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.

Cyclists should behave exactly like drivers at stop signs

Bicycles are a perennial source of angst in most large cities. Bicycling has become more popular in the District over the last several years, and bicycle rules and infrastructure have become important public policy areas. They are also rife with unnecessary histrionics.

Cyclists’ and drivers’ behaviors are extremely similar. Because commuters are often in bad moods before heading out the door, interactions that result in a slight inconvenience are often blown out of proportion. Mix that with confirmation bias, and every minor incident turns into empirical evidence that drivers or cyclists (whichever one the observer is not) are terrible people who should be banned from the roads.

Attend a public hearing about a bike lane or check the comment section anytime someone writes about bicycles, bike lanes, or cyclists and you’re sure to hear several of the following:
1. Cyclists are scofflaws.
2. Drivers want to kill cyclists.
3. Claims of moral superiority based on mode of transportation.
4. Bike lanes make traffic worse.
5. Drivers are rude.
6. Cyclists are rude.

At a recent meeting to discuss a possible bike lane on 11th Street NW between Florida and U Streets, ANC 1B02 Commissioner Jeremy Leffler took umbrage to the idea that a bike lane was needed to increase safety on the three block route. “The problem is not ANC 1B people, it’s the people coming out of Columbia Heights, going 40mph, joyriding into our community and not stopping,” he said. Based on my experience at 1B meetings, Commissioner Leffler is a reasonable and polite person, so this quote merely demonstrates that misconceptions are widespread.

The following day, police were positioned on the southwest corner of 11th Street and Fairmont in Columbia Heights, ticketing cyclists for rolling through the stop sign. It’s worth noting that southbound cyclists are pedaling uphill at this point, and moving quite slowly. Luckily for the cyclists, tickets did not come with a penalty but had “warning” written into the fine section of the tickets.
It’s true that cyclists rarely come to a complete stop at stop signs unless there is cross traffic that requires the cyclist to yield. Cyclists usually slow to a speed that allows them to ascertain whether or not the intersection is clear, and then proceed forward if it is. This is called an Idaho Stop.
The Idaho stop is not new, novel, or even controversial in practice (though some cyclists prefer a different approach). It’s what nearly every single person on the road does nearly all the time. By not stopping, cyclists are behaving exactly like cars and simultaneously making commuting safer and more convenient for everyone involved.
I went to the corner of 11th and W this afternoon to film the intersection for 10 minutes.
During that time, approximately 57 cars traveled through. Around 35 of those cars did not have to yield to cross traffic. Of those 35, only two cars–less than 6%–came to a complete stop.
Aside from one driver, none who rolled through the intersection put anyone else in danger. Their actions do not make them scofflaws or renegades. They do not lack the moral authority to have input on traffic laws, nor should they have received a fine. They simply behaved in the standard, accepted fashion as appropriate for that intersection.
Similar results are found in empirical studies, though they often show lower stop sign compliance.
When cyclists treat stop signs like everyone else, they better blend with traffic and lower the inconvenience to drivers. There isn’t enough room for cars to pass cyclists on 11th Street between Florida and U Streets, which means that drivers would be considerably inconvenienced by cyclists slowing to a complete stop and then slowly accelerating at the stop signs.
That stretch of 11th Street may or may not be a great place for a bike lane (I’d suggest that they remove 11th Street’s stop signs at W and V Streets instead), but that’s a separate issue unrelated to “scofflaw” behavior. Until it is decided, drivers and cyclists should travel safely and courteously, which means not coming to a complete stop at stop signs.

What does an “overconcentration” of liquor licenses mean, and why does it matter?

Last Thursday, SDCA board member Guy Podgornik made a presentation about his group’s moratorium petition. His presentation included the claim that the legal definition of liquor license overconcentration is 18 licenses within the area of a proposed moratorium zone. This is supposed to imply that  ABRA or the ANCs should approve his group’s petition because of the official-sounding “overconcentration.” Not only is this is untrue, but the term “overconcentration” isn’t directly related to the moratorium review process.

To understand what this term means, and why it matters, one has to look at the DC Code. To propose a moratorium, the Code requires petitioners decide whether to propose a moratorium for a locality, section, or portion of the District. These terms refer the areas within a circle with a radius of 600, 1200, or 1800 feet, respectively. Next, petitioners have to choose an establishment to be the center of their proposed moratorium zone, and then demonstrate that the area they have selected meets certain requirements for the petition to be considered by the ABRA board. To reiterate, these are just some of the basic requirements that must be met before one can argue the merits of a liquor license moratorium. It seems that this is the section of the law that confuses SDCA board members: they have repeatedly claimed that 18 liquor licenses in a portion of the city, the legally required minimum number for ABRA to even accept a moratorium petition for review, is instead the legal definition of  “overconcentration”. They also seem to be under the impression that, having passed this imaginary threshold, ABRA has reason to approve their petition.

According to ABRA, a moratorium petition is only approved if it meets the basic requirements, and the board determines it to be appropriate based on at least two of the following three factors (DC Code § 25-3l3(b)):

1) The effect of the establishment on real property values;

2) The effect of the establishment on peace, order, and quiet, including the noise and litter provisions;

3) The effect of the establishment on residential parking needs and vehicular and pedestrian safety.

