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the future of dc rowhousing

THE FUTURE OF DC'S ROW HOUSE BLOCKS

summary

Over the next 100 years much of the expected increase in DC's population could well be housed by increasing the residential density of hundreds of blocks of row houses. While the city's planners do not differentiate between brownstones, townhouses and row houses, it seems clear that it is the undistinguished, lower-income units that are most suitable for redevelopment. These units were built en masse during the city's temporary population explosion prior to WW II, on what was then the 'outskirts of town', but what is now getting much closer to downtown. These housing developments were built for family demographics now out of style, are clearly dated both in architecture and amenities, and use their property very inefficiently. At question is the conflict between abstract planners overly protective of the past, and developers with a far keener (if biased) vision of future urban lifestyles and needs. With suitable compromises between the two, NARPAC concludes that the future residential evolution of DC could well benefit from the creative re-formulation of the "row house block".

In the following analysis, we will provide:

o an introduction and background in DC row houses

o a lengthy description of changes already underway in DC household and their lifestyles; and

o some analytical efforts to quantify the possible increases in density and visualize the changes involved.

Earlier chapters on this general subject include a general summary of recent housing issues; and a more detailed analysis of the needs and realities of affordable housing.

introduction

A major thrust of DC's new "Comprehensive Plan" is to maintain and improve the character and livability of the city's 130+ "neighborhoods". There are any number of "policies" to prevent growth, displacement, 'gentrification', and modernization. And additional 'policies' invoking historic preservation, existing neighborhood 'character', and century(s)-old inner-city road-layout and building height limit restrictions. Assiduously enforced, this plan would essentially keep the nation's capital city from keeping up with changing American mores and lifestyles.

Here are a few examples from the "Land Use" Element (Chapter), Major Policy 2.0 dealing with "Creating and Maintaining Successful Neighborhoods". It starts out with the interesting assertion that "the same effort given to keeping Washington's monumental core a symbol of national pride must be given the city's neighborhoods", noting that "for Washington's residents, the neighborhoods are the essence of the city's social and physical environment". The 12 'sub- policies' within this framework include:

o maintaining a variety of neighborhood types from low to high density...
o revitalizing neighborhoods on the basis of need, as indicated by "social, economic, and physical indicators such as poverty, crime, unemployment, and abandoned buildings...
o balancing the need for increased housing and commercial opportunities with parallel goals to protect neighborhood character, preserve historic resources, and restore the environment...
o wherever possible, rehabilitating run-down housing rather than demolishing it...
o protecting the low density character, neighborhood scale, and existing open spaces...
o avoiding 'McMansions'...
*o* protecting the character of row house neighborhoods by retaining "scale", designating more neighborhoods as historic districts, and regulate the subdivision of row houses into 'multiple dwellings'...
o discouraging up-zoning single-family, duplexes, and row houses (R-1 - R-4) to multi-family apartments (R-5) that are 'out of character with the existing neighborhood'...
o discouraging adding new floors on top of row houses and apartment buildings that would be out of character with neighborhood...
o limiting encroachment of non-residential uses into higher density residential neighborhoods...
o accommodating changing parking requirements, but limit impact on neighborhood attractiveness and traffic flow..and
o reuse of vacant public buildings (e.g., schools) should be compatible with neighborhood surroundings...

It is of some interest to NARPAC that the Design Element draft of the Comprehensive Plan calls for "regulating the subdivision of row houses into 'multiple dwellings'", while the Housing Element draft more positively proposes (H-1,3,4) to "encourage cooperatives, shared housing, and co-housing (housing with private bedrooms but shared kitchens and common areas)", and also (H-1.3.6) to "allow the development of single room occupancy housing in appropriate zoning districts". It would seem logical that these relatively modest, older, housing units would be obvious places to encourage this.

It is also of some interest to note that the Comprehensive Plan includes no prohibitions against perpetuating the depressing monotony of block after block of mind-numbing socialistic architectural conformity.

