DC's economic challenges - an annotated briefing

The Big Picture

The final two charts present a litany of reasons why the economic development of the nation's capital city is not yet proceeding with the vigor it needs. There is no clear statement of what Washington, DC should aspire to be, and in fact there is no general agreement on how core cities of metropolitan areas will develop over the next century. There are increasing indications that most modern businesses do not need to locate in the core city, but serve their employees better in an informal suburban setting. What will draw people to their inner cities and keep them alive and vibrant? What is the lasting appeal of high density living, working, and playing? How can central cities carve out unique roles for themselves within their metro areas? Surely the presence of the Federal seat of government must make it somewhat easier to answer these questions

There is no clear leadership concerning Washington's long-range future emanating from the White House, from the Congress, from the Mayor, or from the City Council. There is no master goal for long range planning and development. There is not even any effort to exploit the presence of foreign embassies to enhance the international nature of our capital--in many ways the capital of the Free World.

Equally serious, there is no common ground for working out regional problems within the metropolitan area. There are stronger bonds among the surrounding counties than there are between them and their core city: still the reason for their being. There is no regional plan, and there is surely no regional plan to make more productive use of large federal tracts either inside DC, or within the metro area (like Andrews Air Force Base). There is certainly no constructive regional effort to share the burdens of poverty which are becoming more and more concentrated in the central city--within view of the federal enclave itself.

There are three other somewhat troublesome problems which limit DC's appeal to both residents and workers. DC residents still lack a full vote in the Congress, and even though this is not central to many of the city's everyday problems, it is a convenient psychological crutch to explain away problems too tough to take on.

Secondly, it would be sheer folly to claim that the DC government bureaucracy has become "user friendly" for the conduct of existing businesses and the development of new ones. Virtually every agency of DC's government is still branded as "dysfunctional" on a daily or weekly basis, and tales of incompetence, indifference, and red tape abound. Steps are underway to energize the bureaucracy, but it will be a long, uphill battle.

Finally, DC's tax structure remains a peculiar agglomeration of incentives and disincentives. Various encouragements are in place to draw residents back to the city, such as tax deductions for first time home buyers. Nothing in NARPAC's analysis or this briefing would suggest that these are the cohort that DC most needs, or that would most benefit from this urban environment. On the other side, some of DC's largest businesses--and those most determined to stay close to the seat of federal power--are not highly taxed, and do not pay their share..

For further details see:
regional opportunities

The Local Picture

The local side of the picture presents its own set of problems, some unique to DC, others common to many urban areas, particularly those in decline. To the extent that there are separate 'classes' in DC, they do necessarily reflect 'typical' American interests. For instance DC's richer "upper class" is focused on national and international problems, not city problems. In cities with a few predominant businesses, like Seattle or Pittsburgh, the prominent businessmen are deeply involved in city affairs. While some are here too, many others are hardly aware of the city's existence and the focus on broader problems.

DC's "middle class" on the other hand, is not primarily made up of businessmen and entrepreneurs, but of bureaucrats accustomed to working for government, not private enterprise. There is a difference in their outlook, and in their drive to accept challenges and local responsibilities. Finally, there is a mostly black "lower class" mired at the bottom of the economic ladder, many of them single moms either still in their teens or with several kids, who are generally disenchanted with their lot and their prospects.

Perhaps more frustrating, DC has one of the largest communities of black middle and upper class professionals, but they remain generally uninvolved in the plights of their less fortunate brethren.

There is surprisingly little support for the democratic process despite the pervasive theme that lack of representation in Congress is doing them in. Turnouts for local elections often seem smaller than the turnouts to demonstrate against the actions of their elected officials. Problems with DC's elected school board is a case in point.

There is an embarrassingly bad quality of life for many DC residents that more closely reflects Third World conditions than American norms. The terrible plight of poverty feeding on itself has no immediate solution, and seems to receive precious little attention from the local government. But it will not be plausible to salvage many of these areas until the root problems are alleviated.

The new mayor's emphasis on 'neighborhoods first' has drawn a lot of support from DC residents who seem bent on saving their own communities without regard to the larger issues facing the city. These small neighborhoods--some 125 of them over at best 12,500 acres--represent very small areas -- areas far too small to accommodate a convention center, a baseball stadium, or a parking lot. They cannot seem to visualize supporting metro stations who reach would exceed their own small area.

To enrich the mix, there are seemingly endless bands of single-purpose activists ready to rally against monuments, TV towers, bridges, and virtually any change in the status quo not directed towards the status quo ante. Some of DC's most prestigious organizations spend the majority of their energies trying to stop things rather than encourage progress.

The problem is compounded by the number of residents who rent their dwelling places rather than owning them. This often results in more emphasis on delaying modernization that might increase rents, whereas home owners will generally press for progress that will enhance the value of their capital investment.

Other nuisance items include building height restrictions which date back 75 years or so, and bear no relationship to modern urban developments. The city of DC is beginning to stand out from the air like Central Park stands out in the center of New York City. The growth of "edge cities" around DC all find that optimal building height for high density development is higher than that permitted in DC. While it may be a noble objective not to dwarf the symbols of America such as the Washington monument and the capitol dome, surely height restrictions could be relaxed the further one is situated from them.

Development is also hindered by developers who erect structures out of keeping with existing immediate neighborhoods, thus giving 'infill' a bad name. More serious however is the increasingly popular ruse a declaring existing structures to be historic sites which make it virtually impossible to develop economically sound replacements. The current case in point is an early, now empty, two-story poured concrete Sears Roebuck store that now sits atop a crucial Northwest metro station, but which cannot be torn down and replaced by an appropriate high density development because it has been declared an historic site by its neighborhood.

Finally, there seems to be little consciousness among the city's residents of DC's role as a host to the nation's capital. The emphasis is almost entirely on satisfying community preferences without regard for any 'greater good' or 'higher use'. Such attitudes will severely constrain efforts to make the city a national role model.

For further details see:
DC election practices
keeping DC rent controls

This page was updated on Oct 5, 2000



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