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topic index 2004 DC DRAFT VISION

DC PRODUCES ITS DRAFT VISION FOR THE NEXT 25 YEARS

introdution

This lengthy chapter begins by providing a Background and Outline of the content;

and goes on to provide a written and tabular Summary of the Vision Document, including NARPAC's comments.

This is followed by a summary and commentary on each of four (of the eight) "background reports" intended to inform the Vision:

Transportation Strategies
Social Equity Strategies
Housing Strategies, and
Economic Development Policies

These are followed by a listing of the major Comments from the DC Council which passed a "Sense of the Council" Resolution supporting the Vision (with changes); and finally;

a one-page tabular summary of NARPAC's Alternate Outline, directed more towards DC's role as the national capital city and hub of the national capital metro area, concluding with the following caution:

Turning the capital city's serious long-range planning exercise into a political palliative is starkly inappropriate. It amounts to sweeping under the rug the very tough poverty-related issues that deserve the most attention. Those unresolved issues make the difference between growing DC into a world-class capital city, or letting DC continue to be the region's poor house.

background

Over the past year from mid-2003 until the early fall of 2004, DC's Office of Planning (OP) has been developing a new 25-yr "Vision" of, presumably, the ideal future development of the District of Columbia. The purpose of this document is to provide a framework for the preparation of a Citywide Comprehensive Plan over the next 18 months. That new DC Comprehensive Plan, somehow merged with the equivalent document for the Federal City Comprehensive Plan already reviewed by NARPAC, would then guide the overall development of the District of Columbia. Future zoning changes, major projects, and initiatives would, ideally, be part of that plan. The "Vision" should be the very essence of the city's goals for itself. In practice, it probably serves more to thwart projections that are not within the plan's constraints, than to stimulate the objectives outlined. For instance, it is by no means clear that the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, the city's greatest new project in many years, had its origins in the current current Comprehensive Plan, also reviewed years ago by NARPAC.

Starting with a draft from the OP, and supporting documentation from "consultants", there have been numerous opportunities for the people of the District to provide individual and group inputs in the style that has become the trademark of Mayor Williams. There have been large meetings with groups of ten at endless tables with tables leaders and desktop computers recording the desires of DC's residents. The refined drafts were then taken for separate Ward-level meetings, and the subsequent draft provided to the DC Council that apparently also held hearings on it. At the end of the July, the Council produced a Resolution (15-614) expressing the "Sense of the Council" that the draft vision was approved for planning purposes, subject to a list of comments developed from council members and their hearing. The stage is now set for the preparation of the Comprehensive Plan over the nest 18 months, where much of the process will be repeated.

NARPAC analysis

As is NARPAC's custom, we have tried to develop a summary of this "Vision" document, and offer our own comments on it. We did not sit at any of the tables for ten, attend the Ward-level presentations, or appear before the Council. Our view of the document is fresh, our vantage point very different, our goals apparently unique. Our primary interest is that the District of Columbia, our nation's capital city, be a source of pride and inspiration for the rest of our country, and the rest of the world, for that matter. And that primary interest is not addressed anywhere in the Vision, even in the fine print. The words 'national capital city' appear at most two or three times in the very professionally assembled 75-page document, and not in any particular context. It appears as a document prepared by many different, mutually independent, special interest groups and residents who somehow believe that the city government can resolve by itself all the sociological problems of its 144 varied neighborhoods, over half of which are in the grips of poverty.

The Good News is that the Vision is all about some of the people that populate DC, and points up some of the inequities and shortcomings that exist in education and housing. It is moot on other critical human problems such as health and safety. In fact, these persistent problems do impact enormously on the image projected by the capital city. Past Comprehensive Plans have perhaps dealt too exclusively on facilities, infrastructure, and zoning. The Bad News is that the Vision doesn't address anything but the needs of the disadvantaged and a variety of special interests, such as cyclists and preservationists. More Bad News comes from the so-called "expert" consultants' reports which do little more than regurgitate the existing views and myths surrounding the city's various functions. They essential provide no quantitative guidelines or trends that could become growth goals.

NARPAC presentation

NARPAC has yet to develop a stimulating way to summarize lengthy reports or highlight its own differing views, which remain, unfortunately, extensive. For this analysis, we have chosen to prepare tables offering a summary of the Vision's statements in the left column and NARPAC's rejoinders in the right column. The selection of items is by no means representative, it focuses on those items which we consider controversial or simply inappropriate. Below, we provide a short summary of each table, providing some possibly useful quantitative information not included in the relevant materials. First we treat the Vision itself with four tables. Then in greater detail, we summarize the background reports which contain a combination of good and bad information, much of which is mutually inconsistent. In their presence form, these reports are nearly useless as substantiating background data or future projections. Finally we include the major comments from the Council, some of which seem somewhat curious, and a one-page outline of NARPAC's proposed alternative, without belaboring any of the issues suggested (but covered elsewhere on this web site).

NOTE: each table below can be enlarged by clicking on it, or printed out by clicking on the hot link immediately below it

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pageTHE VISION DOCUMENT

The first four tables briefly summarize the content of the Vision document, highlighting those items which NARPAC feels are particularly inappropriate in content or emphasis. It has clearly been prepared and endorsed by interested people whose focus is almost entirely local. Its insularity and parochialism seems totally out of place for the nation's capital city, or even for the inner city of one of America's finest metro areas. It is written as if the larger communities of regional and national stakeholders hold no vital interests in the future development of their nation's symbolic core.

