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topic index National Comparisons

ESTIMATING DC'S ECONOMIC PRODUCTIVTY

o the major study in this chapter looks at various census tracts around DC to demonstrate the very great differences between the amounts that some neighborhoods contribute financially to the common good, and that others consume of scarce city resources;

o a new section has been added in early 2004 that describes a recent study of the Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor and demonstrates how the "NIMBYs" around Tenleytown result in a far lower net productivity per acre for their census tract, than does a companion "edge village" just across the Maryland border; and...

o ... this subsequently led to formal comments/testimony prepared for an open hearing of the Office of Planning on this subject.

DC PRODUCTIVITY BY CENSUS TRACT

For those few analysts, planners, and managers who are interested in the financial welfare of various localities within the city, it may be useful to conduct more analysis by "census tract". For DC, there are 126 tracts, giving each an average size of about 300 acres, and a population of about 4400. Census data gathered by housing unit and block are aggregated to tract level for all the basic census elements from population, households, and household type, age and race, to education levels, poverty rates, median income and median home value. These data are easily retrievable from the Census Bureau web site in tabular form. Somewhat more difficult is to allocate these tracts to various other geographic groupings such as wards, Zip Codes, or "neighborhoods", by which other data are gathered or need to be displayed.

From these data it is relatively easy, for instance, to make some educated guesses about tax revenues to the city from its residents. For instance, on average, 19% of total median income turns up in income, sales, and "other" taxes paid by residents, and a bit over 1% of total housing unit value comes in through property taxes. Prior NARPAC analyses have assumed that the ratio of median income to housing value would be reasonably constant so that median income could be the sole indicator of residential revenues. More recent work, summarized in the graph below, indicates that there is substantial variation in the ratio of housing value to household income, so the two should be considered separately, as in this analysis.

It is somewhat more conjectural to allocate the provision of city services back to communities. Nonetheless, the average payment to households below the poverty line can be estimated; the average basic cost of schooling can be estimated per kid; the cost of public works and a portion of safety and justice costs can be distributed by the area (acreage) involved, and some additional costs for crime-fighting, health care, and special schooling can be allocated to the poor. Other government costs can be pro-rated by functional expenditures (as overhead) or by household (debt and economic development), whichever appears more rational.

Using educated guesses (or a range of values if conflicting judgments arise), it is then possible to determine by census tract and clusters of tracts, whether the residents contribute more in taxes than they draw out in city services, or vice versa. As computers become more capable, and as geographic-based information systems (GIS) become more available, it will soon be possible to make general assessments of the net productivity of various parts of the city to whatever level of detail is warranted. NARPAC has made several earlier estimates of people and land productivity and household productivity, and displayed the results in briefing form in DC Economic Challenges.

Not the least of these challenges stems from the fact that, despite frequent assertions to the contrary, DC residents do not "pay their own way" for the services they receive. Businesses contribute far more in property and sales taxes than they consume in police/fire protection and public works, while residents do not begin to cover the costs of poverty, schooling, neighborhood crime, etc. In addition, the revenues per acre are almost three times higher on average for the 2000-odd acres of taxable commercial/industrial property , than from the 9500 acres of taxable residential properties. As the demand for greater community amenities continue to grow, the city has no choice but to attract more taxable commercial enterprises to pay for them. This is clearly demonstrated on the chart below allocating revenues and expenditures:

On the left side of the adjacent chart, NARPAC estimates the sources of revenues expected in DC's FY03 budget. Those from residents are broken out and in color, the gray remainder comes from taxes on commercial business, and amounts to over 37% of the total. On the right side, the distribution of expenditures is shown by four major categories for residential services, plus less than 5% for commercial businesses. The 300-pound gorilla in DC expenditures remains the total costs allocable to poverty. Education and safety compete with each other for a poor second place, but added together do not match the direct and indirect costs of having 20% of the population below the poverty line.

The chart below indicates the patchwork quilt of 126 census tracts. It is essentially the same as was used in NARPAC's very first analysis of the city's very strong racial, political, and economic divisions. Three areas are colored in to provide perspective for the rest. The black area shows the location of the National Mall from capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial, with the White House grounds to its north. The blue area shows very clearly how DC's downtown business area is attached at the hip to the center of national power. It generates 54% of DC's business employment, and is currently benefitting from 65 development projects that will add over $4 billion in taxable properties. The purple areas to the south of the Anacostia River are shown purely for comparative purposes as the three least well utilized parcels in the city: the little utilized military bases (Bolling Air Force base et. al.); St. Elizabeth's crumbling, almost empty, mental hospital; and the oversized Ft. DuPont Park given to the city many years ago. These symbolize major areas, bigger than the Mall or "downtown", available for future development. The productivity of the other labeled areas are discussed below:

