Spike Lee and gentrification

Spike Lee doesn’t have many friendly words for  the hipsters who have flocked to Brooklyn over the last decade. The director spent much of his childhood in the borough, and it’s where his father still lives. Speaking at a recent event in New York, Lee said that long-term residents who rent, rather than own, are being pushed out as prices increase.  He seemed to agree that many neighborhoods have gotten safer, schools have improved, and city services are now more reliable. But, he asks what good is local progress if you can’t afford to live there anymore?

Over at Time, John McWhorter says Lee missed the mark. McWhorter, who is also black, says all-black neighborhoods aren’t something that should be desired, but are rather a relic of state-led segregation. As legal and social barriers have come down, he says, black residents have taken advantage of their new options.

[Lee is] yearning for the multi-class black communities that people of his generation regret the dissolutions of after the end of institutionalized segregation (when black people like my parents, for example, moved out to mixed or white neighborhoods).

But let’s face it: The reason there were black communities like that was because of segregation. If there still were black communities like that, no matter how beautiful they would look when shot lovingly in films like Lee’s, it would signify racial barriers…

When racial barriers come down, people mingle, cohabitate, and mate. People grumbling on the sidelines about the losses and appropriations and whatnot that this involves are historical detritus.

McWhorter is correct to say that neighborhoods, and the people who live in them, are going to look different as racial barriers fall. These changes will continue as our country’s barbaric history of segregation retreats further into the past. This is something worth celebrating, but it doesn’t mean that Lee’s concerns shouldn’t be taken seriously, even by  those who don’t agree with his larger perspective.

In cities with restrictive land-use regulations and lengthy entitlement processes–like New York and Washington –economic development usually corresponds with increasing rents. This can lead to a situation that looks a lot like what Lee was describing.

When a neighborhood becomes significantly more popular, we should expect real estate developers and individuals to respond to increased demand by increasing the number of units available for sale and rent. In neighborhoods with detached homes, developers have an incentive to create townhouses. In areas where these already exist, developers might look to build mid-rise apartment buildings that allow for greater density. If a neighborhood already has mid-rise buildings and rents are high enough, developers start to build high-rises. This process of change keeps prices lower than they otherwise would have been in two ways.

First, it increases supply which lowers the equilibrium price for housing. Second, availability of new units means wealthier residents leave their old digs behind, freeing up more affordable housing for others. This process is important, because it means that houses get cheaper for middle-class renters even as developers are building more luxury units.

In contrast, when the stock of available housing is fixed because of local rules, rents skyrocket. Under this regime lots of people want to live in a neighborhood, and the available units each go to the highest bidder. This is bad news for people who don’t have a lot of money.

Columbia Heights is a case study of what happens to a newly-popular neighborhood under a restrictive land-use regime that doesn’t fully allow the processes described above. In 2000, there were 27,129 people living in the neighborhood,* including 11,092 black residents. After a decade of construction (mostly renovation), new residents, and change, the total population only increased by 1,087 people. By then, there were 3,107 fewer black residents. This sounds likes a lot like what Spike Lee was talking about, except that the dislocation might have been self-inflicted: it’s likely that developers would have greatly increased the number of housing units available in Columbia Heights if were legal to do so in a larger part of the neighborhood.

While the story of dislocation is true for Columbia Heights as a whole, there is significant variation between the six Census tracts that make up the neighborhood. Tract 29–the area north of Park Street, south of Spring Street, between 14th Street and New Hampshire Avenue–had the highest percentage loss of its black population. Tract 37–north of Florida Avenue, south of Harvard Street, between 16th and 14th–had the lowest percentage loss of its black population.

Tract 29 Tract 37 Columbia Heights
Housing Units +1.73% +23.80% +11.55%
Black Population -45.47% -10.99% -28.01%
Total Population -5.42% +15.49% +4.00%

The residential areas of Tract 29 are zoned R-4 for the most part, which allows buildings up to 40 feet tall, has minimum lot sizes, requires backyards, and requires 40% of any given lot to be vacant. This is an effective ban on new apartment buildings.

Most of Tract 37 is zoned R-5-B, which allows for apartments, has a higher height limit,  though it still requires 40% of a lot to be vacant.  North of Meridian Park, two blocks are zoned R-5-D, which allows for much taller apartment buildings.

By 2010, Tract 29 added a mere 28 units of housing, and ended up with 423 fewer residents. Tract 37 added 494 units of housing and an additional 773 people were able to move in.

There are a lot of other important factors to look at here, but in Columbia Heights we see that looser zoning regulations and a large increase in housing units corresponded to a significantly smaller exodus of black residents during a period of rapid economic development.

Race in this discussion is really a substitute for economic variables, and there isn’t a good reason to think that a similar process of outmigration didn’t take place for middle-class white and Latino residents who were priced out of the neighborhood.