NARPAC's curiosity is raised by the planners' evident interest in preserving DC's row houses as little changed as possible. The subject is treated by Benjamin Forgey, the highly respected architectural critic of the Washington Post, in the introductory text to John Cleave's recent illustrated book: Washington, Scenes from a Capital City":

"For the most part, (Washington's) residential neighborhoods are pleasantly unceremonious from the tightly (and charmingly) packed streets of Georgetown in the west, to the rambling informality of Brookland in the northeast.....Georgetown set the early standard. Like Boston and Philadelphia, the capital by and large adopted the English pattern of connected residential rows in its early development. Washington became a city of row houses....The row house pattern continued in neighborhood after neighborhood through much of the 19th and 20th centuries."

What Forgey hints at, but wisely does not focus on, is that although most of these row house units were built from the 1890's through the 1940's strictly for white family residents, the city's abrupt demographic shift between 1945 and 1975 substantially changed the complexion of DC home owners and renters (to coin a phrase!). In that process, row house residents changed from virtually all-white, middle-class government workers, to largely black, not-so middle-class workers with larger families. Between 1900 and 1940, the city's population grew from 300,000 to 700,000 (nominally). In 1940, the populace was roughly 500,000 white and 200,000 black. Census numbers indicate DC's population peaked during the WWII and Korean War years at over 900,000 people (many temporary). By 1970 the population was back down to 700,000, but now it was 500,000 black, and 200,000 white, and the notion of a "chocolate city" came into vogue. According to Forgey, there are more blacks in Washington, DC than in all but two states. This has had its effect on neighborhood character, as the less wealthy, but considerably larger, black families struggled with increasing housing and service costs in previously white neighborhoods.

all row houses are not created equal

Row houses, of course, come in enormous variety and enjoy different names in different places. In many sections of New York, the "brownstones" were among the more elegant homes the city had to offer both in midtown, and in parts of Brooklyn. The photo below shows some DC row houses on Logan Circle that could clearly qualify as brownstones in New York. In other cities, they are known as "townhouses", and they are back in style in many contemporary urban and suburban developments. The term "row house" has often been applied to the lower end of the "connected residential rows" that were widely used in factory towns and the blue-collar residential areas of cities like Baltimore. Yet another related variety are the "mews", originally a group of horse stables around an inner courtyard or alley. Many were converted to small living quarters (or garages) as gasoline replaced oats as the propulsion fuel of choice. More recently the term has been used more indiscriminately for off-street clusters of row houses.

DC has row houses to spare

By NARPAC's very crude estimate, as many as 600 of DC's total of 6278 'squares' may be essentially "row house blocks". (These 'squares' are used for tax assessment purposes and vary from normal city blocks down to the odd-shaped little left-over "islands" between diagonally- intersecting streets. There are two zoning categories reserved for row house blocks: "R-3" for lower density row house-only blocks, and "R-4" which mixes row houses and "flats" of similar character. A typical rectangular (not square) row house block may include some 80-100 individual housing units on separately taxed lots. Almost all of them appear to have been designed for families of four to six members, and varying in height from three to five floors, often with partially "sunk", partially "finished", basements. Perhaps one-third of these units would qualify as "brownstones" in New York, the other two-thirds are closer to Baltimore's row houses. Together this could easily amount to some 50,000 household units capable of holding up to 300,000 household and related members, but now housing half that number. On this basis, it is difficult to imagine why these dated units, mostly now well over 50 years old, need to be protected like an endangered housing species. Tidy as these typical row houses may be along 7th Street in upper Northwest, they hardly contribute to the capital city's "national identity":

The first question, then, might be why it is necessary or even desirable to save so many hundreds of examples of the same architectural style, and why particularly in the nation's capital. Why not leave these reminiscences of America's early factory-towns to Baltimore? When did we decide to impose strictures on change, individuality, etc. by making our homes look like the yesterdays most of us are glad to be rid of? Certainly change should not be so rapid as to invoke "shock and awe", but change should be encouraged, and at a measured pace that assures that the national capital city will not fall further and further behind the country's future. It is the rate of change that needs to be supervised.

