Density Without Mixed-use


P Street NW. From wikipedia.org.

Washington, DC is a world-class city. Beyond the monumental core, there are walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods of brightly colored rowhouses and tree-lined streets. Transit is extensive and generally reliable, and, barring further interference from the city council, is expanding in service. Although there are some things, such as the largely blanket height limit, that can get some planner’s goats, it is mostly an urbanist’s dream.

And because it’s so nice (and also because the height limit effectively limits housing supply), even those making above average incomes have trouble finding affordable housing here. With the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment downtown at over $2,000, many people are forced out onto the urban fringe. And that’s why I don’t live in Washington DC.

RoadI live here.

Arlington, Virginia, to be specific. And while it has taken some adjusting after living in Center City, Philadelphia, there has been one major difference that I’ve noticed between here and anywhere else I’ve lived:

Density CompTraditional cities are great places to walk. You have a lot of services, and a lot of residences close by to be served by them. It’s usually a bit frustrating driving, but you have so many other transportation options that it’s not really a loss.

The types of suburbs that I’ve grown up in have either been around slow-growth cities, such as Pittsburgh, or cities that never really had a tradition of density or regionalism anyway, like Provo, Utah. These suburbs have low housing densities, consisting almost entirely of single-family homes. Work is found in industrial or office parks, and shopping happens at strip malls. With all the uses separated, driving between them is pretty much the only reasonable way to get around. But since everything is at a much lower density, the traffic is only particularly bad on the main arterials.

What’s new to me about Washington suburbs (and particularly the inner ring) is that the demand for housing is high enough to necessitate high-density housing, but it was built in the era of single-use zoning, so the work and recreation are all far away. Like in the low-density suburbs, driving is usually the only option for getting around, but because of the higher density and the greater number of people, a huge amount of land becomes devoted to vehicle infrastructure. Even where it is possible to walk, the huge parking lots and wide roads make it undesirable.

King St-01

Seminary Rd-01Although I personally consider these environments largely unappealing, I think the fact that they already have the density to support mixed uses does make many of them decent candidates for suburban retrofitting, something I hope to examine more in later posts.

And it’s not like all of the DC region’s modern developments are devoid of urbanism. I’ll refer you to my friend Dan Reed, Silver Spring super booster, to learn about the ongoing urbanism there. Although Vishaan Chakrabarti calls it out for its traffic congestion in his book A Country of Cities (which, as John Norquist has argued, isn’t necessarily bad; places with a lot of traffic have traffic because people want to be there), Bethesda has a decent walkable core and strong mass transit connections to the rest of the region. And although the transition from single-family homes to high density urbanism is stark, and it has been described by some as “city-lite” (or worse, DC without all the poor minorities), the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington is dense, mixed-use, and transit accessible.

Aerial view over Ballston, Arlington. From arlingtonva.us.

And further afield, there are some areas that had the right idea but are a little lighter on execution. Reston, although suffering from a similar zoning-induced stark transition to that of Arlington, could be thought of as a “transit-ready” community with the upcoming opening of Metro’s Silver Line (although the station is a bit of a hike from Reston Town Center). And the New Urbanist darling of Kentlands, out on the edge of the region in Gaithersburg, is a pleasant, walkable community, even if transit options are limited and all of the commercial activity is just on one side of it.

The Washington, DC region, as evidenced by its high housing prices, is under-developed and, even where it is already dense, it is under-urbanized. But there are opportunities and, in some very small and limited ways, even the political will to fix things, hopefully for the better. I look forward to investigating urbanism in my new home and sharing it here, with you.

Wharton Real Estate Review: Two Decades of Design and Development


Vancouver: a model for future urban development. From realestate.wharton.upenn.edu.

Witold Rybczynski, one of the leading theorists today in architecture and urban design, recently wrote this post for Penn’s Warton School, discussing the trends he has seen in development in the past twenty years. He argues that New Urbanism has gone a long way to bringing about the idea of denser suburbs and has eventually penetrated the city, although as the design competition for the new World Trace Center in New York showed, some cities are more committed to the idea of novelty in design than a return to neo-traditional techniques.