Overconcentration is not listed. The term appears in other parts of the DC Code, but the definition of overconcentration itself refers to the three factors already listed: “‘Overconcentration’ means the existence of several licensed establishments that adversely affect a specific locality, section, or portion of the District of Columbia, including consideration of the appropriateness standards under § 25-3l3(b).” It should be noted here that the Code offers no numerical definition of overconcentration, and the term is, once again, unrelated to the moratorium review process.

SDCA board members continue to provide inaccurate information to ANCs about overconcentration even though Elwyn Ferris, Chair of SDCA’s ABRA Committee, explained the actual, correct definition at their February 21st meeting. In fact, the meeting minutes include a verbatim definition from the code, exactly as I provided above. Guy Podgornik, along with other board members, attended this meeting before making his presentation to ANC 2F.

This isn’t the first time that the SDCA has spread misinformation. The SDCA originally claimed in their petition that U Street has the highest concentration of liquor licenses in the District, but I have since pointed out that this is a misconception due to a basic math error on their part. Since then, I haven’t heard that claim made in public, and perhaps this is why they’re using the (also incorrect) “legal definition of overconcentration” argument.

The vision behind the moratorium

Two small advocacy groups, the Residential Action Coalition and the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance, recently filed a petition to create a large liquor license moratorium zone centered around Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. In response, I founded In My Backyard—DC, a broad coalition of District residents who oppose the proposed moratorium and NIMBYism generally. There’s a lot more at stake here than the number of liquor licenses in the proposed zone. A moratorium would free up NIMBYs’ resources to attack new development in DC while failing to address the concerns raised by the moratorium advocates.

IMBYdc currently has over 500 members and is in the process of creating an executive board. Members from all over DC have joined, though our current membership is primarily concentrated between Columbia Heights and Logan Circle. The initial response to the group has been overwhelming, and I’ve had the opportunity to speak with both longtime and new residents in the proposed moratorium zone.

Shaw-Dupont Citizens Alliance, in contrast, limits membership to those who live in a two by four block rectangle south of U Street. In fact, their borders exclude people who live in 81% of the proposed moratorium zone from joining as voting members. Residential Action Coalition, which doesn’t have a website, has an unknown membership. The group’s president, Kay Eckles, is well-known for her activism and litigation efforts to stop new buildings. In one notable case she contended “that the height of [a] 12-story Metropolitan Square building would pose a security threat to the White House.” Both groups are opposed to greater population density and to new businesses that fall outside of their visions for the neighborhood.

The petition signed by Ms. Eckles and her counterpart at SDCA, Joan Sterling, makes several allegations about the U Street corridor to support the moratorium. First, and most obviously false, they claim that proposed moratorium zone has the highest concentration of liquor licenses in the District. They also compiled a long list of quality of life issues related to liquor licenses. My personal favorites are sexual activity, “honking battles,” and the development of “carry-out pizza by-the-slice businesses.” Eckles and Sterling also contend that the growth of liquor licenses in the area have brought higher crime, but this graphic from Nick Baumann’s blog demonstrates that crime rates have in fact gone down with new development.

The petition paints a picture of U Street that I don’t recognize, but it raises an important question: Would a liquor license moratorium address any of these alleged problems? Nearly all of the nuisances listed in the petition, selling pizza excepted, are either violations of city laws or codes that would need to be addressed by police or regulators. Supporters of the moratorium say that preventing new licenses will stop U Street from becoming Adams Morgan, but Adams Morgan, which has had a moratorium since 2008, demonstrates that a moratorium cannot prevent drunken behavior and related crimes.

The proposed moratorium should be judged by the likely consequences of its implementation rather than these stated goals.

Under the current regulatory framework NIMBYs have to fight each and every business that attempts to open, and they have limited time and money to do so. The main consequence of the moratorium would be that it frees up resources for a very specific NIMBY group to oppose developments of all kinds across the District. In fact, the Shaw-Dupont Citizens Alliance was formed specifically to oppose the new apartments at 13th and U Streets, with the moratorium as a secondary goal.

A liquor license moratorium would also transfer power from ANC commissioners to unelected activists. Current law allows an abutting property owner, a group of as few a five property owners, an incorporated citizens association, or the DC Metropolitan Police Department to file a protest that almost always leads to months-long negotiations with a liquor license applicant and the relevant ANC. This is a robust system for community input that already allows protestants to block many new businesses. It’s worth noting that SDCA board member Dan Wittels ran for ANC1B12 Commissioner, but fewer than 11% of his neighbors voted for him, indicating they do not share his vision for the neighborhood.

Not only do their board members have an interesting history of stringent NIMBYism, but SDCA has opposed every single development that has come to a vote in a meeting. This includes Taco NacionalTed’s Bulletin, the PUD and the amended PUD for the JBG development on 13th & U, and Compass Rose. They also opposed the ABRA reforms that would stop DC residents from filing liquor license protests against businesses that they don’t actually live near.

Whether you think U Street has too many bars or too few, the moratorium debate is representative of competing visions for the neighborhood. Whether you support more affordable homes, more businesses and jobs, a walkable neighborhood, or just more liveable District, the moratorium would be a loss.