Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The city is already facing a massive affordability crisis. To grow smart, its leaders must radically change their philosophies—now.
Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., sat down with the hosts of Morning Joe on Tuesday to talk about body cameras, Uber, law enforcement in Baltimore, and other topics of interest in (or adjacent to) Chocolate City. The hosts perpetuated some misleading stereotypes about the city, like when Mika Brzezinski suggested that members of Congress must spend a lot of time stuck in traffic. (What a bama.) But Bowser tried to keep the discussion focused on the future.
Clueless pundits notwithstanding, Bowser made one point that struck an immediate chord in the District.
On MoJoe @MayorBowser just declared "we're going to keep growing." Wants to go from 660,000 population to 800k. Where they gonna live? How?— Paul Kane (@pkcapitol) July 21, 2015
“In the ‘50s, we had 800,000 people that lived in D.C. We’re at about 660,000 now,” said Mayor Bowser. “Probably in the next 20 years we’ll get up to 800,000 again. Now, we have to be smart. We have to invest in our infrastructure… We’re going to invest in our Metro.”
There’s no fate but what we make: we, meaning residents of the District of Columbia, our locally elected leaders, and our unelected leaders in Congress. Right now, our leaders aren’t prepping for the doomsday scenario—a return to peak population.
It may not ever come to pass. The sequester and subsequent failure to pass a real budget on Capitol Hill have cut into the defense spending that fueled the District’s extraordinary growth over the course of the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations. While anything could happen—at present, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush disagree as to exactly how quickly a Republican president should launch a war with Iran after the 2016 election, but suffice it to say: quickly—for the time being, population growth in the District of Columbia is slowing.
Assuming, like Bowser does, that the population isn’t going to decline any time soon, then she’s going to need to answer two questions about peak population: “Where they gonna live?” and “How?” Unfortunately, the city needs to make some big adjustments before its affordability crisis gets any worse.
Ditch the Height Act, or the leaders who love it
The most disappointing aspect of last year’s amendment to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act was not that it didn’t go very far toward lifting the congressionally mandated cap on building height in the city. (It didn’t go very far, and this was disappointing, to be sure.) Worse still was the D.C. Council’s nearly unanimous vote against altering the bill.
As CityLab has said all along, the Height Act limits not just the height of buildings but the rights of residents. After all, the Height Act takes the zoning authority that, in any other city, rests with the local government and turns that power over to Congress. This is a zoning question, but it’s also a question about self-governance in D.C., something like home rule and budget autonomy—which are rights cherished by locals.
No, changing the Height Act will not be a panacea for the affordability crisis in D.C. No, changing the Height Act won’t turn the city into Manhattan overnight, or ever. And no, I don’t expect an argument for local autonomy to sway Congress. But the Height Act should be a litmus test for electing leaders in D.C.: Not whether they support taller buildings, but whether they support the right of D.C. residents to make that decision. (But also whether they support taller buildings.)
Scrap WMATA and start over
A friend and I were joking a few days ago that a true reformer could clean house at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority by closing it down for the week between Christmas and New Year’s and firing every single one of the agency’s employees. Talk about your Mayor for Life.
WMATA needs a reboot. Leaders in Virginia, Maryland, and the District are huddling to decide how to hire a new general manager, but WMATA needs a bigger re-think than that, given the dismal state of its finances and its perilous safety record. Short of ripping up the rails and starting again, leaders should take every step necessary to rebuild the structure of WMATA. Rename and rebrand the agency, reset every service it offers and how municipalities should share costs, and revise what the future of public transit in D.C. will look like.
A city of 800,000 is going to need better options for traveling east to west, for one thing. A Metrorail line or corridor traveling from Minnesota Avenue NE in Georgetown University in Northwest, clear across town, will be badly needed by 2035. Maybe it will never happen, like the streetcar. But even if crosstown rail were in the offing, WMATA couldn’t be trusted to make it work.
Bring back boarding houses
The same friend tipped me off to a classic science-fiction film that offers some advice for the future of D.C. from the city’s own past. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was filmed in the District. Needless to city, the city no longer resembles the one visited by the interstellar tourists Klaatu and Gort.
Boarding houses are one of the things that an alien might’ve discovered in D.C. in the 1950s but won’t find today. Part of the film takes place in a boarding house at 14th and Harvard Streets NW in Columbia Heights. A radio adaptation puts the boarding house downtown at 16th and M Streets NW, but it’s a D.C. boarding house nonetheless.
One reason that the city’s population is smaller now than it was back in Klaatu’s day is that households are smaller. While there’s a lot of agitas about building housing units suitable for families and aging in place, what the city truly needs are smaller units with shared amenities suitable for its more rapidly growing, rent-strapped millennial workforce.
The past even shows the way forward. It’s easy to imagine making a residential corridor out of M Street NW, where lots of aging office buildings are losing tenants to more fashionable business corridors (especially NoMa). Some of these buildings could be converted into residential, even micro-housing.
Mayor Bowser has her work cut out for her. WMATA is a disaster, D.C. statehood isn’t close to President Obama’s heart, and the D.C. Zoning Commission’s most recent decision on housing effectively downzoned the most desirable areas in the city. Too many of the people with say in these decisions don’t live here. One day, the people who do may number 800,000 or even a million. The mayor is right: D.C. has got to be smart about that now.