Perhaps the most interesting comparisons are between specific neighborhoods. NARPAC harbors the possibly unreasonable bias that neighborhoods that don't "pay their way" should welcome, not resist, the development of local revenue-producing developments, be they residential or commercial. At the very least they should understand whether or not they are a net burden on the city and temper their fervor for their own backyards accordingly. Many local activists will surely disagree. Estimates of relative neighborhood productivity for three of DC's more vociferous communities are shown below. In each case, the sources of both revenues and expenditures are shown on the lefthand bars, and the "net" "gain" (green) or "loss" (red) to the right:

The comparisons are interesting. Tenleytown in DC's Northwest provides a net gain for the city of about $20M annually. The three reasons are clear: the residents have relatively high income; very few kids; and very few poverty households. By comparison, Shaw residents, just north of the "downtown" business area, have lower income, more kids, and more poverty, producing about a $44M annual drag on the city's coffers. Anacostia (assumed to encompass a larger area with six census tracts) provides a net loss to the city of almost $160M annually due to usual inner city problems: too little income; huge amounts of poverty; many kids; and unsafe streets. These costs badly need to be offset with more businesses and inevitably, some "re-gentrifcation". (It should be noted in passing that NARPAC has guessed at the best census tracts to include in each of these comparisons, because there is no formal correlation between tracts and neighborhoods.) These same techniques, of course, are applicable to other comparisons as discussed below:

Three different comparisons are shown below for illustrative purposes. At the left, the Northwest Border comparison was picked to show the difference in wealth just inside and just outside DC, adjusting the relative tracts to give the identical number of households. It is generally recognized as where the wealthy white suburbanites live in ignorance of the inner city's real problems. The DC side is somewhat less well off, and uses more city services for safety. The living density is lower on the DC side than across in Montgomery County where residential high-rise buildings are permitted and prosper. Thus the Maryland side, if part of DC, would yield a gain of almost $100M annually, while the same number of properties on the DC side yields less that $20M.

The "Near Southeast Pair" (middle) were chosen because they are serparated north and south by the infamous Southeast Freeway. The north side is part of the posh Capitol Hill area, while the south side has for years been poverty stricken a situation to change with the redevelopment of the entire Navy Yard area. At this point, however, the "profits" from Tract 65 residents on Capitol Hill do not offset the "losses" generated by Tract 72 residents.

The "Near Southwest" is a relatively small area with five census tracts that is continuing to be redeveloped. It is clear that there is considerable difference between the individual tracts: the "best" being better than the two middle tracts, but all being dragged down by the worst, still poverty-ridden tract for a net loss of about $17M. New developments, both residential and commercial, now being planned along the waterfront will change this outcome significantly.

However, two other considerations need to be raised: first is the issue of DC's limited land space, and the second is the relative contributions of residents versus business. The chart below recreates some of the previous data but on a per acre basis.

With tightly limited space within DC's boundaries, and with the reservation of much of the 61 square miles to federal, city, and non- profit use (and parks), DC generates revenues on less than 20 square miles, dividing that use about 5:1 residential over commercial. As discussed above, however, residents fall far short of paying their own expenses, and the difference is currently made up by revenues from business, over 50% of which flow from the "downtown" area. This is shown on the left side above. Taxed businesses yield on average over $650,000 per acre in revenues while consuming less that $50,000. Residents yield about $220,000 per acre in revenues, but use services of almost $400,000 per acre, for a sizable net loss.

Within the 9550 acres zoned for residential use, however, there are substantially different yields as a direct result of living density as shown on the right side above. The tallest bars are not produced by the wealthiest residents, but rather by those who live cheek by jowl in apartment houses and condos, or on relatively small lots. Clearly, if the city is to solve its financial problems by adding residents, the premium must be on childless, two-earner households, living close together.

The final chart in this series attempts, albeit not with complete success, to demonstrate how many new households would have to be attracted into DC to raise $100M annually in net productivity. This will be a function of their median household income (horizontal axis) and the value of their housing units relative to that income (by the factor k). The oversimplified results are shown below:

For instance, it will take 20,000 new households to raise $100M if their median income in $65,000 and the median value of their housing units is $520,000 (red line). 5000 new households would suffice if their median income is $135,000, and their median housing unit value is $540,000 (blue line). DC officials like to talk glibly of needing $500M-$600M more in net revenues to assure the city's fiscal "structural balance". In the same breath they visualize adding 100,000 new residents (also a long-standing NARPAC objective, albeit for somewhat different reasons). And they picture many these new residents as teachers, firemen, and postal workers. This analysis suggests it is more likely that they would need 100,000 more households above the current 250,000, with many headed by corporate executives or sports luminaries.

