 2nd Street NE, and what's currently a parking lot elevated above 2nd Street between K and L Street. Now, the BID will just have to hope that new revenue estimates come in high enough to fund several items on the budget waiting list. 

Creating parks in a new office and residential neigborhood may not seem like an urgent priority. The problem is, almost all the land in NoMa is spoken for, and plans are coming together rapidly. If the District doesn't act now, it may have to buy expensive land later, or leave NoMa without any places for people to hang out. That's what's keeping BID director Robin-Eve Jasper up at night.

"If it's just the NoMa BID out there saying 'Gee we'd really love to have parks in the neighborhood, but we need money,' and there's no evidence of commitment to money, if I'm a developer, I'm thinking, 'that's nice and I'd like to be helpful, but why would we give up density on our site?'" she says.

Sure, Jasper can try to convince property owners that parks will increase the value of their property, so they should just build them for free. It's a pretty tough sell, though. And having the District pay for all of them could get quite expensive.

Well, New York City found a way to solve this problem in 1961, with an incentive program that allowed developers to build more densely in exchange for making public space available either outside or within the building. The resulting "privately owned public spaces"—affectionately known as POPS—became famous when Occupy Wall Street settled in Zuccotti Park, owned by Brookfield Properties, kicking off a debate about how public the spaces actually are (as well as whether or not they actually work as parks). San Francisco just requires what New York incentivizes.

Something like this has happened before in D.C.: In the 1970s, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation redeveloped the road to the White House with several open plazas, which was made easier by the fact that the federal Height Act allows buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue to be taller than anywhere else in the city. The District also requires downtown buildings to contribute to the public realm by having high ceilings and glass storefronts on the ground floor, sometimes pushes for large setbacks like the one in front of CityVista on K Street NW, and also has allowed greater density in exchange for incorporating housing instead of just offices.

Generally, D.C. isn't actually that bad off when it comes to public space. Pierre L'Enfant's diagonal avenues left us with a bunch of errant triangles and circles that are gradually turning into more useful places, and the federal office districts have lots of pockets for hanging out. Even the Capitol Riverfront has fairly ample open space, like Yards Park and the new Canal Park.

So maybe just NoMa needs to be able to let buildings get a little bigger in exchange for freeing up space on the ground floor. The Office of Planning is apparently exploring how this might be done. It can't come soon enough!

  • http://twitter.com/elcolin Colin

    The model should be Bryant Park in NYC, which is privately run:


    Would love to see this applied to Franklin Park. Perhaps Dupont Circle as well.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    ...sometimes pushes for large setbacks like the one in front of CityVista on K Street NW...

    Did the city actually push for this? The building appears to be built right up to the lot line - same as the rest of K Street. The difference is that the K St ROW is so wide and the roadway on that part is relatively narrow compared to the portions further west that you have a great deal of sidewalk to work with.

    Perhaps there was a contribution in terms of the design and finish from the developer - but I don't think there's any additional setback there.

  • HStreetDC_

    Also a problem on H Street. Even more serious than in NoMa.
    There is only one parcel remaining that isn't already slated for development with plans approved or on the drawing board. That's the city-owned site of the RL Christian Library at 13th and H.
    The recent relocation of the FreshFarms Market to that corner has shown how dedication of that space for public use can provide stimulus for private business and pleasure for the entire community. For a few hours on Saturday mornings, H Street bustles with life - and the kind of foot traffic we need to encourage and sustain retail development.
    The city seems determined to surplus this parcel for private development. We'd get yet another office or residential building that might provide some tax revenue to the city and profit to a developer, but the community would lose.
    There is no other public space on the entire length of the Corridor. Once this site is gone, public space is lost forever.

  • JS

    Aren't there a couple parks a block or two off H St? I don't see why there needs to be a public park directly on the H St corridor - 14h St NW from Thomas Circle to Florida Ave seems to do fine and I don't think there are any parks directly on 14th for that entire length (I could be wrong though).

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

    FWIW, this is no different than any other community benefit associated with PUDs/zoning changes. In fact, the "wells" in the sub ground area of the building at 1330 New Hampshire Ave. NW were provided as "community benefits" and are supposed to be available for community use. Other contributions to public space improvements are typical in CBAs.

    The problem with providing such benefits is that the value of a finished s.f. is at least $700. Density bonuses would have to be significantly larger than what is legally allowed in order to make such provisions of ground floor open space financially efficacious.

    ANd Alex B. is right about the ROW on K Street.

  • http://www.twitter.com/tonytgoodman Tony Goodman, ANC 6C04

    Lydia makes some great points here about the potential for the private sector to pay for these spaces if they are allowed the right incentives. These small spaces will be welcome additions to the neighborhood, and we will continue to push for these types of spaces wherever possible.

    In portions of NoMa that have lower zoning (outside the core in areas East of the tracks or North of Florida) the community has negotiated for some small park spaces. These include a small courtyard at the Loree Grand (to be built as part of its second phase) and another small corner at the "Arrive at NoMa" project in the Eckington portion of NoMa.

    The problem is that this type of park can only rarely be large enough for movie nights, farmers markets, playgrounds, dog parks or other uses because there is only so much that a developer can do when each only controls around 10,000-50,000 SF of land. If each site dedicates a small percentage of their lot for a park, you wind up with a lot of tiny spaces, but nothing large enough for active uses.

  • http://www.twitter.com/tonytgoodman Tony Goodman, ANC 6C04

    @Alex B. - the negotiated additional setback at City Vista is the cutaway corner at 5th & K (with the large yellow metal sculpture). The other corners will also eventually have similar setbacks, creating a sort of public square.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    Thanks for the info on the setback. It's always hard to determine after the fact from just viewing the building if a setback was specifically negotiated, or was just a product of some zoning reg on lot coverage, etc.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam L

    Why wouldn't new parks be paid for out of the capital budget, as opposed to the operating budget. The capital budget, funded primarily by investor income, is typically more flush with cash due to the strong bond market. However, capital funds can only be spent on certain things, namely physical projects (schools, rec centers, parks, and other government buildings) since they could (potentially) be sold off to repay bond holders should the District be forced to do so... like a secured loan.

    Yet the money we're talking about here is all part of the general operating revenue (i.e. taxes and fees) that can be used to pay for anything. So we really shouldn't be debating parks vs. affordable housing, but parks in NoMa vs. parks (and other capital projects) elsewhere in the city.

  • Sigh

    The central irony--ignored by all here--is that buildings in NoMa have already been allowed to "get a little [actually, a lot] bigger." As David Alpert explained in a 2010 article,http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/8313/noma-has-no-parks-thanks-to-flawed-upzoning/ the area was extensively upzoned without provision for parks. Property owners realized huge gains from this upzoning. So it's a bit rich for those same property owners (as represented by their BID) to be complaining about the lack of public space and the expense of creating it. As Alpert's article suggests, maybe they should tax themselves a bit more to establish a common fund for parks.