A second question might involve whether this class of homes was even meant to be truly permanent, or representative of a successful life. While the relatively upscale townhouses reflected prosperity and individuality (like many of those still gaining in value in Georgetown and Capitol Hill, shown here to the left), the ubiquitous row house was an everyday person's undistinguished housing unit. In many blocks, all units are identical, differentiated only by the color or condition of the paint, or the furniture and plants on the front porch. They symbolize the long-gone factory- town; the best hope for the Archie Bunker, the home-owning blue-collar worker; the housing nearest, if not on the wrong side of, the tracks, but certainly not in the middle of town. One short but important step above the drab apartments of the public housing "projects". NARPAC doubts they were ever intended to be s stereotype for central city living. And the central city is now spilling over into these areas which were, fifty years ago, at the edge of town. The metric for the average urban block is surely very different now.

Before preserving these units en masse, it is clearly appropriate to question whether these housing designs reflect current and future trends in urban households. Is DC planning to perpetuate an urban housing character that is now increasingly inconsistent with emerging urban household character?


return to the top of the pageAccommodating Household and Lifestyle Changes

The biggest transition going on in urban residential neighborhoods is the composition of the household, the amenities that make a house a home, and changing patterns of living. These existing 50-yr old row houses were designed around the now-disappearing core family: Mom at home, Dad working, three kids and one on the way, and Grandma. Characterized by two or three floors, small bedrooms, a barely habitable half-above-ground basement, and maybe some tiny attic lofts. A front porch with swing to cool off on and engage the passing neighbors. A narrow lot out back with a couple of flower pots, and often (nowadays) the no-longer working, rusted-through car or washing machine. But there have already been major changes in the number of kids, husbands, and relatives, and more on clearly on the way.

There are far more handicapped, elderly, singles, single parents, empty nesters, and new needs for several forms of "workforce-housing", including shared units. The household size is way down, but the number of owners is up, the number of cars they own is up by a factor of ten, their interest in tending little grass plots is way down, their dependence on air conditioning, decks, hot tubs, outdoor grills, eating out, and artificial flowers way up. The "attic" has become a sought-after "loft", the basement, an "efficiency unit", the narrow footprint an anachronism: why build vertically and require stairs and stair wells, rather than living one on floor? There is no conceivable reason to keep the same "vertical" home layout, the same footprint, the same (limited) curb space, the same little gardens and outdoor porch in the front, or the little grass plots (or junkyards) out back. Urban residential design will be revolutionized by household demographics.

the changing street, friend or foe?

Urban residential design will also be changed somewhat by offsetting 20th Century developments involving the extraordinary convenience of hydrocarbon powered engines. On the one hand, these devices have made possible the extraordinary change-over from horses to horseless carriages. It is somewhat miraculous that the now-ubiquitous family car(s) (now well over one per household nationally) has adapted so well to urban street layouts dating back hundreds of years prior to their invention. The major unresolved problem is where to keep them when they are not in use. It is surely not surprising that neither L'Enfant nor McMillan foresaw the necessity to provide street, lot, and house designs that would make room for the family car. It would be surprising if 21ast Century planners failed to recognize the need as well.

On the other hand, diesel and gasoline engines have also made possible revolutions in excavation and dirt removal. The original (lower income) row houses appear to have basements only half below grade level, while front porches and entrances were raised enough to accept the excavated dirt. Nowadays, there are no real problems associated with digging multi-level basements, and no reason not to provide underground garages as well. But NARPAC would wager that up to 90% of DC's row houses, fashionable or mundane, are currently inaccessible to many handicapped persons on foot, or in the growing variety of 'personal transport systems'.