It should be clearly noted, however, that this analysis makes four simplifying, business-as- usual assumptions. First, the marginal cost of one more household (when adding thousands of them) is the same as the base cost of those already here (i.e., more teachers, more police, more pot holes, etc.). Second, the newcomers will bring the same percentage of kids as are currently in DC (i.e., 20% of population). Third, that 20% of the newcomer households will be at or below the poverty level, perpetuating the currently desired goal of 20% affordable housing in new developments. Fourth, there is no reduction in the current very high level of households in poverty. Though NARPAC can make a case for all four of these assumptions (and thereby simplify its calculations as well), these numbers should be taken as maximum, certainly not minimum, values.

Nevertheless, it should also be noted that the median household incomes called for on the graph above are sky-high compared to current DC norms. As of the 2000 Census, the median household income in DC is $40,100 and the median housing unit value is $157,200. Typical values for the neighborhoods mentioned in the preceding analysis are:

TYPICAL DC CENSUS 2000 INCOME AND HOUSING VALUES
Locale Median Income Median Home Value
Citywide $40,127 $157,200
Northwest Border--MD 115,700 505,100
Northwest Border--DC 110,100 431,200
Tenleytown Neighborhood 77,800 386,600
Shaw Neighborhood 25,800 156,700
Anacostia Neighborhood 24,800 102,700
Capitol Hill 61,900 287,200
Near Southwest--Best Tract 44,100 261,600

 

It appears clear that DC would do well to place more emphasis on attracting tax-paying businesses to relocate in the city, rather than trying to solve their financial difficulties with run-of- the-mill residential households with their far higher demand for services.

In any event, it seems clear that a greater emphasis on analyzing the city's "economic landscape" at the Census Tract level will provide important insights into future development planning.

return to the top of the pageNET PRODUCTIVITY OF WARD 8


The same techniques applied to the previous subregions of the city (above), have also been applied to an analysis of Columbia Heights and now to the six major planning clusters of Ward 8. This depressed area of the city East of the Anacostia is now undergoing a significant rejuvenation with hundreds of new affordable homes and other improvements. However, using the Census Tract statistics of the 2200 Census, Ward 8 still remains one of the very poorest areas of the city. According to NARPAC calculations, it consumes about $485M more per year in city service expenditures than it provides in revenues, as shown on the chart to the left. As in other depressed areas, the costs of ameliorating poverty and providing public safety and education simply overwhelm the revenues derived from income and property.

Fortunately, Ward 8 also is home to the 400-acre St. Elizabeth's Hospital site which is now being returned to the city (with many strings attached) for redevelopment. NARPAC believes it would be a worthwhile objective to seek a positive productivity from the redeveloped acreage that would substantially decrease Ward 8's overall negative productivity.

return to the top of the page100,000 NEW RESIDENTS: BOON or BANE?

It is also possible to use this economic analysis by Census Tract to estimate the costs and benefits of the 100,000 new residents sought by the Mayor to enrich our capital city. Presumably, those additional residents could be absorbed without adding to certain elements of the city work force (from planning to plowing). Hence the marginal costs of the new arrivals could lead to improved overall productivity from the city's limited real estate. Inescapably, a demographic mix must be sought, and the right mix is critical, as shown on the chart below. A given demographic mix implies (for this analysis): the same number of persons and school-aged kids per household; the same fraction of one parent-families and households below the poverty line; and the same median household income and housing value.

While 100,000 new residents just like those in Tenleytown could generate net revenues (after marginal increased expenditures) of $768M per year, 100,000 just like those in Anacostia could cost the city $553M more. If they were all just like those in the "near Southwest", the city would earn a measly $76M more. An equal number (12,500) from each of the eight mixes above would net $67M What seems somewhat troublesome to NARPAC is that it may be difficult if not impossible to 'control' the flock-in to achieve the desired results. A few more acres of high- density commercial development (at up to $2M net revenues per acre per year) would appear far more predictable.

return to the top of the page UPPER WISCONSIN AVENUE CORRIDOR STUDY BRINGS OUT THE NIMBYs

background

The upper reaches of Wisconsin Avenue, NW are populated by some of DC's most vocal critics of almost everything done and not done by the DC and Federal Governments. Centered around Tenleytown on Reno Hill (DC's highest elevation, and one of its largest parks in NW, shown to the left), they have yet to find a project they liked in its initial form. A half-built communications tower; a half-density group of housing units within walking distance of the Tenleytown Metro; a half-hearted preservation of an obsolete fire house; and a half-baked apartment house growing atop an outdated poured concrete appliance store all testify to the neighborhood's ability to generate nonsensical compromises to needed urban growth. Some wags have proclaimed the lowly camel as "a horse designed by committee". Tenleytown, established at the crossing of two early wagon trails, and one of DC's earliest pre-capital settlements, may soon become known as "an urban transit center designed by NIMBYs" (i.e., those who insist "not in my back yard").