Summary: Table 1

The summary table begins the series, showing material quoted from the Vision draft on the left, and NARPAC's often irreverent comments to the right.

The overall theme for the Vision is "Growing an Inclusive City", which has a catchy tone to it, but is not particularly definable. Presumably it is less than "unified", but more than "divided", less than "homogenized", but more than "segregated". It clearly has both racial and class overtones, and appeals more to those who feel they are being excluded than those who do not. It is certainly more of a sociological term than one applied to financial self-sufficiency, urban zoning or building codes, and in that respect adds an important element by aiming to "humanize" the city.

NARPAC finds the goal of being "inclusive" desirable, even necessary, but certainly not sufficient to describe the nation's capital city. Furthermore, we feel very strongly that it is the entire metro area that should be "inclusive", and not just its shrinking inner core.

The three sectional themes continue to expand on the basic theme of inclusivity: create "successful neighborhoods", "increase access to education and employment", and "connect the whole city". Their subheadings give important clues to both the content and lack of content in the draft document. The subsequent tables will address these themes individually, and then the background material supposedly supporting the various objectives.

The alternate outline proposed by NARPAC suggests how different, and in some ways how much more inclusive, the Vision should be. Our theme would be to "become a world-class capital city", and its six sectional themes would address: the goals to become such a city; the need for financial independence; the strong need for net revenue-producing businesses; the need for "quality living" for all; the need for smart regional growth; and an authoritative assessment of the Vision's underlying planning factors. The final chart in this series somewhat fleshes out the NARPAC alternative.

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Creating Successful Neighborhoods: Table 2

The current DC government's fascination with the sanctity of neighborhoods is one of NARPAC's greatest frustrations. It is not that successful neighborhoods are undesirable, it is that one would not have a successful national capital city if it had 144 completely successful little fiefdoms, but nothing of greater unifying and symbolic stature. As described in this first section, those fully inclusive neighborhoods would almost certainly not pay for themselves. Beyond that, they would not offer any of the symbols of outstanding urban living, unless, of course, the neighborhoods expect the federal government to provide all the jobs, all the tourist attractions, all the theaters and museums, all the means of transportation, and all of the social needs.

The concept that all 144 neighborhoods would have lively shopping districts, public buildings, anchor institutions, parks and historic treasures; to say nothing of providing affordable and market-rate housing for all the workers, seniors, renters, and those with special needs; and getting all the above without displacing anyone, sounds like the bliss of ignorance. It is surely a formula for financial insolvency.

It is one of the most serious failings of this Vision to believe that "the neighborhood" should be the basic building block for planning the city's future. In many cases theunit is simply too small, and in many other cases simply too poor and blighted to hope for community self-sufficiency. At the very smallest, NARPAC would suggest that the city consider defining the "planning cluster" as the smallest separate entity, and then only if those clusters are redefined to contain roughly equal populations, and if the total number is significantly reduced. One might conceive of a future District containing some 24 planning clusters, typically three per Ward, and each with about 25,000 residents, or, to be more relevant, about 10,000 households. The household is properly the smallest meaningful unit of measure, since it is at once the basic unit of living, earning income, providing revenues, and consuming city services. The chart below shows the wide variation in population of DC's current planning clusters, with many of the small ones also the poorest ones:

The subject of "retaining current residents and attracting new taxpayers" (presumably to pay their bills) still has a hollow ring to it, particularly when it is suggested that 60-80,000 new residents can be accommodated on the city's 30,000 vacant, abandoned, and underdeveloped lots. The chart to the right superimposes the Vision's chart on where these potentially available housing sites are, with another that shows the areas of high and very high unemployment: i.e., the city's poorer communities. Those are the same communities that generate most of DC's embarrassing health, education, safety, or poverty statistics. The notion that net revenue- producing new taxpayers will choose to move from the suburbs or elsewhere to live in such locales takes a tremendous stretch of the imagination.

Finally, the suggestion that new housing opportunities can be generated along DC's newly imagined "boulevards" already overcome by traffic, and designated as 24/7 (or at least 18/7) heavy truck routes, boggles the mind. Again, such housing units are likely to be occupied by those who cannot afford better, and who, by and large, are using more in city services than they provide in revenues.

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Increasing Access to Education and Employment: Table 3

This is perhaps the weakest of the three sub-themes in that it appears to be mostly wishful thinking. The Vision includes becoming a "city of learning" with a reformed school system, better libraries, a new community college, specialized high schools, and adult education linked to job training. There is not the slightest indication of how these reforms will contribute to improving their student population's desire to learn, particularly the aimless boys. It says virtually nothing about the precursor needs to improve the quality of family life, to reduce teen- age pregnancies, and to increase the number of fathers helping to raise their children. After all, some kids from disadvantaged families learn a great deal in DC's current dilapidated system and move on (and away) to prosperous lives in the main stream.