On the other hand, faster, noisier, and more polluting vehicles seem to have de-valued both the front stoop and the tree-lined sidewalk. In many other cultures, urban residential "blocks" faced inward to protected (gated?) common courtyards, rather that outward towards bustling, but dusty and noisy unpaved streets. Similarly, the innovation of the sidewalk, presumably adopted to separate pedestrians from both horse-drawn vehicles and underfoot mud, is losing some of its romantic charm. Clearly, what's on the sidewalk may be a threat, not a neighbor, just as it was many years ago in rowdy urban areas. It is by no means clear to NARPAC, that a brand-new 21st Century urban row house block, unfettered by recent custom, would front outward rather than inward. These units on Gallatin Street, NW all requiring climbing two steps to their front doors, and descending steps to their back doors:

the "neighborhood" is losing its meaning, and its young family appeal

Furthermore, a "metro area" that did not fill the District's 63 square miles to its boundaries less than 100 years ago, has now spilled over into four thousand additional square miles. And household mobility has been transformed by the addition of the family car(s). Friendships are no longer determined by walking distance, or by social or demographic barriers. Hence there are far more choices as to where a worker and his family can live. The location and style of the family housing unit is now the choice of the family, not an adjunct to the breadwinner's job. And the notion of staying in one job "for life" has all but disappeared, with many companies encouraging frequent workforce turnover. This in turn has generated a new freedom (and/or necessity) to move several times during a lifetime to fit changing family, job, or even school needs.

There are dubious implications in the new Comprehensive Plan drafts that: a) a central city will be a failure unless it has its full measure of families with school-aged kids; and b) city planning policies can attract such families back into the city by simply building housing units for families with school-aged kids. NARPAC doubts very strongly that: a) these families want to come back into central cities with high crime, bad traffic, poor schools, and little open space; b) a lack of such housing is keeping them away; or c) that planning documents will replace "market forces" in determining where 21st Century families will decide to live while raising their kids.

Many more households now live how and where they want for the moment, and move almost as often as they replace their cars. Between 1995 and 2000, half of all DC households changed their residence. Furthermore, knowledge of the 'outside world' has grown by leaps and bounds through magazines, movies and TV. The remarkable ease of travel is surely one of the great 20th Century innovations. The notion of a world limited to one single neighborhood for life is a thing of the past for all Americans except those frozen in place by poverty or social or physical incapacity.

front door, back door, gated entry

The roles of the urban front door and back door are also in flux. Mail, Fedex, and guests generally come in one, and kids and garbage often go out the other. Which one is used by the owner(s) is almost totally dependent on where the car is parked, or the shortest distance to the nearest public transit stop. But there are continuing, probably growing, concerns about safety and the risks of being waylaid while fumbling for keys at either entrance. To some idealistic liberals, the notion of a "gated community" is a complete anathema. To many others, the notion of a common, perhaps guarded, entrance or lobby is a great comfort. Certainly apartment dwellers and condo owners have not rebelled against secure entries. Besides one's own person, most urban householders are rightfully worried about their second largest lifetime purchases, their automobiles. Few owners choose curbside parking when off-street/garage parking is available, and few object to having "gated" parking areas. But the notion of a "gated row house block" has never really been tested.

purchases in, garbage out

One of the very few urban housing issues not covered in any way, form, or manner in DC's Comprehensive Plan is the growing difficulty of disposing of household garbage. Gone are the days when everything came in easy-to-open paper packaging that could subsequently be burned, incinerated, or added to the coal furnace. In our ever-advancing consumer society, the average household continues to buy more and more. And regardless of what it may be, it comes wrapped in something that cannot be opened, or readily thrown away. Remember the days before garbage disposals when "wet garbage" was set aside in a cast iron receptacle in the ground (with a foot- operated lid), and eventually recycled into pork by pigs? Today's row house block is designed to some degree by the need to accommodate one or more types of giant garbage trucks making house-to-house pick-ups year-round from alleys or front sidewalks.