However, the ensuing chaos that has kept and will continue to keep the project from completion for years to come illustrates another point: the fact that developers nowadays have more say in the shape of a project than planners. This is both good and bad; developers are more in-tune with people’s demands via the market, but they are not concerned with creating connections to neighboring areas or with public goods such as transit. This was something I found particularly frustrating in Utah, where as a city we had very little we could do about the extremely low quality of development in our city. At least in urban developments such as the Atlantic Yards and Stapleton, developers know they can’t get away with designing crap, like they can in Utah.

Rybczynski also points to new trends in retailing. Malls, with the exception of some of the highest end ones, are largely gone, replaced by two opposite extremes: the low-end, no-nonsense, parking-friendly power center, which can be seen on any highway strip; and the mixed-use, walkable lifestyle center, such as Salt Lake City’s new City Creek Center, and Reston, Virginia. Though some developers have embraced mixed use development, they have to be aware of the issues involved: a higher standard of design; being careful about what uses you mix; and having development partners who both understand the value of mixed use and have the deep pockets to finance it.

Despite these challenges, Rybczynski argues that our greatest challenge will be increasing housing density, brought on by new energy markets and regulations as well as increased demand for urban living. Cities will have to build new, affordable, and family-oriented units, unlike the expensive units marketed at young singles and retirees that we see today. Though there are many urban models for how to accomplish this density increase, the trouble will come with how we densify the suburbs. He points to failed malls and other large suburban parcels as redevelopment opportunities, but worries about when we have to actually talk about changing zoning and redeveloping existing residential areas in suburbs. I’m a little less worried about this, because I think that communities that succeed in changing their density will simply be more economically desirable, and more intractable cities will either see themselves shrink into nothing or simply adopt changes later on. Again, I worry that my former workplace of Spanish Fork City is less prepared for this future than neighboring Springville, Utah, which has worked to create an attractive and walkable main street and increase densities in neighboring communities. Hopefully these and other communities will be prepared to address these issues when they arise.

Can city life be exported to the suburbs? – The Washington Post


Jonathan O’Connell wrote an article in the Washington Post over the weekend asking the above question. He compared suburban developments, including the Village at Leesburg and Reston Town Center, to some of the more vibrant parts of Washington, DC. O’Connell is a very good writer, in that his article could be read to support either side of the argument. For me, it comes down to semantics: what do you mean by “city life,” and what do you mean by “suburbs”? I feel that, based on your definition of these, you very well can “export” city life to the suburbs; I’m just not sure the examples O’Connell cited have actually done so. Let’s take a look.

City Life

In his article, O’Connell cites two neighborhoods in the District as examples of “city life;” those are Georgetown, and U Street.

These streets are classical examples of city life. They are built on gridded street systems, and although some streets are definitely wider than others, none are overwhelmingly wide (for instance, Wisconsin Avenue, the widest street in Georgetown, is only 80 feet from building front to building front). They are decidedly mixed use, with shops, offices and housing all bunched together. I think it’s important to point out that, although shopping and vibrancy are concentrated on a few streets, the majority of these neighborhoods is still housing, i.e. people actually live here rather than just coming here to shop. There is a fine grain of buildings, most of which have a fairly small footprint, but there are a lot of them, and it has the population density necessary to make it vibrant. While cars are certainly present, these areas are very pedestrian friendly and transit accessible.

You can find all these qualities in Alexandria, Virginia, as well. Alexandria is an old city which, as DC has grown, has sort of been sucked into its sphere of influence, and could be called a suburb. It has multiple stops on the DC Metro, is very pedestrian friendly, has a fine grain, mixed uses, high density, and the streets aren’t too wide. If Alexandria counts as a suburb, then you could say that city life was “exported” there; however, with Alexandria being as old as it is, it’s almost more appropriate to say that it co-evolved rather than that it was brought over from Washington. Other cities that came into their own later in history fit easier into the suburban definition, and will be covered in the next section.