The second half of this theme seems equally unrealistic. Emphasis is placed on bringing more local shopping to each neighborhood, as well as more shopping centers, and greater retail diversity. It is also suggested that the economy can be diversified away from the "central employment area", by bringing more tourists to the hinterland via heritage trails, historic attractions, and "off-Mall cultural sites". NARPAC discusses its disappointment with this naive approach under Tables 10-13 below.

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Connecting the Whole City: Table 4

Despite a world-class Metrorail system, an extensive bus system, and 1150 miles of roads in a 61 square mile area, this objective to "connect the whole city" again seems like a somewhat contrived approach. It certainly has more to do with sociological dysfunction than with transportation dysfunction. The notion that the city does not have enough parks or public spaces seems disingenuous when so much of the city is devoted to well-kept federal parklands, and public attractions. The need for "better sidewalks, many more miles of bike lanes, an on-street trolley system, a downtown circulator, and water taxis" appears as a litany of transportation hobbies, most of which will have little or no impact on "bringing the city (residents?) together". To NARPAC, "togetherness" seems driven far more by choice than by physical shortcomings.

The entire exposition of "connecting the city" devotes not a single word to "connecting the region", or at a minimum, the inner metro area. In many cases the natural affinity is between city neighborhoods and their similarly inclined neighborhoods in Maryland and Virginia. For many years, the natural migration has been to and from communities on each side of DC's closest borders, and in fact, the closest distance to DC's supposedly missing retail centers is to the nearby suburbs where local economic conditions support greater retail diversity. The entire vision would have been more appropriate for some tiny Island Kingdom totally dissociated from any other source of sociological, economic, or intellectual contact.

This last point is demonstrated by the final righth and bullet on the chart below: the only mention in the Vision that there should be "stronger ties to the region". It suggests that "smart growth will become a reality", restoring our natural environment, and sharing resources, including affordable housing across the region, while keeping DC the strong hub. There is no elaboration as to what DC should do to become, or remain, a strong hub. Somehow, the existence of 144 self- contained and perfectly connected neighborhoods with small shops, street trolleys and historic treasures does not seem to cut the mustard.

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THE BACKGROUND REPORTS

Informal contact suggests that the Office of Planning is not particularly satisfied with the background reports, and the sense of the Council is that more background analysis is in order. Nonetheless, NARPAC feels obliged to probe at least half of the eight "consultants' reports" which appear most relevant, and by implication, indict the others as well (School Properties, Historic Preservation, and Environment). Just as the Vision should properly set the framework for the Comprehensive Plan, the Background Reports should provide a fully credible, "official" foundation for the Vision. Those reports should include accurate historical trends, complete current statistics relevant to the vision, and an agreed projection (or set of projections) of expected future demographic and economic growth, as well as the condition of the city's infrastructure and the resources required to keep the city physically healthy. Comments along these lines are an integral part of the ensuing analysis.

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pageTransportation Strategies: Tables 5- 6

constricting arteries

The transportation background report is attributed to a combination of the DC Department of Transportation, the Office of Planning, and Parsons Transportation Group, a consulting firm. It is a rather incomplete attempt to provide a useful contribution, and seems to belie the underlying contradiction between being a regional hub and an isolated Island Kingdom. It starts out quite reasonably by referring to the existing and worsening highway congestion, even noting many of the major avenues and streets that are already at or beyond capacity. It then immediately refers to the intent to turn some of the most crowded major thoroughfares into more romantic 19th Century boulevards abounding with urban living, and on-street trolleys and bike lanes. But it conveniently avoids that the fact that these same streets are now being designated as the primary 24/7 heavy truck routes required to keep the city supplied with its necessities, amenities, and growth hormones. The table below lists some of the city's most important arteries including its major connections with the suburbs and the outside world and indicates the level of congestion and the Vision's plans to make that congestion worse.

ignoring parking requirements

Next the background report provides useful and relevant information on the numbers of parking spaces, both on- and off-street. It is, after all, the increasing presence of "static traffic" that produces the barriers to "moving traffic" in and out of, and around, the city. But the report does not provide information on trends in registered vehicles (private, commercial, and/or government) as a) DC grows in "taxpaying population"; b) wealthier current residents (many of whom would rather own a car than a home); and c) a larger ratio of adult driver population to underage kids. It also does not address in any fashion the concurrent need for additional commercial traffic to support the needs of a greater number of net taxpaying households, either in supply or refuse removal. The chart below is NARPAC's lame attempt to demonstrate how the existing miles of DC's essentially fixed DC streets will be needed for "static traffic" and thereby shrink the lanes remaining for moving traffic by over a third. This is by no means "official- grade" analysis, but it is better than ignoring the subject.

commuter needs

The truly first-order problem of transportation capacity is treated beginning at the bottom of Table 5, and continues on Table 6. It contains the extraordinary statement not repeated elsewhere in the Vision that it will be virtually impossible to support the level of commuter growth projected by regional authorities (The Council of Governments (COG)).

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three impractical scenarios re commuters?

