Borderopolis: Is Density My Enemy?

by Borderstan.com August 24, 2011 at 8:00 am 3 Comments

Logan Circle, Church Street NW, 14th Street NW, Luis Gomez Photos

1400 Block of Church Street NW. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Borderstan welcomes Troy Urman who is writing about architecture and urban planning in the Dupont-Logan-U Street area. His new column, Borderopolis, runs every two weeks.

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

I think there is a dirty word hiding behind arguments over plans for new construction in our neighborhood. It’s not necessarily building heights, parking counts and aesthetics that riled residents are concerned about. It’s the ‘D word’ — Density.

To clear the air, I think we all need to ask ourselves: Is density my enemy?

Like many in my generation, I was a child of the American suburbs and an era of cheap gasoline. I came of age believing I would one day find happiness in a single-family home on a half-acre in a quiet suburban development. I would surely have plenty of room to park my SUV and a lawn large enough to host an impromptu helicopter landing.

Like many, I erroneously interpreted the American Dream to mean lots of space between me and my neighbors — low density. I have changed my mind.

It was not overnight and I won’t claim it was pain free, but over time I’ve traded the sprawling suburbs for the city. Not only are there innumerable benefits to living in a city (culture, diversity and employment to name a few), there is ample evidence of the serious environmental, economic, health and social costs of the car dependent lifestyle that suburbs require.

Now I live in a condo building, I commute on foot and I only worry about my car on street-cleaning days. I can get to the gym, shop and meet my friends without even getting in my car or searching for a place to park. It’s liberating! How is this all possible?  Density.

Walkability is one important factor in how desirable a place can be to live, work and play. I’m happy to point out that D.C. was just ranked one of the most walkable U.S. cities by Walkscore. Their methodology, while not perfect, relies on calculating the number of groceries, shopping, banks, and other amenities within a walking area.

Simply put, the more stuff within walking distance (read: dense), the better.

In my opinion, two excellent local examples of well-executed high-density residential development within walking distance of lots of amenities are between 14th Street NW and 15th Street NW. The 1400 block of Church Street NW is a quiet one-way street lined with condo buildings in a modern industrial style.

The 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW is a string of more traditional looking buildings, well-screened by a leafy canopy of mature trees. Despite appearances, each of these blocks is very dense. These surprisingly tall buildings — up to nine stories — contain hundreds of neighbors, customers, and tax-payers within a stone’s throw of employment, shopping and entertainment. All adding to the vitality of the city in a tight footprint.

As the natural growth of our fantastic city continues, we simply cannot sustain outward sprawl into endless suburbs. We must become more dense. Major corridors like 14th Street will continue to develop due to their economic and social capital.

While context, character and aesthetics are essential considerations, we will unquestionably experience growing pains — allowing higher buildings and more new neighbors than initially seem comfortable. Especially the area of Dupont, Logan and U Street — ripe with open land and so close to the city center. See recent changes of heart regarding development at Wallach and 14th Streets NW on BeyondDC. It is better to look ahead and consider the long-term vision of a street than make begrudging progress, one block at a time.

Keep this in mind while we watch the empty lots and storefronts now being excavated in Borderopolis, many vacant for four decades or more. Because when the dust clears, our new neighbors move in, and the many new shops, restaurants and a YMCA all open for business, we will all benefit.

Yes, parking might be more scarce and some new residents may have to read up on Urban Etiquette for a pointer or two, but it’s a small price to pay to live in a vibrant city.  This is why density is not your enemy.

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