But Spike Lee’s concerns are very real under the District’s current rules. Economic theory and our experience here in Washington suggest that restrictive land-use regulations should be a major concern for those worried about displaced renters. As more people from around the world choose to make Washington their home, we’re faced with a clear choice. We can accommodate new residents by allowing for greater density through relaxed land-use rules, or we can expect more people to get priced out.


*All data for this post are taken from the 2000 and 2010 Census reports. Columbia Heights is defined here as Census tracts 3, 28.01, 28.02, 29, 36, and 37. By this definition, Columbia Heights is located north of Florida Avenue, west of 16th Street, south of Spring Street, and east of 11th and New Hampshire (whichever is further east).

Two serious misconceptions about land-use regulation in DC

Congress may consider revising the longstanding Heights of Buildings Act of 1910, as I noted earlier:

The National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning have been working on a three-phase study of potential economic and aesthetic changes that would result if Congress were to allow slightly-taller buildings in some areas of the district. One part of the study focuses on the economic feasibility of building taller buildings, while another, conducted by DCOP, focuses on visually modeling changes to the D.C. skyline and views from important vantage points from around the region.

As part of this process, the District Council recently held a hearing about the potential amendments to the Height Act in which nearly every witness spoke against it.

Witnesses’ rationales for supporting the current height restrictions ranged from the boring (tall buildings bad, views blocked) to the strange (Fukushima?, SimCity?) This wasn’t particularly surprising. The concentrated benefit/dispersed cost dynamic of NIMBY politics usually means that small groups of older people who really care about stopping development attending hours-long daytime meetings while everyone else goes to work.

Director of the Washington DC Office of Planning Harriet Tregonings’ testimony and the subsequent back and forth  with the councilmembers, was much more notable.  The discussion revealed two major misconceptions about land-use regulation and the Height Act itself held by both Councilmembers Mendelson and Bowser:

1. Location doesn’t really matter

This may seem like a ridiculous statement, but it I often hear it from politicians and laypeople alike.  “Who cares if people can’t build downtown? The height limit spreads out development.” Both Bowser and Mendelson seemed to agree with some variation of this sentiment.

People choose to locate their offices in specific locations for real reasons. That’s why people pay for office space on K Street, where it is amongst the most expensive in the country, even though they could rent a larger office in Manassas for less than half the price. Even if someone could build a 15-story office building in the Atlas district, it wouldn’t serve the same set of needs as a building on K Street.

Restricting building heights where businesses actually want to locate greatly increases the footprint of the commercial district downtown, which limits the availability of space for retail and residential uses. This in turn increases commute times, increases local rents, increases retail prices, limits consumer options, and leads to boring, square buildings.

Not all viewsheds are worth preserving.

Just as importantly, height restrictions affect prices in other parts of DC. Absent the Height Act and other (more restrictive) local rules, residential buildings along 14th and U, Dupont Circle, and other areas would be significantly taller and have greater capacity to house people.

Developers don’t take the lost capacity and immediately put another building in Ward 8 when faced with a situation like this. Instead, there are just fewer places to live. The dual-income-no-kids couple who would have lived in the tall condo building instead purchase a nearby row house that used to house a working-class family, further compounding capacity and price problems.

Height restrictions don’t just spread out development, they change the layout of the city in a way that leads to higher costs and unnecessary displacement.

2. Removing Height Act doesn’t increase building heights

Both Mendelson and Bowser extensively questioned Tregoning to try to imagine a scenario in which it would be legal to build a skyscraper next door to a single family home or some other mythical zoning nightmare.

What neither seemed to understand at first is that removing the federally-imposed height limitation wouldn’t legalize tall buildings in the District. In addition to the federal rules, there are local rules about height that are difficult to get around without changing the zoning code. The PUD process allows small increases in height in exchange for offering community benefits, but those increases are very modest.

In addition, local parking minimums, floor area ratio maximums, and setback requirements serve as strict de facto limits on height. The DC Code also gives neighbors many opportunities and venues in which they can halt a project or severely limit its scale.

The actual stakes of what is being proposed–tiny, incremental changes to the Height Acts–tend to get lost in exchanges like council hearings, but let’s make it clear here:

Entirely removing the federal height limits in the District, which is not even being proposed, would only be a first step in a long process to make tall buildings legal. Before anything gets built, the District government would have to remove height limits in the zoning code, amend or remove parking restrictions, more than double the maximum floor area ratio, and lower setback requirements. The only immediate effect of a full repeal would be that the local government, not the feds, would choose how tall buildings can be within the District of Columbia.

National Capital Planning Commission gives mild consideration to marginal changes to Height Act

Under current federal law, buildings in the District of Columbia can be no taller than 130 feet, save for a short section of Pennsylvania Avenue NW where buildings can reach up to 160 feet.