The background report develops three separate transportation scenarios that appear quite independent of any other parts of the Vision document. Scenario I adopts the projected commuter needs. Scenario 2 cuts the 25-year growth in commuters to about one-quarter of that projected, while proportionately increasing the jobs held by city residents, and Scenario 3 adjusts the commuter flow from cars to public transport by means other than Metrorail! What the report does not say is that this in turn would require doubling DC's resident population, a future which is not in the dreams of even the most ardent new-housing enthusiasts. In essence, the background report implies, but does not state, that the planned regional growth will not be matched within the "hub city". The national capital city is apparently doomed by lack of transportation infrastructure to become an ever-smaller and less competitive inner city. In fact, the Vision is moot on the impact of the huge number of commuters on DC's revenues. NARPAC, on the other hand, is convinced that these commuters fill the office buildings that then provide the highest net revenues (in property taxes) per acre of any DC land use.

commercial growth vs residential growth

Meanwhile, plans are now rapidly evolving for the future growth of Tysons Corner, Virginia, one of DC's most progressive "edge cities", so that it will have four metrorail stations, and approved high-density growth (without building height restrictions) throughout. Virtually every suburban jurisdiction recognizes that it should encourage commercial development to pay the costs of its burgeoning resident population. Within 25 years Tysons could easily rival the net revenue- producing capacity of DC's "downtown", with more residents as well. Tysons high-density development area will then incorporate some 2000 acres, almost the size of all Ward 2's commercially zoned acreage. This is shown on the schematic below:

The transportation background report then suggests some goals which appear totally inconsistent with the actual content of its incomplete analyses. Why focus transportation investments on internal circulation? Why seek to develop new kinds of rinky-dink "signature transportation systems" when the Metro system is already providing one? On the other hand, promoting central business growth (an objective not expressed elsewhere) by developing comprehensive parking management appears essential. And so does the goal of sustaining a world-class transportation infrastructure, although the report provides no indication whatsoever as to what that would entail, and does not mention Metrorail expansion at all. Surely the background reports should provide quantitative data on the long-term infrastructure needs of the city.

what about new security requirements?

Lastly, there is the somewhat sordid subject of dealing with the global hornet's nest of terrorism which has now grown, and been stimulated, to more threatening proportions. There is absolutely nothing in this report on the new demands for the city's transportation network to discourage terrorist acts (such as truck bombs) on the nation's downtown capital area, symbolic as they would be. Furthermore, there is no analysis of the increased needs for robust evacuation routes for both DC's daytime and resident populations, both of which are envisioned as growing steadily over the foreseeable future. Surely, we are not simply planning to evacuate a million or more people from one place inside the city to another place inside the city using improved "internal circulation". The city's Vision does not address the city's survival.

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page Planning for Social Equity: Tables 7-9

Among the four background papers that NARPAC dug through in detail, this one is by far the best, and the closest to the types of materials and the objectivity of presentation needed to undergird a professional Vision statement. It was prepared by the DC Agenda Group within the Federal City Council, and has since been disbanded for lack of funding support. NARPAC hopes that is not the necessary price for independent thinking.

perpetuating the old myths

The report starts out by aggravating NARPAC over the persistent myth about the old days when DC had 800,000 residents, and the non-sequitur that the city must now have room for well over its current population of 560,000. The fallacy in this argument, as NARPAC gradually tires of pointing out, is that the households of the 1950's contained many more dependents of several generations, from kids to the aged. In fact, in both households, housing units, and taxpayers, the drop-off over the past 50 years in revenue-producing households has been minimal. As we point out yet again, between 1970 and 1990, the population of kids under 19 dropped by a whopping 119,000 leaving DC with, amongst other things, a vastly oversized, and rapidly decaying set of public schools, but relatively few empty housing units. These historic data sets need to be challenged and established to be sure that plans for the future are not based on the myths of the past.

Never far behind the myths about the good old days, is the convenient "the-dog-ate-my- homework" excuse that "the black middle class moved to Prince George's and left us helpless". There will always be a trend for the upwardly mobile to move to better surrounds. This is true not only for African-Amercians, but for the earlier "white flight" caused first by the diminished federal bureaucracy following the end of WWII and the Korean War, and then by school desegregation. Nevertheless, these demographic shifts have not left our capital city helpless. Compared to 39 other large American cities (1999 data), DC had the eighth highest household income (and an 8% advantage over the average) among those in the second, third, and fourth "quintiles" (a quintile = one-fifth, or 20%) of other cities' total household population, as shown in the busy graphic below:

The problem is magnified, however, by the extreme contrasts between the household income of the lowest quintile and the highest. DC has the third highest top incomes, but 13th lowest incomes, and a ratio between them that tops the list (by a small amount) of all 40 cities. As shown on the far simpler chart below, DC's poorest quintile is 25% below the 40-city average, while the top 20% are 37% above typical large American cities (which don't have a national capital to warp their income profiles). But the point remains, the middle 60% of DC household incomes are 8% above the national urban average, and this is probably due largely to the huge number of relatively well-paying government jobs, both local and federal.

it's the suburbs, stupid!

What is overlooked in these background reports, however, (besides providing any such benchmark comparisons at all) is the wealth of the city-dwellers compared to that of their neighbors in the inner suburbs. This in turn is why it is so important for DC to work cooperatively with its richer nearby suburbanites, rather than pretend it is an Island Kingdom surrounded by unfriendly waters and unaccessible resources. This is shown on the chart below (left) which compares the number of households with incomes below $25K, between $25K and $100K, and above $100K in DC and altogether in the close-in suburbs (including Alexandria City, and Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's Counties). While DC has about 37% of those in poverty, it has only 16% of those in the "middle-class", and only 11% of those who are virtually guaranteed to be "net-revenue producers". It would take a truly fertile imagination to believe these 1.1 million suburban households all emigrated from DC in the past 30 years!.