Modern Suburbs/Emerging Cities

When I say Modern, I mean that they hit their growth spurt during the Modernist period in the mid-20th century. They sport the trappings of Modernism, including lots of towers and some roads that are wider than they should be. However, many of them are working to address the less desirable aspects of their modern development and are evolving into true cities as they mature. In Washington, cities that match this description include Arlington, Virginia; Bethesda, Maryland; and Silver Spring, Maryland.

These cities, as opposed to the ones in the first section, often have wider roads at their centers; however, they have taken efforts recently to make them more pedestrian friendly by including planted medians, bulb-outs, and other elements to shorten pedestrian crossing time. These large roads are also framed by large towers, so they have a nice height to width ratio. The towers help create density, although a lot of these cities have a fairly sharp drop off from towers to single-family homes. They are increasingly mixed-use, with the ground floor of these towers being shops and more of the towers becoming residential in addition to office space. Although the building grain isn’t as fine, shops still have fairly narrow frontages that change frequently and from the ground it feels similar in grain to the above examples. Each of these examples has a Metro stop and is otherwise well served by transit. These places also show how the element of time is important to creating city life; while these places may have been mostly office centers at their inception, as the cities have grown, they have become more mixed-use, more fine-grained, and more pedestrian-friendly. They also are more affordable than the District and have better schools, and if DC can’t fix that, these cities will continue to house the families that want city life, but can’t get everything they need in Washington.

Better Suburbs

These are the areas that O’Connell seemed to focus on in his article. These areas are relatively new, and although they are more urban than the single-family and strip mall suburbs around them, they still lack city life. However, these places are in a better state to develop it as time goes on than their traditional suburban neighbors. O’Connell discusses the Village at Leesburg and Reston Town Center, and I would like to add Kentlands to the mix.

Like most suburbs, in these places, the car is still king. The roads in the Village and at Reston, despite nods to pedestrians on their “main streets,” are overwhelmingly wide; even the village’s main street is 110 feet wide, and the roads ringing Reston are over 160 feet from building front to building front in some areas. Kentlands is better with the exception of Kentlands Boulevard, but it too falls prey to the other major demand of the car; parking. Kentlands has large surface parking lots all around its shopping and office areas. Reston and the Village feature much more structured parking, which takes up huge percentages of their development. Reston has three blocks devoted exclusively to parking, and three more where towers are built on parking podiums. At the Village, I would guess from aerials that nearly half of their buildings are parking garages, including one that is 1,000 feet long, and even the median of their main street is devoted to parking. Much of this parking isn’t lined by other uses, creating a poor streetscape.

This amount of parking makes sense, oddly enough, because they aren’t dense enough or have enough mixed uses. There is essentially one apartment complex at the Village, and it’s in the middle of nowhere surrounded by highways, so driving is about the only option for most of its users. Reston is in a better case, mostly because it is older and is surrounded by residential development, but its ring of massive roads discourages walking and I would bet that even people who live close by would rather drive. And while Kentlands almost has enough residential to support its large commercial area, they are in no way mixed. There is pretty much a line where, on one side, it is residential, and on the other it is commercial, so anyone more than a quarter mile or so form that line will probably drive. These places don’t have corner stores or diners mixed in, they have designated living and shopping areas, and for the most part, the best way to get between them is by car. With the possible exception of Reston, they don’t have city-like densities, and none of them are served by rail transit, with limited bus connections, if at all. The buildings and the blocks are large (with the exception of Kentlands), which discourages walking. They are also relatively new, and haven’t had a chance to really go through a change of generation and tastes, and I think it would be interesting to watch these areas and see where they are at in 20 or 50 years.

Can you export city life to the suburbs? Yes, but you can’t go halfway, you need to use all the elements that make city life worth living. Alexandra has all of those, the modern suburbs/emerging cities have most and are developing the rest, and the better suburbs have a few. We’ll have to check back on all of them in a generation or two and see if it has actually come to pass.

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