According to the published study (available on DC's Office of Planning web site), the residents asked the city in 2001 to undertake a planning study "to preserve existing assets along Wisconsin Avenue, guide development opportunities, encourage a better mix of uses, and create a better sense of place". The city planners responded in June 2002, by undertaking the "Upper Wisconsin Avenue Strategic Framework Plan" with four objectives, adding the all-important rider shown in itallics below:

(1) to guide redevelopment opportunities so they will be in harmony with existing development and surrounding residential neighborhoods, but will allow the corridor to meet its full potential utilizing "Transit Oriented Development" Principles";

(2) preserve existing assets of the corridor and enhance them;

(3) to recommend strategies to encourage a better mix of uses, including neighborhood- serving retailers and housing; and

(4) to recommend strategies to create a better sense of place.

"transit-oriented development"

The overriding issue at stake, carefully submerged in the study in a wealth of secondary considerations, is the density and particularly the height of buildings constructed along this major avenue, and particularly around its two metro stations. The sensibly compiled guidelines of "transit oriented development" are to increase density to "medium" within half of mile of any station entrance, and up to "higher" density within a quarter-mile where other community uses (such as churches, schools, or parks) do not override. The design handbook for this "Trans-Formation" approach is also on the DCOP web site (cover and diagrams to the right).

The key chart appears on page 24 of the study and is reproduced below with the two Metrorail stations added, along with the quarter-mile radii from the nearest station entrances, and the width of Wisconsin Avenue itself greyed in. The left end is DC's boundary road with Maryland's Montgomery County. The right end stops at the sprawling two-story Fannie Mae site, just short of the higher density developments nearer the Washington Cathedral (where Wisconsin and Massachusetts intersect).


In fact, the basic zoning designations proposed by DCOP for this corridor remain unchanged from those established over a decade ago, well before the recent emergence of the notions of "smart growth" and the related thrust towards Transit Oriented Development. However, building height limit within a designated zone can still be varied from the "by-right"status, requiring no further approvals, to a "by-extensive- review"status, which can add 15 to 25 feet of additional height. By now proposing to allow "planned unit developments" (PUDs), developers may be permitted to add several stories if they can convince the community and the Office of Planning that they have incorporated features of significant community benefit. Such facilities could be a library or other school-related asset, but perhaps the best example is the inclusion of affordable housing units. Allowing increased site density for lower cost housing units makes eminently good sense, since those units have a tougher road to hoe in paying for themselves.

The fine points of implementing the PUD, or its cousin, the "PUD with map change"(!) would have to be worked out with the community. However, with the exception of a few residents who agree the area should "feel more like a city and less like a suburb", and a few more willing to include affordable housing in their own neighborhoods (rather than elsewhere), newspaper reports indicate that the majority of reactions have been vehemently negative. The resistance to change is certainly among the top two or three deterrents to progress in the nation's capital.

the NIMBYs find fault

The Office of Planning has tried to explain that this limited infusion of taller buildings, would "harness market forces, protecting the adjacent residential neighborhoods, and improve the retail climate". Residents, on the other hand, claim that allowing buildings this tall would "punish people living near Metro stations in low density homes"; that neighborhood and infrastructure would become "oversaturated"; and that they don't want Tenleytown to become "another Manhattan" or apparently even worse, "another Bethesda" (a bit over one mile up the avenue in Maryland with a fully developed high-density Metro zone with buildings 20 stories high).

Those seeking to maintain the status quo also claim there are no other buildings as high in the area, though higher ones exist on both Connecticut and Massachusetts Aves. A few also claim that "Metro was built to support existing neighborhoods, not transform them", an assertion that would astound anyone involved in the robust growth if this metro area. Two more practical limits were also mentioned. The lesser one is that there is limited access to the (full sized) Tenleytown Metro platform. The more consequential one is that local school capacity would be (further) exceeded. Both are, of course, presented as insurmountable problems, even though they are really a natural part of successful urban development.