Perhaps more informative, however, is a simple calculation of how DC's current population mix should change to even out the mix of household incomes across the inner region. This is shown on the right hand chart below: DC needs to swap 40,000 of its poorer households into the suburbs (where jobs are more plentiful) in return for 15,000 middle income, and 25,000 upper income households. Various apologists for social equity will be aghast at such a heartless formulation, but surely DC's goals do not include the preservation of historic poverty, nor the acceptance of a primary role as the region's poor house.

key future trends

DC Agenda goes on, however, to make its own (much more reasonable) projections of the numbers of people and households likely to take up residence in DC over the next two decades. It also describes the still increasing numbers of poor kids and households, though NARPAC is not sure why those trends should continue as the number of kids and single moms continues to drop. The importance of the disastrous number of fatherless families is a point well taken. The report identifies the actual number of unemployed and the particular problem of 2500 ex- offenders being released back into the community with no evident skills, and a predilection for repeating their counterproductive pursuits.

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The second chart in this series pursues the issue of illiteracy and its strong relationship to poverty. NARPAC wishes it had gone further to speculate over the magnitude of the task of providing serious education to 80-100,000 marginally-willing adults. To its credit, the report does suggest that it will probably be an easier task if not done in kiddies' daytime classrooms!

hark: "net-revenue productivity"?

The paper then turns to strategies for successful neighborhoods, and astounds NARPAC by suggesting that the first criterion for a successful neighborhood should be that it is net-revenue producing! This is virtually the only substantive connection made between sociologically idealistic communities and the real-world need to pay their way. And not surprisingly, it is not echoed in the Vision. Unfortunately, NARPAC believes that it would be an unrealistic goal even at the cluster level, and surely impossible among 144 separate communities many with unemployment rates over 25%. We believe that it will be an extraordinary challenge even at the Ward level, but would support the notion of some sort of Ward-level "social and economic development budget" to address the special problems of, and potential trade-offs among the five clusters and 18 neighborhoods (on average) in each. NARPAC's recent estimate of the relative productivity of each of DC's eight wards is repeated below to show the elements of revenues and expenditures that sets the net balance in each Ward:

NARPAC believes that the background reports should contain charts such as the above, but prepared by and/or certified by DC officials so that long-range targets and the corresponding quantitative planning factors can be established on which to base realistic projections and a practical Comprehensive Plan.

The report then goes on to address the essential linkage between new residents and the associated requirement to increase the tax base and revenues at the same time. The last item on Table 8 returns to the relative importance of focusing on new residents that are richer, compared to trying to raise the income potential of its many struggling current residents.

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two basic reality checks

The last (half) chart in this Social Equity series poses two absolutely fundamental questions which apparently went unheeded in the adopted Vision. The first essentially asks: why would neighborhoods with concentrated poverty attract middle and upper income residential and commercial invest? The second asks: if DC is primarily interested in shoring up its tax base, why doesn't it focus its energies in lifting some 25,000 of the poor (23%) out of poverty? Somebody, apparently now out of work, must have been reading this NARPAC web site! On the other hand, those who drafted (and endorsed) the Vision apparently have not.

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Future Housing Strategies: Table 9

double-counting the same dubious home sites

NARPAC provides a very brief summary of the content of this background report primarily because we have recently devoted an entire chapter to this same subject. This report was prepared by the same expert authors who prepared the Urban Institute's recent report on Housing Streategies for DC, and NARPAC finds in it the same valuable data points, as well as the same limitations. It estimates that some 72,000 DC households are now paying too much for their housing accommodations, and that it will take 20 years to provide them with more affordable housing. It proposes that such housing can gradually be provided primarily from the current scattering of vacant and abandoned properties in the city's poorer neighborhoods. These are the same sites that others plan to use for net taxpaying new residents. This appears to be a major inconsistency in the potentially foolish quest for 100,000 new residents.

It is of some interest to NARPAC that the Urban Institute scholars claim that it is "critically important for DC to continue to grow, both by attracting new residents and by retaining those already here". This is clearly only one of several future courses for the nation's capital city. In fact, NARPAC notes with interest that the DC Council downgrades this goal of 100,000 new residents to a "long-range benchmark, not a statutory target by any specific time", reinforcing the Brookings report's (dubious) emphasis on attracting middle-class families. Furthermore, the Council notes the need to include the added costs of services and infrastructure of those additional households, a point missing elsewhere in the Vision.