This is one area in which the independently-living householder places an increasing burden on the municipal government. While apartment and condo households have adjusted to various kinds of chutes and central drop-off containers, each "house" gets individual treatment, no matter how close together they are spaced. While more and more attempts are being made to standardize garbage and recycle-able containers (The "Barry Bucket" may be that mayor's longest lasting contribution to DC), the procedure is awkward, time-consuming, and labor-intensive for both the householder and the city government. Yet failure to develop better, more standardized, and more automated garbage removal systems may remain one stumbling block to better designing all kinds of urban blocks, streets, curbs, and back yards. This photo of typical row house back yards shows the jumble of "Barry Buckets", back decks and other household appurtenances:

The Row House Block (RHB) as a basic residential planning unit.

Perpetuating the friendly atmosphere of the "row house block" may be a sensible idea for a "livable city". But the draft's treatment of it seems to epitomize what's wrong with this long- range planning exercise and the advocates who are influencing it. At every level the plan seems to be clinging to the past, when it should be leading the way to a new, exciting, and (hopefully) trend-setting future. In short, the Plan should allow, if not encourage, conversion of this early 20th Century lower middle class housing approach to a realistic 21st Century version using future urban demographic trends.

The design features of the RHB need to be updated too. About the only thing that stays the same is the rectilinear street layout that defines the size of the blocks. There should be more off-street (protected) parking; less exposure to "the street"; less out-of-style "front yards"; more private decks; and perhaps more common space (for that block); less junkyard space; perhaps no internal alleys; less front steps to climb or fall down; more sheltered lobby entrances and less street-facing front doors, and so forth. The only significant constant is that "the block" is a measurable entity made up of closely spaced housing units. 'X' blocks can comprise a typical neighborhood, and 'Y' neighborhoods can cluster around one transit node, as a "mini-urban center".

The RHB's might also take on particular characteristics reflecting the life styles of different groups of like-minded households. Instead of trying to establish "mixed" and "inclusive" neighborhoods one housing unit at a time, it might be more congenial if encouraged one block at a time. One block might be predominantly for single moms with kids needing a protected inner courtyard playground. Another might cater more to singles or young adults wanting tennis or basketball courts (two or three will easily fit in a RHB courtyard). Yet another might tend towards senior citizens or a semi-assisted living group, with resident nurses given housing subsidies. Why not an affordable row housing block? And so forth, separate blocks with separate quality of life needs, all sharing the same neighborhood.

RHB's that front on a more major street should also continue the practice of zoning for higher density and greater mixed commercial/residential uses along that street. The economically-dubious desire to have small mom&pop stores every few blocks may be somewhat more attainable, if they have one-room apartments, or various other kinds of affordable and /or"co-housing" units above them. They might also facilitate inclusion of various essential city social service functions such as small clinics and rehab centers. Further, an RHB within a few blocks of a Metro station should not be excluded from "transit-oriented development" because it is protecting endangered row houses.

Moreover, the frequent planner's admonition not to disturb "the character of the neighborhood" seems ill-advised. What character? Most of the row house neighborhoods are already in transition away from a disappearing life-style, and show a numbing repetition that bespeaks the absence of either creativity or choice. "Out of scale with adjoining communities" is equally pernicious. New developments should be consistent with planned growth throughout the affected area within the next 20 years or so. "Community standards" is another chimera in many parts of town, and becomes a mantra for avoiding doing something new Clearly the number of housing units per block must double or triple if the household size has decreased by almost that much. Surely there must be some significant increase in density if the city is going to keep growing not just for 20 years, but for the next 100 years. In fact, much of this growth can probably be accommodated within these relatively poorly utilized row house blocks.

backyard vs roof deck

There must have been a time when the small, private backyard was a luxury to which apartment and public housing occupants aspired. Grass to be cut, flowers to be tended, and even one's own tree became symbols of the better, if not the good, life. The passage of time has brought changes here too. Many backyards have become dumping grounds for obsolete cars and other exhausted household machinery. The two-worker, one-parent, or aging family find gardening a burden. The sun seldom shone in many backyards, and others became kennels for animals not always man's best friend. And Rachel Carson unleashed urban bugs undeterred by the charcoal cook-out. In fact, many row houses have now sprouted decks above their cluttered yards, and above many low-flying insects and pets. Another view of the inner 'courtyard' of Square 3149 shows the multitude of current uses for this valuable backyard property:

Newer units are now moving the sundeck to the roof which is just about as close as their owners want to come to instant country living. And for those looking for ways to increase density in the row house block, this trade-off is not insignificant. A typical backyard might occupy about 1200 square feet behind a row house with a floor area of about 1800 sqft (including basement and attic). The new rooftop deck of about 225 sqft , though, is within the 450 sqft footprint of the house itself. In many lower income RHBs, the assessed value of the land for each homeowner is often significantly higher than (twice) the value of the housing unit itself. In higher income areas, that ratio is frequently reversed. The assessed value of these Square 3149 backyards, absent their present contents, currently runs at about $90 per square foot:

front yard and front porch vs living space and modernity

Probably more controversial to city advocacy groups than giving up little used backyard space would be sacrificing "green" front yard space for living space. Setback lines are well established around the city, although they vary very substantially from street to street. For Square 1038 (see below), for instance, the setback appears to be only about 10 feet and without front porches for units facing Independence Avenue. By contrast, the units facing (the diagonal) South Carolina Avenue appear to be set back from the sidewalk about 20 feet, and that's only to the front edge of a six-foot (?) front porch. Given 21st Century conditions on city streets and city sidewalks, both the set back and the perpetuation of the front porch seem anachronistic.

While the social aspects of the front porch, such as chatting up sidewalk passers by and/or watching vehicular traffic go by, may still appeal to some, to others, it is increasingly risky. Air conditioning also makes it less expedient. Moreover, it is quite reasonable to think in terms of new row houses that face inward rather than outward towards the noisier, more threatening streets and sidewalks. In this case, the block could have "gated entry" rather than exposed front doors, and the street-face of the buildings would be more like those common to apartment houses. If those new units are faced inward, it might not be necessary to work so hard to replicate the dated and undistinguished fronts of 1930's row houses just for continuity's sake.

The photo below shows the South Carolina Avenue face of Square 1038 (discussed below). It is a combination of old row houses to the left, and the one-story higher "faux row houses" next to them. It is difficult to measure the real or aesthetic value of perpetuating these dated, nondescript facades:

return to the top of the pageQuantifying the Visualizing the Opportunities

Cluster 17, Square 3149

NARPAC looked around the city for large areas of row houses that are unlikely to make it into the townhouse/brownstone categories. We wanted to explore just what opportunities might exist for increasing both the modernity of the housing units and the "productivity "of a typical block, in terms of the number of households, and the assessed value of the housing units. Quite by random selection, we lit upon a relatively small block in Upper Northwest in an area that seemed to have virtually no distinguishing features about it, and no reason to draw frenzied re-development. We picked Square 3149, which is about as square a block as is available (most are about 2:1 oblong). It is centrally located in the Brightwood neighborhood of Planning Cluster #17.

The cluster itself counts over 18,000 residents. Only 3,500 are in the labor force, but the mean household income in 2000 was almost $46,000, somewhat above the citywide mean of $43,000. It is southeast of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, destined now to close within a few years. There were less than 8,000 households in this cluster in 2000, with an average household size of 2.4. 79% of cluster residents were still black, down from in 1990. Only 10% of these households were married couples, over 11% were single moms. Almost 20% of the residents were under 18, another 17%, officially 'elderly'. 12% of the residents were in poverty (up from less than 8% in 1990 ), but possibly most interesting of all, 41% of the households had moved between 1995 and 2000. The cluster includes 8295 housing units of which almost 46% have three bedrooms or more. 473 units were vacant, and the average housing value was $171,000. 52% of the units are owned by their occupants, considerably above the city average of 41%.