school capacity considerations

The issue of school capacity is particularly interesting since DCPS enrollment has been steadily declining and is expected (at least by NARPAC) to continue to do so indefinitely. Nevertheless, enrollment in School Area G, of which Tenleytown's Janney Elementary School is a stellar example, has held steady over a decade, and in fact, is slightly expanding. But this leads to two related considerations. First, the number of kids "commuting" from other school zones continues to increase because Area G schools are the best ranked in DC (and more school parents now have cars). For the '03-04 school year, 41% of elementary school kids are from elsewhere in the city (though only 26% for Janney), as are 52% of middle school kids, and 39% of high school kids. Second, this being the case, it would appear to be in the city's best interests to expand DCPS schools in the areas of greater competence, and let the more blighted ones so far behind the power curve gradually disappear.

economic consequences

Although it is downplayed in the "strategic plan", if this area were fully developed as currently zoned, the study estimates that these burdensome over-developments would add less than half of one percent to the city's office or retail space, and two thirds of one percent to the city's housing unit stock. These seem very modest indeed compared to these activists' demands for better schools, more police, more affordable housing, more trees, better hospitals, child care, and mental health for the poor, combined with fewer monuments downtown, higher taxes on invading commuters, federal payments for the inconvenience of hosting the national capital (!), and a louder voice in the Congress. In any event, Tenleytown's NIMBYs repeatedly accuse DC's Office of Planning of "just not hearing what the residents want", and apparently, don't want. So far, the Office of Planning has not accused the residents of being totally blind to what the city wants. NARPAC is not so inhibited.

NARPAC Commentary

NARPAC is very disappointed in this Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor planning study. It appears to be very heavily influenced by activist residents bearing no responsibility for the future fiscal welfare of our national capital city. These are often the same people who would rather tax DC's commuters or get federal hand-outs than pay their own bills.

In NARPAC's earlier rejoinder to the highly speculative goal of

we noted that bringing in a much smaller number of relatively wealthy, mostly childless, taxpayers and businesses is a far more certain path to revenue security. In fact, we singled out this Wisconsin Avenue corridor as the obvious location in which to focus such development, since it (and Connecticut Ave) are at the confluence of the Montgomery County and Ward 3 "Gold Coasts". The opportunities to generate equivalent unencumbered revenues does not exist anywhere else in the District beyond the fringes of the downtown business district. But it is not some lush oasis in a larger desert.

defining "the sense of place"

The study takes a far less qualitative view of this potential in Northwest, west of Rock Creek. Instead, it simply notes that "historically, Wisconsin Avenue has been a major commercial and vehicular thoroughfare for Washington, DC and nearby suburban residents, and continues to serve that role today. Unlike Connecticut Avenue, which has a series of commercial nodes along a dense residential avenue, and Massachusetts Avenue, which is primarily residential. Wisconsin Avenue has been primarily commercial and institutional." Furthermore, the study offers no glimpse of how Wisconsin relates to the other two major avenues, or to the adjacent suburbs. Clearly, Upper Wisconsin Avenue is a vital part of a larger growth pattern on both sides of the DC/Maryland border.

Failing to show the relative economic development progress on the parallel avenues and outside the city limits seems deceptive. After all, Wisconsin is not the only avenue in the area, and Montgomery County is not some undeveloped wasteland. If one compares Western Avenue to the US/Mexican border, DC looks like the Mexican side. Not only is the Maryland side already more developed than the DC side, there are already firm plans to build an additional 1.4M sqft commercial/retail and 1.2M sqft more residential space within about three blocks of the DC border. Along the sixteen blocks of DC's Wisconsin Avenue, this strategic plan would approve development of about twice as much residential, but only half as much of the more revenue-productive commercial retail space. The chart below places the Wisconsin Avenue corridor in the context of its surroundings. The green represents residential property; the purple, tax-free land including parks, a reservoir, universities and schools; and various shades of brown wherein the darker the tone, the higher the density (and height) for both commercial or residential properties.


net productivity of limited urban taxable land

It is of particular interest that the density of development on the Maryland side of the border near Metro stations is very substantially higher than on the DC side. The is dramatically illustrated by a tabular comparison of the demographics and economics of 32 acre Friendship Heights Village (FHV: the darkest pie-shaped portion of the highly developed area at the left of the chart) and Census Tract 11 (the darker shaded residential area between Wisconsin and Connecticut). Whereas CT-11 is almost entirely one-family detached houses, FHV is almost entirely 16-20 story apartments occupied primarily by retired individuals and couples. These 500-700 sqft apartments and condos could also be representative units for unattached singles, or perhaps "affordable housing" for low income working families. CT-11 looks like a suburb to FHV, rather than vice versa. A tabular comparison of the key factors is presented below:


Of clear interest in these two vastly different neighboring locales, rationalized only by their almost equal populations of 4,500 people in Census 2000, is which one makes better utilization of its land area. Those factors which contribute negatively to NARPAC's calculations of "net productivity" are noted in red, and those that produce the revenues, in green. The same methodology is used here as in the prior sections of this chapter. To summarize, the larger the area (for public works and public safety), the larger the number of poverty households, female- headed households, and public school-aged kids, the greater the demands on city services.