Neither the Vision nor the background reports belly up to the inevitable necessity of mitigating DC's extensive poverty by each of the three red-flag words: gentrification, de-concentration, and re-location. All three eventualities are not only unavoidable, but of long-range benefit to those who would be effected thereby. They are implicit in the notion of "successful neighborhoods". A Vision document that pushes these key issues under the rug is consciously begging the city's most fundamental and persistent problems of concentrated poverty in blighted neighborhoods. They will never be solved by attracting volunteer taxpayers to live in their midst.

stark differences in regional housing costs

This problem is shown in another chart which might make a useful addition to this background report. Instead of emphasizing the skin color of the region's residents, it lays out the vast differences in the average sales price of single family homes in 2003. It is this implicit variation of 10:1 in household wealth that is more likely to influence migration choices, and shopping choices for that matter (see below), than considerations of jurisdictional boundaries and internal inclusivity.

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pageEconomic Development Policies: Tables 10-13

The next four charts summarize the content of the fourth background report that NARPAC has reviewed. This economic development policies report is by far the least professional, and the least relevant to the major issues at hand. It starts out with some useful statistics, but not necessarily the most germane. For instance, the favorite bete noir of most DC analysts deals with its so-called "structural imbalance". It is hard to believe that this report author was smart enough to ignore it. To the contrary, it is an outstanding issue that needs to be vetted before deciding how best to increase DC's revenue base.

federal outsourcing

One of the more original points brought up in this background report is the issue of federal outsourcing. While crediting Dr. Fuller with the background analysis, the fact that the federal government has created 195,000 new private sector jobs by downsizing the federal workforce is, in fact, an important consideration. While this report frets about whether DC got its proper share of the higher skilled jobs (how could it?), it ignores the fact that this is yet another area in which the presence of the federal government helps the District, rather than depleting its finances as so often claimed. The notion that the federal government is a financial burden to the residents of DC is yet another fable that needs to be put to rest. Just what would DC look like if the federal government was still located in Philadelphia?

retail spending "leakage"

The final issue raised on the first Table in this series deals with whether or not DC "should have" more retail spending than it does. It starts out by using generalized planning factors which clearly do not apply to DC, and then goes on to speculate that the city could well absorb at least 33% more retail space. In fact the report's own numbers suggest that the city already has 33% more retail space than would be supported at the national norm. Furthermore, it seems to accept that retail spending patterns in restricted-space inner cities with extreme quintiles of the too rich and the too poor will match the national norm. As NARPAC points out, and demonstrates on the charts below, one reason that retail spending is low in DC is that 25% of all retail spending goes to the purchase of automobiles and related equipment (see right hand chart below). DC simply does not have the space for extensive auto malls, which abound in the nearby suburbs. There are also varying spending patterns related to area demographics which should not be ignored. As shown in the left hand chart below, there are significant differences in spending patterns between whole states, our specific metro area, and the city itself (according to readily available Census data).

. Furthermore, there are bound to be different spending patterns between lower income households focused primarily on the necessities of life, and the substantially better off households whose spending patterns can shift towards individual tastes. The simplest possible example in this immediate area can be demonstrated by comparing spending patterns in DC, with the area's lowest average household income, to the area's wealthiest households (by far) in Virginia's very prosperous Fairfax County. There are very significant variations in spending on everything from food and beverages to electronics and appliances.

. Finally the Census data also indicates the average sales per store, as well as the ratio of sales dollars to payroll dollars (the higher the more profitable). The chart below compares four major jurisdictions in Maryland (in green), three neighboring jurisdictions in Virginia (in blue) and the noticeably poorer statistics for DC. Where would you open your new store?

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commuter and tourist spending in DC

The first item noted on this second table deals with the expected spending of commuters and tourists downtown. Together they are expected to spend some $3 billion at retail outlets. While NARPAC has no independent check of these estimates, this is a very substantial number compared to the $4.3 billion spent by all DC residents. Surely the commuters and tourists cost the city less than its residents do!

From here on, this economic development paper makes a series of assertions which, with only two exceptions, appear to be considerably off the mark. These include:

o an implication that the federal government only assumed the costs of DC's state-like services for the duration of the reign of the Control Board;

o DC's tax structure cannot afford to be more "onerous" than those in the suburbs and still remain "competitive" (no premium for "box seats"?);

o There are natural tensions between DC and the federal government because of undercurrents of "imperiousness met with aggrievement, heavy and hidden hands, and whom you know, not what you do".

On the other hand, the background report does suggest (contrary to DC doctrine) that new DC residents are more likely to be childless or empty nesters or very rich, and more interested in multi-unit housing than single family homes.

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The third table presents six additional points from the Economic Development background paper, five of which strike NARPAC as remarkably uninformed about DC's economic present or future:

o The federal Government doesn't pay real estate taxes. (There are important and growing exceptions when government offices are placed in rented space from commercial building developers.)

o Retail shopping should be concentrated downtown for the maximum convenience of all.(This ignores the big differences in spending patterns according to household wealth, and the difficulty of shopping downtown when a car is needed to carry home purchases.)

o DC should not allow (?) the development of retail shopping malls in close proximity to DC's borders (30 years too late for that one!)

o DC should attract lots more tourists by offering "thematic" tours such as the city's role as a place of refuge and protest for African Americans. (Does anyone track the demographic composition of DC's tourists?)

o DC should find it remarkably easy to pursue "smart growth" because of its large cohort of well- educated and politically astute citizens. (yeah? Aren't they all N-I-M-B-Y's?)

