Every so often (just as we’re seeing right now), someone will suggest changing DC’s height limit and a flurry of articles/blog posts/tweets/etc will go up, arguing for or against. This past week has been no exception.
Zoning and process: At the Atlantic, Josh Barro argues that the height limit isn’t the real villain:
But the real crisis of land use in Washington goes way beyond the height limit. It’s that the District’s planning and zoning apparatus is overall hostile to new development, usually allowing far less building that would be permitted by the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910. And while D.C.’s planning rules are restrictive, they are also arbitrary and unevenly enforced, making it a difficult market to enter.
I hinted at this in my post on the limit as well, but Barro really highlights two distinct issues. One is a matter of the content of the regulations – how much density is allowed, what kind of uses, etc. Barro highlights some DC examples of rather low densities allowed by right in otherwise obvious areas for denser development. The other is a matter of process. Barro notes that many developments don’t take advantage of by right zoning, but rather look to the Planned Unit Development process, which adds flexibility at the expense of certainty.
The proposed project is not out-of-character for its surroundings. But even though Wisconsin Avenue in the area is characterized by six- and eight-story apartment buildings, this parcel happened to be zoned for a “floor-area ratio” of 1.0. That mans only one square foot of building area per square foot of lot area.
So, the owners of the property filed a Planned Unit Development application that would have allowed a FAR of 2.0. This was hardly an earth-shattering level of density. Permitted FARs in D.C.’s main business district go as high as 12.0. Yet the neighbors fought the project tooth and nail, suing to block Zoning Commission decisions and even trying to get the old supermarket named a historic landmark. Don’t laugh. The “Park and Stop” strip mall on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, right next to a subway station, is a protected historic landmark, on the grounds that it is one of the oldest strip malls in the country.
In practice, these two constraints (content and process) work hand in hand. The unfortunate outcome is that good projects have to jump over more procedural hurdles, while inferior projects are often approved by right. The by-right density on such a parcel should be higher than 1.0 (and probably higher than 2.0, too), but the process could also stand to be improved. Process matters, as does the regulation content.
Zoning is killing America: No, I don’t think that overstates what Jonathan Rothwell argues in The New Republic. Taking a cue from discussions about Why Nations Fail, Rothwell posits a thesis about why regions fail, and the answer is zoning:
Specifically, they contrast “extractive institutions” that concentrate power and hamper development, such as slavery (at the extreme) and limited voting, civil, or property rights, with open institutions that diffuse power and opportunity, providing universal incentives to invest and innovate.
Urban scholars and policymakers have much to learn from such institutional analysis. While most political economists think of institutions operating at the national or even state level, there is one essential but overlooked institution operating at and within the metro scale: zoning.
Previously, my work has found that zoning laws inflate metro-wide housing costs, limit housing supply, and exacerbate segregation by income and race. Other work faults these laws for their damaging effect on the environment, since they make public transportation infeasible and extend commuting times. With a few possible exceptions (see Michelle Alexander), it’s hard to think of an existing political institution in the United States that is more destructive of human and social capital.
And it’s not just zoning: Will Doig at Salon writes about the practical impacts of historic preservation:
When Jacobs’ neighborhood was protected in 1969, it was no tony enclave. In fact, the justification for the urban-renewal project was that Greenwich Village was allegedly a slum. But now that the Village is wealthy, suddenly there are three expansions of its protective boundaries in six years. The timing invites cynical conclusions, bluntly summed up by urbanist Alon Levy on his blog last year: “Let us remember what historic districts are, in practice: They are districts where wealthy people own property that they want to prop up the price of.”
This isn’t to say that zoning or historic preservation are bad for cities – far from it. However, the very nature of cities is dynamic. It’s inherent to their economic purpose, as agglomerations of human and social capital. Zoning, if it isn’t forced to evolve (via a zoning budget or other potential solutions), constrains the city. Historic preservation also faces the challenge of dealing with dynamic, growing places, as that movement gained traction in an era of divestment in urban places. To the extent that preservation is about more than just edifices, you have to confront these questions. (Aside: See Benjamin Schwarz discussing the economic moment behind the Village of Jane Jacobs’ era, and also this video on the techno culture of Berlin and how it evolved out of a fleeting and unique circumstance, hat tip to Aaron Renn)
Random factoids about height: Shilpi Paul at UrbanTurf highlights an inforgraphic that aims to quantify the price premium in New York for height.
Random factoids about density: BeyondDC pulls some travel mode statistics from COG’s travel survey at the neighborhood level, and the impact of density on travel behavior is quite obvious.
In less dense areas (and I’m judging density solely on my own impressions from other research), walking plummets as a work commute mode. In almost all areas, the commute trip is biased towards modes better at covering longer distances (cars, transit) and less to walking and biking.