Conversely, the larger the number of (solvent) households, the greater their income, and the more valuable their owned property, the greater will be the revenues reaped by the city. As it works out in this comparison, the greater number of households, the smaller number of kids, and the smaller space consumed, works to their total advantage despite more poverty and single-earner families, as well as less household income and less expensive homes. In the eyes of the crass budget analyst, Friendship Village not only provides 11% more total net revenues (after services, at DC rates), it generates almost fifteen times as much net revenue (that the activists want the city to spend elsewhere) per acre of scarce urban taxable land. Were city planners farmers, the advantage would be abundantly clear. A snapshot of the center of this "village" is shown below. More photos are available in our informal photo album.


hiding behind antiquated building height limits

The strategic framework study can be complimented for its thoroughness, but criticized for its evident attempts to bury the only significant issue involved: the city's need to move towards higher density development with significantly taller buildings. While the NIMBYs agitate to keep development below those heights allowed in the current zoning, which in turn are below the maximum limits imposed within DC, urban developers should be looking for building heights to match those routinely used in the "edge cities" just outside DC's borders. If there is any area within DC's boundaries where the hopelessly antiquated building height restrictions should be relaxed, it is in the outer cusps of the city, over 4 miles from the Washington Monument, the "official" center of the federal city (though not its height determinant). To further constrain building heights below those limits is both ludicrous and suspicious.

It may be useful to illustrate how far this upper Wisconsin corridor is from the sensitive downtown area of the L'Enfant Plan, outlined in black, and within an understandably "sacred" 3- mile circle tinted red. It is useful to note that most of the high-density developments of Arlington and Alexandria are within that red circle or the four mile circle tinted white. The area shown in the previous NARPAC chart is indicated in green at 11 o'clock, and the Tenleytown Metro is almost exactly at the five-mile circle, tinted blue.


The chart also shows the location of the densely developed center of Bethesda, and the reach of River Road, Wisconsin Avenue, and Connecticut Avenue out to DC 's encircling I495 beltway. The panoramic snapshot below from the top of Ft. Reno Hill, shows the residential nature of CT 11 in the foreground, the taller buildings of FHV (center horizon), and the even taller buildings of "downtown" Bethesda in the distance (horizon far right, barely visible).


planning studies without economic alternatives

Like most DC planning studies, there are no indications whatsoever of a) the anticipated revenue increases resulting from build-out to the proposed limits; b) how a shift between residential, office, and retail uses could change those revenues; or c) how much those revenues could change with a few added stories to the same building footprint. It is as if there is no planning connection between neighborhood land development and city fiscal needs, and no need for options that illustrate the consequences (opportunity costs) of the path chosen. We believe these early studies should present at least three discrete options such as: 1) No Holds Barred: Regionally Competitive 2) Smart Growth within Established Limits; and 3) Pandering to the NIMBYs, and be addressed to all city stakeholders, not just the stand-pat neighborhoods.

two secondary comments

There is no reference to growth opportunities beyond 10 years, although it would appear difficult at best to revise the zoning limits upwards shortly after modest new developments have been completed. Friendship Heights, MD, for instance, does not plan to change theirs again for 20 years, but their buildings are up to 20 stories tall.

Finally, there is no reference to the potential growth of Wisconsin Avenue as a major city and regional transportation artery. An (unrelated) DDoT Motor Carrier Management and Threat Assessment Study currently underway will recommend that Wisconsin Ave be one of the few "TR-I"-designated routes over which "trucks up to 80,000 pounds (will be) allowed at all times". This corridor would also appear to be a major candidate for the introduction of a "busway" system since Wisconsin Avenue begins (or ends, as the case may be) in Georgetown. Are these traffic projections consistent with less-than-suburban high-density building developments, or with evolving frontage/setback requirements?

return to the top of the page NARPAC'S VERBAL (bold type) AND WRITTEN COMMENTS FOR THE UPPER WISCONSIN AVENUE CORRIDOR PUBLIC HEARING 2/17/04

Thanks for letting us put in NARPAC's two cents worth: Our focus is on making DC a proud, self-sufficient, forward-looking, national capital city.

NARPAC works to raise local and national consciousness of what it will take to make DC the best national capital city, in best national capital metro area in the world. We are interested in improving the foundations for DC's future pre-eminence as well as its self-sufficiency. DC should lead the way in important national improvements in urban socio-economics. The yawning gap between our haves and have-nots is a far greater threat to our national fabric than any desert- based radical idiot fringe.

We know DC must increase revenues to become a world-class city....

