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.

  • Scott

    I had to laugh reading this today as it resonates with commentary I heard today in Montreal, where density around the world is seen as a positive and the future, everywhere except in the US.

    This has to do with what we build and how we live in that built environment.

  • Anonymous

    I grew up in a very small town three to four decades ago. It wasn’t that densely populated, of course, but it DID have a small but fairly complete and thriving business sector — two grocery stores, a bowling alley, doctor’s office, laundromat, meat locker, private lending library, two restaurants, three gas stations, and a large farm implement dealer. In addition, there were three churches and a Masonic Temple.

    This was in a town of 500 people and it was the norm at that time. It was also the center for a rural population of roughly the same size, people who lived on farms and in the country around the town.

    People could and did walk all the time. There were always people on the sidewalks. The elderly did not have to drive — the essentials were right there. You could go to Main Street and see lots of people you knew. People congregated there in the evenings, just to talk. I remember the old farmers sitting on benches in front of the restaurant every evening.

    Today? Everything is gone except for a convenience store and one of the large gas stations and the lending library. That’s it. I won’t go into the reasons for the demise of the local business sector — that’s another conversation.

    My point is that density AND a willingness to shop locally are the keys to creating urban villages. For me, this neighborhood is a larger, more complex version of what I knew growing up. Trips to run errands often involve seeing a neighbor and talking to a local business owner. It’s all part of being connected, of being part of a community.

    Bring on the density. Please. It is key to making sure that we will continue to have essential businesses in the area — hardware stores, dry cleaners, gift shops, and specialty retail. Greater density will ensure that these businesses can succeed — and that we won’t end up with nothing but high-end restaurants that attract the crowds from Maryland and Virginia.

  • Steve

    One thing about walkability and the density which makes it possible it that every foot counts. Whereas for a suburbanite it doesn’t make that much difference, once one is in the car, to drive another mile or so, for the urban pedestrian, every block of additional distance matters. Street widths matter, because those feet add up. Stretches lacking destinations (think the east side of 14th Street between Q and S) take their toll.

    These horizontal distances can be overcome, to some degree, by vertical density. In Manhattan, for example, the north-south avenues are quite wide, and there are desolate stretches scattered everywhere thanks to 1950’s & 1960’s housing projects, among other things. But Manhattan is incredibly walkable.

    In DC, the height limits (DC Zoning usually governs, but there’s the Congressional Height Act lurking behind as a backup) prevent any serious height. But they do not prevent sufficient density for walkable neighborhoods, assuming that buildings are actually built to their legal sizes and allowed to contain uses that people need and want. NIMBYism is the big enemy of proper density in DC.

    The 1400 block of Church Street is an interesting example of an exception to the height rule in DC, because the buildings on the south side are actually taller (70′) than the street right-of-way is wide (50′). This is not a condition one finds frequently in DC, because the zoning & Congressional height limitations generally restrict building heights to be the same or lower than street widths. Yet, in my experience, people almost always have a positive reaction to the character of the 1400 block of Church.

    In a similar vein, the new buildings on 14th Street, which are typically 6-7 stories, are lending a much better urban character to the street than the historic buildings alone provided. This is because 14th Street needs height to properly frame its impressive width. And this additional height — plus the shops at street level — provide the density which promotes walkability. It’s a virtuous cycle, once it takes root.


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