Square 3149 itself has some 60 very similar two-story row houses with semi-finished basements and footprints of about 450 sqft, excluding front porches. The 18 units at each end of the block sit on lots of about 1500 sq ft. The 12 units on each side have deeper lots of perhaps 2250 sq. ft. The whole block curb to curb is about 300'x400'. The FAR for the block is no more than 0.50. Almost half of the homes are owned, and the average assessed value of all the units must be about $225,000. In general, the assessed land value is roughly twice the value of the housing unit. The total property value of Square 3149 is about $14M.

Cluster #26, Square 1038

The choice of Square 1038 just south of Lincoln Park was far less random: it represents a remarkable redevelopment of another row house block in a somewhat more upscale part of town. The key difference is that this square (a trapezoid, to be exact) included until a few years ago a public school site, which ran through the block from Independence Avenue to South Carolina Avenue. The Bryan School site was capped with row houses at both ends, primarily on Kentucky Avenue to the west, and 14th Street to the east. The closure of the school, and its eventual sale to developers, presented a major challenge: how to provide truly modern new living units without destroying the "character", or at least the overall appearance, of the block.

By agreement with the neighborhood, the main four-story schoolhouse building was kept in tact, but totally rebuilt inside to provide some 18 condos assessed from $550,000 to $1,100,000. In addition, the center of the block, once school playgrounds and parking, has been replaced with twenty new four-story townhouses facing an inner courtyard (for parking). Each includes one garage at ground level, and one roof deck on the rear half of the fourth floor. Each is assessed at nominally $960,000. This inner courtyard community appears to be a sensible, contemporary addition to row house block design. This neighborhood upgrade was designed and developed by EYA (formerly Eaking/Youngentob Associates) which also authorized NARPAC to use the artists' renderings shown below from their web site The value of the 1000 sqft lots here is about $300K, and of the townhouses, over $650K. The lefthand illustration below gives a clear indication of the rooftop decks on both the "faux row houses" (foreground) and the new townhouses behind them. In the background is the refurbished old Bryan Schoolhouse, and the matching facades of the new townhouses is depicted below right:

Along Independence Avenue six new "faux-row" houses mimic the earlier style of three-story units with bay-window fronts and are assessed around $900,000. (They too have inconspicuous roof decks, and single-car garages at ground level). Finally, 13 more new three-story "faux-row" houses (valued at roughly $900,000) fill out the row house facade along South Carolina, between 6 original two-story units at each end. These too feature rooftop decks, and ground-level garages. The backs of these units share a common 20-ft wide alley with the new units facing the inner courtyard, providing garage access and "Barry-bucket" garbage pick-up. To NARPAC, the attempts to make these new "faux row" units look almost exactly like those of their half-century old neighbors, if only from the outside, is foolish and detracts from their value. Nevertheless, all are fully occupied, and luckily, the owners are not obliged to drive cars that appear to be 50 years old!

Altogether, then, a surplus school occupying about 2.5 acres of Square 1038 has been replaced by 51 brand new housing units that are presumably "not out of character" with the neighborhood. Together they have added a bit over $50M is new assessed value. These are added to the existing value of about $28.2M provided by 47 existing older units. It should be noted, however, that if the school had simply been torn down, and the gaps in the outward-facing rows of houses had been "filled in" with outward-faced "faux-row" units, the added value would be reduced by some $22M. Finding ways (such as an inner courtyard, as shown below) to add more units inside the row house perimeter appears eminently sensible. Finding ways to re-use surplus school properties is an added bonus:

From the street, incidentally, the presence of the newer, somewhat higher, courtyard townhouses is simply not visible. Not surprisingly, the artist's renderings of these "faux row" facades on South Carolina Ave (left) and Independence Ave (right) somewhat exaggerate their contributions to their respective streets. Nevertheless, they represent a very good faith effort to meet a dubious requirement:

The opportunity to add additional housing unit value does depend to some extent on the economic profile of the surrounding neighborhoods. Cluster 26 is surprisingly similar to Cluster 17 in terms of total population, housing units, households and housing size. Even the 5-year 41% roll-over in households is the same. But the racial balance is much closer to 50/50; there are fewer single moms; fewer kids; and fewer families in poverty. 47% of householders went to college, compared to Cluster 17's 29%, and as a result household income is almost half again higher: almost $68,000 vs $46,000. This is bound to reflect in the upper level of the value of the added housing units that is "in character" with the socio-economic comfort level of the neighborhood.

visualizing a 21st century row house block

Based on the preceding rambling analysis of the evolving row house block, NARPAC visualizes several substantial changes in the characteristics of such "standard" contemporary urban living groupings. These include:

o whatever the Comprehensive Plan says, there will be an inevitable blending of "houses", "apartments", "condos", "flats", "co-housing", and "rooms" to accommodate the broader demographic range of urban households, with a general trend towards fewer rooms per unit for the majority of them. There is a demand for more rooms only in more specialized circumstances: greater luxury at the one end, greater economy (for, say, co-housing) at the other. This variety of styles can be externally disguised if so required by preservationists;

o ground-level outdoor living space, be it backyard, front yard, back deck or front porch, will become less and less prevalent. Rooftop decks, on the other hand, many of them quite "green" will provide an alternate source of "outdoor living";

o off-street parking will be greatly increased as each urban household continues to own more, rather than less, cars, and as the ratio of independent adults to families with kids continues to rise. Such parking will include individual garages in each housing unit, as well as additional off-street common parking either at or below ground level. Routine curbside parking for homeowners might be eliminated completely, thus allowing greater urban mobility in both vehicles and an increasing variety of "personal transport systems", from bikes and wheel chairs, to scooters and segways;

o individually-owned "outdoor space"may well give way to common space which characterizes any given row house block: such as tennis courts, swimming pool, play school, and so forth;

o the single row inside the block's perimeter will give way to a double row, with some functional space between them, for either alleys, walking streets, or courtyards; This evolution is shown below in a crude NARPAC schematic. It shows the current cross-section of Square 3149, a typical dated row house block, and two possible evolutions. The center one maintains the outward facing outer row, but adding two alleys and a common inner courtyard (this one featuring a tennis court). The other turns the outer row inward to form two more secluded courtyards and a central alley. Both show below-grade parking:

o the outer rows will gradually gain at least a third floor in lower density areas, and a fourth floor in more densely populated areas, including those conveniently close to public transportation nodes;

o the inner rows, essentially invisible from the city streets, will tend to be at least one story higher than those at street side, though the added height may be used to provide common, decked-over, parking for all block residents, without resorting to deep excavations;

o the two rows will either be back-to-back with a narrower gap between them, or face-to-face with a larger, more decorous gap, possibly devoid of cars and trucks;

o trash pick-up will be from the alleys between back-to-back units, or from street side and a single central alley where the rows are face-to-face, or possibly from some space within lower level common garages;

Assuming that planning rules do not specifically forbid this type of gradual row house block density increase, NARPAC seems no reason why the typical population of a block cannot be doubled, and the number of individual householder units increased threefold or more.

summary

Over the next 100 years much of the expected increase in DC's population could well be housed by increasing the residential density of hundreds of blocks of row houses. While the city's planners do not differentiate between brownstones, townhouses and row houses, it seems clear that it is the undistinguished, lower-income units that are most suitable for redevelopment. These units were built en masse during the city's temporary population explosion prior to WW II, on what was then the 'outskirts of town', but what is now getting much closer to downtown. These housing developments were built for family demographics now out of style, are clearly dated both in architecture and amenities, and use their property very inefficiently. At question is the conflict between abstract planners overly protective of the past, and developers with a far keener (if biased) vision of future urban lifestyles and needs. With suitable compromises between the two, NARPAC concludes that the future residential evolution of DC could well benefit from the creative re-formulation of the "row house block"


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This page was updated May 15, 2006


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