One very basic issue is whether DC is developing its limited taxable assets well enough to raise the revenues it needs for the peculiar demographic mix it seems determined to keep (it isn't). It is, for instance, trying to support 25% of the metro area's disadvantaged with only 8% of its wealth (good luck!). And it is willing to fight tooth and nail against gentrification, a five syllable word for attracting wealthier taxpayers. DC has adopted a sociological policy to bring in 100,000 more residents, with no assurance they will bring more in revenues than they consume in more services. Just two of DC's eight wards provide enough revenues to cover deficits in the other six. DC balances its books only because its 3000 commercially-zoned acres generate way more revenues than they consume (using commuters, incidentally), and compensate for the losses incurred on the 9,000 residential acres.

....and despite specious claims to the contrary, DC clearly has the potential to do so....

Half a dozen so-called expert studies have appeared purporting to show that DC cannot raise enough funds to be a permanently solvent capital city. NARPAC finds every one flawed analytically. Some are simply dishonest, even though DC's CFO endorses them (apparently without questioning them). But the issue is not whether the DC government is now spending enough to satisfy all its needs (it isn't, given the size of its bureaucracy). The issue is not whether the federal government and its inevitable camp followers are using their land without paying taxes to DC (it doesn't have to). It isn't whether DC loses money by having the Feds here (it doesn't: DC would look like Camden, NJ without the Feds here). It isn't whether DC pays somewhat higher taxes than its suburban neighbors (it should: it's got the box seats, and the suburbs have their own un-financed needs such as relieving grid-lock). The issue is that DC uses its limited (13,000) taxable acres very poorly indeed.

.....although that potential varies widely across the city.

It is also obvious that DC's revenue-producing properties, residential and commercial, are not evenly distributed across the city, or across its boundaries to Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Development of the region's "empty quarter" east of the Anacostia River and across rural southern Maryland will be several decades in the making. Ward 8 alone requires $450M in revenues from west of the River (and west of the Creek as well). Wards 5 and 7 are only marginally better.

UWAC is one of only a few areas where substantial near-term revenues can be raised

Like it or not, there are only four truly 'fertile' areas which can readily generate DC's needed additional revenues. The rapidly expanding "golden triangle" downtown is now bumping up against serious congestion limits both on its surface road network, and through its doubled-up, capacity-limited, underground metro tunnels. The area between the freeways and the Anacostia will be developed as part of the long-range Anacostia Waterfront initiative, and the triangular area between Massachusetts and New York Avenues west of the railroad tracks is already in planning.

But the fourth opportunity to substantially increase revenues is not by expanding "downtown", but by exploiting its wealthiest borders with its neighbors in Virginia and Maryland. The wealth of Alexandria and Rosslyn gleams across the Potomac, but is only partially captured in Georgetown, and Georgetown is unlikely to lose its distinctive historic character. . While Silver Spring is developing east of DC's Wards 4 and 5, it still lacks the "Gross Zip Code Product" (just like GDP, and SDP). Western Avenue is DC's Gold Coast, and Montgomery County's as well. And of the two major avenues crossing Western Avenue (west of Rock Creek), Wisconsin is far less developed inside DC's boundaries than Connecticut and is the hands-down favorite for greater growth.

After all, "metrocentric" edge cities generate much higher revenues just across the border.

And it cannot be overlooked that DC's zoning peculiarities are generating very prosperous "edge cities" just outside its fixed boundaries, all of which are smartly developing around their carefully located metro stations. Regional growth outside the central city is far more rapid than inside the central city, and more metro stations are planned beyond than within the city limits. There is something ludicrous about Washingtonians demanding the right to tax commuters when the urbanites will not match the revenue-generating capabilities of the suburbanites right across the border.

This plan seems to ignore the fact that the city needs to generate additional revenues, and condemns this lucrative corridor to growth way below its potential for 20-30 years.

NARPAC is sure that as soon as the zoning rules are set for UWAC, developers will pounce, and produce some economic benefits for the city. However, once these developments are complete, there is no practical way to upgrade them again for decades. Hence, for instance, the nation's capital city is stuck with an absurd compromise structure over the Tenleytown metro station that will persist for decades as an embarrassment to sensible urban planning.

It disregards the key new tenet of transit-oriented development around metro stations...

Contrary to the stated objective of emphasizing "transit-oriented developments", which would seek to establish about 125 acres of high-density development around each station, this plan will generate only partial development of about 25 acres. It makes a mockery of this sound urban objective, and will be far less productive than, say, the equivalent neighborhood-approved developments around the Columbia Heights metro station across Rock Creek Park in a poorer, less productive part of town.