The National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning have been working on a three-phase study of potential economic and aesthetic changes that would result if Congress were to allow slightly-taller buildings in some areas of the district. One part of the study focuses on the economic feasibility of building taller buildings, while another, conducted by DCOP, focuses on visually modeling changes to the D.C. skyline and views from important vantage points from around the region. The models attempt to give D.C. residents and stakeholders an idea of what the district would look like with buildings up to 225 feet tall. While it is encouraging to see discussions about easing height restrictions in DC, the study suffers from both from an unambitious vision, and a structure that largely determined the outcome of the project before any analysis took place.

No Burj Khalifa in Glover Park

Graphic by the DC Office of Planning

The visual modeling study does get several things right. First, it correctly assumes that tall buildings will not be built in historic districts, federally owned properties, very low-density areas, historic sites, parks, and other designated open spaces. See the graphic provided by DCOP to the left. NIMBYs sometimes raise the alarm about extremely unlikely outcomes from repealing the Height Act, and it’s important for people to know that the Burj Khalifa isn’t coming to Glover Park for both economic reasons and policy reasons.

Second, the study also provides lots of interesting views (certainly worth clicking through to get a sense of the study), and analysis of areas in which buildings are already up against the maximum height allowed by Congress. After all, the existence of taller buildings is one economic indicator for where actually tall buildings might be built in the absence of height restrictions.

The modeling study also had several serious drawbacks, some of which drastically lower the value of the entire effort.

The NCPC began with three “principles”:.

Principle 1. Ensure the prominence of the federal landmarks and monuments by preserving their views and setting

Principle 2. Maintain the horizontality of the monumental skyline

Principle 3. Minimize negative impacts to nationally significant historic resources, including the L’Enfant Plan

The first principle basically excludes changing much of anything. The second necessarily requires a height restriction low enough to encompass several miles of development. The third is too broad to have much meaning on its own. None were subjected to serious cost-benefit analysis before deciding that they are worthwhile principles to guide future policy in the district. The problematic nature of the principles unfortunately had a direct effect on the quality of the visual modeling efforts.

Much of the Phase 2 presentation focuses on views that, while interesting, don’t help viewers understand what it will be like to live in a city with taller buildings. For example, see this shot from the Air Force Memorial in Virginia:

500 feet above the Air Force Memorial

Graphic from the DC Office of Planning

At first glance, it seems like the monuments and skyline are the central features of the view from the Air Force Memorial. However, this is taken from 500 feet above the actual memorial itself with a very nice camera lens. Unless you rent a helicopter, gain access to heavily restricted airspace, and have excellent vision, you will never actually experience this view.

This photo I took shows the view from the Air Force Memorial as actually experienced by visitors:

Small trees threaten federal interests in sight lines and skyline horizontality.

At 555 feet tall–more than double the highest building considered in the modeling study–most of the Washington Monument was obscured by small trees until I made an effort to get it into the frame. You might assume that the Capitol dome is also entirely obscured, but because it is such an insignificant part of the skyline from this distance, it is scarcely visible at all. With unlimited building heights it is possible that the Capitol would be obscured entirely, but it’s also important to note that there is not a single building between the Washington Monument and the Air Force Memorial. People visiting the Air Force Memorial wouldn’t have their view ruined by taller buildings, if they noticed them at all.

Similar criticisms could be made of most of the other vantage points included in the visual modeling study. The view from Meridian Hill Park seems to change drastically from a perspective high in the air, but only the tip of the Washington Monument is visible if you actually stand in the park (again, assuming the trees have been recently trimmed). Not much changes when the buildings are raised to max height. Kudos to the authors of the study for including several street-level perspectives, but what they routinely demonstrate is that views of historic sites are largely unaffected by taller buildings.

This raises the rather obvious question of why major building restrictions for the entire District of Columbia are being based, in large part, on views  from perspectives that most of us will only experience in the form of a postcard. Even if allowing taller buildings drastically alters the view from Virginia or parts of the district far away from the National Mall, this potentially negative outcome should be weighed against the rather large costs of current restrictions. Height restrictions cause longer commutes, higher rents, lower real incomes, and less diverse urban areas. How much money should we spend and how many people should we displace so that someone can catch a fleeting glimpse of the Washington Monument from miles away?

If the NCPC is considering changes to our height restrictions, why not model what it would look like if the height limit varied based on distance from the National Mall? For example, buildings could either conform to the Height Act, or build one foot of height for every five feet it is from Constitution Ave. This would preserve the look of the National Mall and areas surrounding national historic sites while still allowing tall buildings in the central business district. That would be a visual model worth building.

NCPC study aside, easing height restrictions in the district is clearly good policy. Doing so is a necessary but insufficient condition for tall buildings. Without serious amendments to D.C. zoning regulations on floor-area ratios, parking minimums, and setback requirements we still wouldn’t have any. Removing height restrictions would simply put control of planning in local hands.

Correction: The Height Master Plan is a joint study being conducted by NCPC and the DC Office of Planning, not by NCPC alone. The post has been updated to reflect this.