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!