DC's economic challenges - an annotated briefing

East of the Anacostia River

There is a very large amount of waste space among the prime real estate of the nation's capital city. None is more wasted than the lands across the Anacostia River settled originally by white shipyard workers, then expanded to house overflow government workers in the '40s and '50s, and then gradually relegated to poorer minorities, many forced from the downtown area by heavy-handed (but successful) redevelopment efforts).

The net result is several thousand acres of land with a magnificent view of the river and the nation's capital that has more than its share of: tax-exempt land; black households with kids; public housing; and unemployed; and less than its share of: commercially-zoned land; owner-occupied dwellings; improved real estate; household income, and resident and commercial work forces.

It remains a mystery to NARPAC why so few of the residents of this area have so little aspiration for the future of their land beyond wanting a supermarket and a few hair salons. It seems to be a tribute to the massive indifference of the rest of the city.

For further details see:
DC East of the Anacostia

Under-utilized, Vacant Properties

There are several very large tracts of under-developed land in the District that are tax- exempt but also lacking in either commerce or residents of any significant nature. They are compared in the top chart, to the extreme examples of the Pentagon--one of the largest single federal buildings with 1000 workers per acre, and NOT located within the capital city; and one of the lowest worker/acre tracts (less than 1 per acre), the magnificent Arlington Cemetery--also out DC's city limits. In between on the chart are four properties in DC (three east of the Anacostia) totalling 2000 acres, and employing less than 6000 people.

The question with these properties is not primarily whether they are on the property tax roles. It is whether they serve any productive function that attracts taxpayers and productive occupations. As a simple case in point, if the outdated and little used Bolling Air Force Base were populated by government workers to the density of the Pentagon, DC could boast 35,000 more workers, of whom a good share might settle east of the Anacostia. Unfortunately, there is no existing or planned Metro subway stop anywheres near this river bank tract.

As another case in point, Ft. DuPont Park, bordering Massachusetts Ave, SE could become a permanent World's Fair Grounds for foreign nations to showcase their countries and products in permanent pavillions (as is now done in Paris), creating an International Mall to parallel the National Mall downtown.

There are of course, many in-between sized properties, some with an unrestricted view of the capitol that lie fallow. There are also numerous other scattered properties that are either empty lots or boarded-up, derelict housing. NARPAC estimates that together these candidates for "infill" total over 2000 acres. If suitably--and considerately-- developed they could bring $150M in residential revenues, or almost $800M in commercial revenues.

Slowly, these properties are now being discovered and developed along Georgia and New York Avenues--major ingress routes to the city--and in many other localities as well. The City is offering much less bureaucratic resistance to the development of these sites (even releasing some by auction and others by lottery), and the biggest obstacles now are the local neighborhood residents who are very touchy about accepting progress and 'gentrification' in Their Own Back Yards.

For further details see:
DC East of the Anacostia

Around Metro Stations

Another great mystery to NARPAC is the evident resistance of local Washingtonians to develop the areas immediately around the stations of one of the World's finest underground Metro systems. Unlike neighboring Arlington County that based its entire economic rebirth on planning, building, and then exploiting its ten metro stations, DC treats many of its stations (away from the immediate downtown) as 'virtual bus stops' worthy of little development besides the occasional coin-operated newspaper dispenser.

City planners, clearly pandering to the wishes of individual neighborhoods--at the mayor's insistence--have done little to encourage high-density redevelopment where it was intended and would be most useful. It is surprising to find that rabid environmentalist groups are finally recognizing that such developments are probably a clean alternative to urban sprawl and auto crawl.

To date, there has also been remarkably little interest shown in modifying the originally planned metro system. What little growth is now expected is reaching out further and further through the "edge cities" of the metro area. Inside the DC, refinements to the system appear to be unthinkable, with the exception of one new station sought for New York Ave--and now resisted by Congressional overseers for some indirect, contrived reason.

There are several other areas where new lines and stations should at least be in the planning stage such as: a) linking Navy Yard on the Green Line to Potomac Ave on the Blue Line to serve the expanded Navy Yard developments; b) serving the west shore of the Anacostia River with a line from Minnesota Ave to Eisenhower Ave in Alexandria over the new Wilson Bridge; c) serving the East Bank of the Potomac in a loop from Foggy Bottom to Georgetown and up MacArthur Blvd to Westmoreland Circle and Friendship Heights; and d) a link between Silver Spring and Bethesda as the first segment of a "Purple Line" around the city near the Beltway.

Less expensive modifications to the existing metro stations can also increase the footprint of their utilization. Studies indicate a rapidly declining use of public transportation as the station entrance exceeds roughly four city blocks from the origin or the destination of the traveler's trip. Since the underground stations are about a block long, and the entrance/exit walkways another block, there is an evident advantage in stretching several of these walkways in each profitable direction from the ends of the station platform.

Currently, many stations have a single entrances at their center. The use of four spread exits (sometimes under natural obstacles like roadways and railways) can increase the productivity of a single station by about 75%. NARPAC is not aware of any such current plans--or of any research into contemporary means of helping passengers along--such as the moving walkways in most modern airports.

The impact of these changes is by no means trivial. As illustrated above (after a fashion), a low density metro station with a single exit may produce revenues on the neighborhood of $25M. At medium density with two end exits, these revenues might rise to $100M. At high density (as in Arlington County), and with multiple spread exits, the productivity can be raised to perhaps $250M. These are, of course, only ball-park estimates.

Furthermore, the idiosyncratic restrictions on building heights within DC (regardless of how far from "ground zero"--the Washington Monument) will further inhibit land productivity compared to the growing edge cities around the core city's perimeter.

For further details see:
DC Metro Utilization

Surface Parking

Surface parking lots for the ubiquitous American automobile have long been a nightmare for city planners. They are now routinely outlawed for new developments, and often appear nowadays only to mark areas still awaiting development--or redevelopment. The site of the city's huge new Convention Center was until recently a mammoth parking lot on land bought up by, but not used by, the city.

Urban planners have yet to decide whether it is better to restrict parking in the hopes of getting Americans onto public transportation, or to provide just enough space for residents or employees in their buildings. Experience seems to lead to the convenient mantra that "if you build it (the parking lot), they will come (the drivers). Unfortunately there is another mantra of equal importance: "if they are built (the cars), they will be bought (by Americans)". (As an aside, the 20-year White House grounds upgrade plan now calls for underground parking for some 1140 vehicles--exactly the number of surface spaces in use today in the same area, but to be removed.)

Only recently is the Federal Government offering major inducements to subsidize "intermodal transportation centers" intended for use by drivers where they could reasonably park their cars and get on public transportation. DC planners have not yet found a good spot for one, although their first underground choice was vociferously rejected by local activists who a) feared increased neighborhood air pollution, and b) even worse, suspected it might be an excuse for building a baseball stadium on top of it.

The chart above shows a single example of other surface parking lots--all within walking distance of the capitol building, and primarily reserved for Congressional staffers. These 25 acres could certainly be put to better use, and probably develop $100-200M in city revenues per year. Unlike DC's edge cities that have decided that they must attract business by putting up (or underground) city-owned parking structures, there is no such intention on the part of DC's government.

Even DC's rather unique--and huge--tour bus problem still lacks a definitive solution, although many major foreign cities have already developed extensive facilities at considerable public costs.

This page was updated on Oct 5, 2000




© copyright 2007 NARPAC, Inc. All rights reserved