Tag Archives: bananas

LULUs turn local NIMBYs to BANANAs

Mayor Bowser thinks giving homeless people places to live throughout DC would be preferable to warehousing them in an abandoned insane asylum. Others think not.

Muh property
Photo taken from @hgil’s Twitter feed

Selecting a location for public housing is the NIMBY problem par excellence. Support for housing these families is almost universal in DC, but no one wants a shelter to pop up next door.

The textbook solution for selecting sites is to develop a fair rule ahead of time (e.g. one shelter in each ward in the most cost effective location, etc.) and to compensate those who are hurt by creation of locally unwanted land uses (LULUs).

Neighbors Opposing the Distribution of Shelters (NODS), a completely real coalition of Upper Northwest landowners facing the prospect of nearby poor people, has concluded in a public letter, “the only workable situation to solve the homeless problems [sic] is to give them homes.” Although this sounds like an endorsement of the currently-existing plan to build temporary housing for homeless families, the author is attempting to  express disapproval. The author’s preferred alternative policy option is not clear, but it likely involves doing something else, to be defined later and preferably further away, lest the landowners suffer “negative impact on home values.”

Skeptical writers have accused these Concerned Neighbors® of arguing in bad faith, but it may be best to take them at their word. Maybe people wealthy enough to spend more than a million dollars on real estate really do have more to lose from the location of public housing than poorer residents in other parts of DC do. “Across the street from a homeless shelter” isn’t exactly a selling point, after all.

Upper Northwest has long been considered a refuge from more urban DC problems, thanks in no small part to the zoning and development regulations that keep building and development at bay and, of course, average rents far out of reach for undesirable people.

NIMBYs living in the no-man’s land between Sidwell Friends and the National Cathedral have reached the apotheosis of opposition to development: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. Not only are homeless shelters reviled, but luxury apartment buildings, renovations to aging supermarkets, and any other nearby development is usually opposed in these quarters as a threat to “property values.”

But in these BANANA quarters, little consideration is given to the primary killer of urban land values: the amount of development legally allowed  on that land by zoning and other land-use regulations. That is, NIMBYism may keep average rents high, but it can do the exact opposite for land values.

Instead of building homeless shelters, Mayor Bowser should offer the Concerned Neighbors® a compromise: keep the homeless shelters in poor neighborhoods, but upzone the entirety of Wards 3 and 4 to C-5, the densest mixed development zoning district allowed under DC law.

A handful of shelters really isn’t going to do much to end the region-wide housing crisis, but greatly upzoning several square miles of real estate–already equipped with an underground rail network–will do quite a bit. It will also greatly increase land values in these wards, even as average rents fall.

Upzoning Wards 3 and 4 would be great for the city, but it would have the  side effect of essentially dismantling some socially-exclusive neighborhoods as landowners sell out to developers, one by one, and detached houses give way to more affordable apartment buildings.

But that can’t be worse than having to interact with homeless families.

Takoma NIMBYs go BANANAs

WMATA might finally be able to build something on its extremely valuable land surrounding the Takoma Metro Station, after 14 years of effort.

Starting in 2000, it worked with developer EYA and proposed building approximately 90 townhouses, each with a two car garage.  Local residents objected to the proposal, and complained that the design had too many parking spaces, too many streets and eliminated too much green space.

Objections to the first EYA proposal
Objections to the first EYA proposal

WMATA ditched the plan after several years and, in 2013, began work on another EYA proposal for a new building that took neighborhood concerns into account: a 250-unit, mid-rise apartment building with a much smaller footprint, and fewer than half of the residential parking spaces. EYA’s new proposal would allow roughly the same amount of people to move into the desirable neighborhood, while preserving the green space and addressing the other concerns. Sounds like a win-win, right?

Not quite.

A group calling itself DC/MD Neighbors for Takoma Transit are concerned that the new proposal “is not compatible with the neighborhood in terms of  height, massing, setback and design.” They’re also worried about “its potential impacts on traffic, parking and the surrounding infrastructure.”

DC/MDNFT wants the site to be transit oriented, but also wants EYA to build 153 parking spots, in addition to the 178 resident spots. They also want to make sure commuters cannot use any of the 153 parking spots. They’re also concerned that all the additional parking spots will increase traffic.

DC/MDNFT wants the building to make the neighborhood more walkable, but have large setbacks, be less than 50-feet tall, preserve green space and fit in with the character and scale of nearby buildings (except for the 150-unit apartment building a block away, the 10-story building immediately behind that, the four-story, 145-unit building on the other side of the tracks and the four-story townhouses next door,  all of which presumably don’t count).

So far, EYA has lowered the number of units proposed and reduced the size of the building.

As David Alpert asked, “how many were opposing the plan because of its flaws and how many out of resistance to building anything or adding new residents at all?”

We live in a world of tradeoffs.  Building 153 non-resident, non-commuter parking spots at the station is going to increase traffic and the size of the building, compared to what EYA otherwise would have built. Enormous setbacks mean a building has to be much higher to have the same number of units. Walkability goes down when buildings are set far away from each other or from the street. If groups like the DC/MD Neighbors for Takoma Transit want to influence the project positively, then they need to accept these tradeoffs and give up on demands that conflict with their other priorities.

A process like the one above is at work every time a building is proposed. A system that allows neighbors to substantially alter a building just because they don’t like its design means that we will continue to have buildings that are too small to meet demand in the entire district, with a housing shortage to match. Trying to meet the demands of people who would prefer a surface parking lot to new neighbors is only going to increase the cost of homes.

WMATA should insist that EYA build all 250 units for the sake of affordability and to address the on-going housing shortage. The non-resident parking should either be open to commuters to promote transit, or should be eliminated from the project altogether. An apartment building built on public land at a Metro station is a prime opportunity to create a better, more affordable district. When the plan comes before the zoning commission, they should take these considerations into account, not the mutually exclusive demands of the neighbors.