...and ignores the need for improved vehicular transportation growth, both N/S and E/W.

The plan is silent on the need for Wisconsin Avenue to become one of DC's very few major north-south routes accepting heavy truck traffic (over 40 tons) 24/7, as well as incorporating an improved "busway" surface transit system. There are even fewer major east-west routes. In fact, the natural barrier of Rock Creek Park is further accentuated by the lack of ready cross traffic to level the city's socioeconomic disparities. Resolving opposing demands for Military Road to be a residential road or a commercial thoroughfare, is not treated in this plan, though it remains central to future zoning.

The current plan presents no quantitative revenue goals or options for comparisons,...

There are some 120 potentially productive high density acres inside DC along this somewhat arbitrary stretch of Wisconsin avenue, perhaps 30 more if extended south to where it crosses Massachusetts. Try to see those acres through the eyes of an investor seeking assured income , or of a farmer trying to increase the productivity of his limited acreage. We sincerely wish the Office of Planning could and would present "official", "certifiable" numbers, but these are good enough for illustration.

Here are some ballpark estimates of the relative productivity of DC's limited acres, based on detailed analysis done at NARPAC a few years ago. It makes some very broad, but reasonable allocations of DC budgetary expenditures, such as police, public health, education, and welfare across various land users. It compares those to the sales, income, and property taxes generated by the residents (or workers) on those acres:

o An acre with 20 comfortable "middle-class" single-family homes probably generates annual net revenues for the city of about $100,000, while an acre of 10 wealthy landowners could reap as much as $250,000 per acre. However, an acre of 30 poor households, with more kids and more demands for city services, could easily cost the city $900,000, and if the truly disadvantaged live in 100, mostly rented, apartments per acre, the net drain on the city can exceed $3,000,000 per acre.

o On the business side, a ten-story office building (with shops and restaurants on the bottom floors) can generate $4,500,000 per acre, and another ten floors can generate $3,500,000 more. A one-acre 10-story upscale hotel, with 70% occupancy rates), over shops and restaurants can produce $5,500,000 for the city, and another 10 floors add $4,000,000 more. An acre of upscale 10-story apartment houses, such as on Connecticut Avenue, can probably generate $3,500,000 and the next ten floors add $2,000,000 more. Clearly, locales without building height limits build taller buildings!

o It is also possible to generate substantial revenues by exploiting 'dirt rights' (the underground equivalent of 'air rights'), primarily for vehicle parking facilities. Modern technologies now make possible some very high-density robotic storage of cars and light trucks, where fees can be pegged to volume used (and/or fuel consumed), thereby providing incentives for switching to urban- friendly vehicles. It appears quite feasible to generate $2,000,000 per underground acre. Such an option might be attractive in areas where neighbors have non-profit uses for surface acreage, but might be willing to generate revenues underground. The Janney School/St. Ann's site comes to mind.

...and it begs the inevitable issue of relaxing DC building height limits near its borders.

Obviously, it takes fewer fully developed, high density acres to balance off a goodly number of low income acres. The study fails to point out the large advantages of clustering a few very tall (by DC standards) buildings. The tiny (but incorporated) Friendship Heights Village across Western Avenue exemplifies this, where 4,600 people live in urban style on 32 acres. Inside DC, east of UWAC, 4,400 residents sprawl across 420 acres of residential, park, and school properties in Census Tract 11.

It is surely time to be more creative and explore the possibility of relaxing DC's antiquated building height limitations at least near the city's borders, well out of sight of historic downtown. The Tenleytown metro station is a full four miles from the Washington Monument (the city's official center), and could well be outside a revised restricted building height zone.

As written, the plan invites further neighborhood resistance, not cooperation.

By proposing such limited-density growth, this study panders to the myth of "neighborhoods uber allis". It does not enlist neighborhood cooperation/creativity in contributing to the broader issue of the city's overall welfare, leaving the neighborhood to use its considerable energies to fight change, while proposing a solution not robust enough to survive compromise.

From a purely analytical point of view, Census Tracts 10 and 11 (astride Wisconsin) should be taxed at their potential value, not their current value. This might help put their residents in a frame of mind to help solve DC's revenue problem, not deny its existence. If the energy now being squandered on resisting gentrification and urban densities were focused in equally active people bent on finding constructive solutions, both the neighborhoods, the city, and the region could benefit enormously.

You can't run a world-class core city in a world-class metro area by letting some communities decide how much they want expended on their city services, and other communities decide how little they're willing to let the city collect in revenues, while the city bureaucracy decides how many people to keep on its inflated payroll and how much surplus land to keep out of productive use. We think it's a formula for mediocrity and national embarrassment. Thank you.


This page was updated on Mar 5, 2004


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