The one exception on this page is to note (but not pursue) the fact that DC's building height limits make it harder to achieve the densities and mixed-uses of other successful downtowns. Surely this is another area in which the possibilities and benefits of changing building height laws should be quantitatively analyzed, particularly for "smart growth" sites away from downtown.

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The final table in this set approaches several somewhat less disputable issues, but does not treat them in sufficient detail:

o The net break-even point for net-positive revenues from DC households is a "surprisingly low" $70,000 income. No foundation for the number is given, and even if true, it applies to less than 20% of DC's households.

o Control the inevitable (!) "gentrification" by keeping it gradual and manageable. Does this advice limit the rate of DC's growth over the next 25 years? If so, it should be flagged.

o DC has several ways to condemn land for economic development, which is a distinct advantage. NARPAC doubts that this can be documented, but it should be.

o Objectives should include doubling tourist spending; acting strategically re large area developments; generating 50,000 new housing units for 100,000 new residents while minimizing gentrification, and, remarkably enough "thinking regionally re smart growth, fiscal policy"(!)

NARPAC's companion comments also suggest several areas in which the background report does not venture at all. The only one worth repeating here is the lack of any quantitative judgment on the relative merits of commercial vs residential developments. It is surely the most important issue to be addressed in DC's long-term future development, and a clear alternative to packing the city with residents who wish to be part of the gentrification of the disadvantaged or transitional neighborhoods.

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pageDC Council Comments: Table 14

This next table addresses 20 of the comments attached to the Sense of the Council Resolution endorsing the basic theme of "growing an inclusive city". The format changes so that both the left and right columns present Council inputs. The least significant (to NARPAC) are left off, and the order is the same as in the resolution. Aside from the usual references to the negative impact of the federal presence, the "barriers to DC's economic well-being, and the need to avoid disrupting the poor, NARPAC selects five as more important, and one which appears to be an entirely new approach to avoiding "smart growth":

o Regional discussion should perhaps be a new section;

o A new section should treat the relationship between the federal and local cities;

o Affordable housing should be extended to a regional context;

o Adding 100,000 residents is a long-range benchmark, not a statutory target, and both the costs and benefits of such new residents need to be analyzed (2 points);

o Additional analytical work will be done (!).

development-proof Metro stations?

Most controversial in NARPAC's view is the startling assertion that "all Metro stations are not the same: some were designed to serve neighborhoods while others were designed to transform neighborhoods. Growth incentives should focus on low market demand areas". NARPAC has never seen reference to this counter-intuitive proposition in earlier plans, federal or local, or in any documentation from WMATA or the DCDoT. The notion that development should focus on places not ready for it, and avoid the areas where some development has already occurred seems foolish, and most likely self-serving. It also seems odd that a federally-funded project should specify limits which could be interpreted as exclusionary. It is essential that any future planning document for the city make very clear which stations are to be legislatively protected from "transit-oriented development", and the legal basis for it. It appears to NARPAC to be the most blatant case of "NIMBYism" so far in this planning exercise.

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pageNARPAC Alternative Outline: Table 15

This final table presents NARPAC's proposed Alternative Outline. In the main, it is based on factual data and analyses of greater breadth than generated by the somewhat superficial and surely inconsistent background reports. Not surprisingly, this subject has been the major focus of our organization since its incorporation over seven years ago. We are almost exclusively interested in the unexpurgated image of DC as an inherent part of the symbol of American hope and promise.

DC is not your average American city free to pursue its own idiosyncrasies or peculiar demographics. Its residents are not in a position to disparage the federal government in its midst. Its residents live here at the Constitutional sufferance of the US Congress. They live within the area set aside for the Seat of US Government for good and sufficient reasons. As the US has grown in importance, so has the spotlight on its capital city, and so has the prominence and prosperity of its rapidly growing metro area. Residents, local politicians, and planners who ignore their "special relationship" with the rest of the USA and most of the civilized world, are destined to risk perpetuating DC as a national embarrassment.

NARPAC is clearly in no position to provide an infallible alternative outline on such short notice. However, it would be so different than the one recently approved, that even a crude attempt should suffice to demonstrate those differences. We proposed six major sections in the following order, and more fully elaborated on the attached table:

Basic Theme: Become a World-Class Capital City

adopt goals to excel as a top capital city

Start by acknowledging that DC must remain conscious of its national and global image and reputation. DC must recognize the need to be well above average among US cities, and like most US cities, it is the integral core of a major US metro area. It needs to avoid off-beat mottos like "Murder Capital" or "Chocolate City". It would do well to develop some "signature systems" that are of greater overall urban significance than amusement rides. And it most certainly should stop pretending that the Federal Government is somehow an interloper on the land set aside for it as the District of Columbia.

achieve robust financial independence

The city cannot hope to put its best foot forward without putting its financial house in order. The plan should address its major revenues and expenditures and how each are expected to grow. It is important to come up with some credible version of its so-called "structural imbalance" and decide whether it unable to pay its operating costs, its capital investment costs, or both. It is absolutely essential to scope out the city's basic infrastructure expansion needs (transportation, schools, sewers, whatever), and to make a credible decision as to the most revenue-productive use of its remaining major 'developable' sites. It will almost certainly conclude that high-density commercial developments are the best and highest use from a revenue standpoint. Furthermore, the city should embrace its unique role in the shadow of our national seat of government, and figure out how to make the most of it.

provide premium business/commercial areas

Assuming the conclusion above is correct, then the plan needs to identify areas of expected business growth, both governmental and commercial, and probably re-zone between commercial and the outdated "industrial" areas. Consideration of new business districts away from downtown are essential, perhaps including "inside-edge cities", and exploring the relaxation of unrealistic building height limits outside the "topographic bowl" of L'Enfant City. It is important to consider the development of major new tourist attractions, probably in concert with federal authorities, and sharing federal parklands. Lastly, a very serious independent analysis is required to avoid the continued squandering of surplus, often blighted, public school properties. The city also needs to become actively involved in reclaiming properties that are of marginal present/future use to the military, including two no longer active airfields, outdated medical facilities, and so forth.

seek quality living for quality residents

NARPAC would consolidate many of the current Vision's sociological goals under this general heading. But we would suggest setting ambitious goals for all the areas that currently contribute to DC's inferior standing among American cities, including education, health, safety, life expectancy, teen pregnancies, etc. It needs to establish equally ambitious goals for providing adult education (particularly young adult education) and job training as the prime mechanisms for breaking DC's disgraceful "cycle of poverty". It needs to embrace regional cooperation in everything from transportation and affordable housing to health and special education.

The Vision must also accept the reality that it must contribute to convenient regional mobility, and recognize that the automobile is an inherent part of the American dream, not a disease to be eradicated. It is also a fundamental adjunct to bulk shopping in 'big box stores' which have little use for bicycle racks or bus stops. NARPAC also believes that the plan needs to face up to the unavoidable realities of gentrification, re-location and de-concentration. It is folly to pretend they can be avoided. Rather, concerted effort should be expended to find ways by which they benefit those affected. Finally, improving the quality of life of DC's residents will surely depend on improving the quality of the residents themselves. That is, after all, the unspoken premise of enticing another 100,000 residents to live in DC neighborhoods.

lead the drive for smart regional growth

There is a crying need for stronger leadership in the development of regional cooperation than is now being provided by the impotent Council of Governments. The city should take the lead in encouraging the Congress to stimulate such vital cooperation as part of the route to a world-class capital city. It should lead the drive for regional transportation upgrades, particularly regarding roads, Metrorail, and high-tech parking systems. It should take the lead in stimulating, if not enforcing, transit-oriented developments and the need for major parking initiatives. The plan should also come to grips with the real cost and value of commuters to DC, instead of leaving it to demagogic half-truths and myths. In NARPAC's view, commuters provide the city both directly and indirectly with very substantial revenues in excess of infrastructure costs (which are shared with the federal government). Finally, there is a need to put in context the new national security concerns and the remotely possible need for a massive evacuation. Clearly, this is a regional problem since many of the evacuees will be suburbanites, and most of the destinations for all will be in suburbia.

establish credible quantitative planning factors

It is high time for city planners and their obedient consultants to stop perpetuating various myths about DC's past that can be disproved by available national statistics. A serious effort should be made to collect and publish historical data reaching back at least to those wonderful days when DC was at its prime with 800,000 wartime residents. Growth plans should be consistent between various DC special interests, and double-counting of scarce resources should be eliminated. It is also time to quantify the so-called federal constraints on DC growth and revenues and stop relying on the tired old mantras of untaxable land, dubious claims of uncompensated services to federal facilities and the like. DC itself has many more untaxed acres than can be justified. It is also time to define the marginal costs of new residents, new businesses, new government installations, commuters, tourists, etc.

In all of these areas, NARPAC cautions that many of the "usual players" in these areas have provided less than conclusive evidence to support their so-called analyses. We strongly recommend that such materials be evaluated by a broad cross-section of expert analysts well beyond those with particular axes to grind (or past utterances to justify). This might have been a very good task for the now-defunct DC Agenda.

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P.S. Get the fictions out of planning

In a concluding post script, it seems to NARPAC that it is particularly disingenuous to try to mollify the city's most vulnerable residents by making obviously fatuous claims about preserving their plights. 'Gentrification' is absolutely unavoidable. 'Re-location' of many current residents of blighted areas is necessary for their own salvation. 'Deconcentration' of poverty is an essential part of breaking the city's distressing cycle of poverty. Expecting well-off empty-nesters to jump at the chance to live in blighted neighborhoods is foolish. Promising that stores will locate in small communities with little or no purchasing power is deceptive. Putting neighborhoods ahead of all other major urban attributes is nonsense. Assuming that the city can (or should) strive to define 144 separate and self-sufficient neighborhoods is unrealistic. Pretending the city is not an inherent part of its surrounding metro area is ridiculous. Pretending that the federal government is more of a drag on the community than the community is on the federal city is wishful thinking. Planning to draw into the city more minimum wage jobs to placate the city's minimum wage workers will only further lower the net revenue-productivity of the city compared to its suburbs.

Turning the capital city's serious long-range planning exercise into a political palliative is starkly inappropriate. It amounts to sweeping under the rug the very tough poverty-related issues that deserve the most attention. Those unresolved issues make the difference between growing DC into a world-class capital city, or letting DC continue to be the region's poor house.

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This page was updated on Sept 5, 2004


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