Category Archives: Uncategorized

DC’s Rowhouse Neighborhoods


Nice to have a well-spoken and transparent planning department. Here, the DC Office of Planning discusses the “pop-up” rowhouse renovations we are seeing and their impact on available housing stock for families in the city.

Originally posted on OPinions:

The Zoning Commission (ZC) and Office of Planning (OP) have heard concerns voiced by residents about two issues impacting the District’s residential rowhouse neighborhoods – conversions of rowhouses to multi-family buildings, and additions to existing buildings, often called “pop ups” or “pop-outs”. The rowhouse areas are generally zoned R-4, which the Zoning Code defines as “those areas now developed primarily with row dwellings, but within which there have been a substantial number of conversions of the dwellings into dwellings for two (2) or more families.” In the R-4 or residential flat zone district, two dwelling units are permitted as a matter of right, although the R-4 zone is unique in that it also includes a provision that allows for the conversion, within set limits, of existing buildings into multi-family units. Even so, the Zoning Code goes on to state that “the R-4 District shall not be an apartment house district…

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APA 2014: Another Reminder Why We Do This

It is time for the APA conference once again. As I have written previously (and more eloquently than this quick blog scribble), each time I attend this conference it is worth asking the value of convening in person. I don’t automatically sign up every year; I could get CE credits with local events back in Washington, DC, or even via online webinars. And I am not currently involved in any committees or leadership, so I would not necessarily be missed if I chose not to be here.

And there are a number of challenges associated with attending, especially for the younger members of our profession. Taking four days away from our jobs is tough. It’s expensive. Our employers* may or may not pay for the trip and the registration fee. The only places that can accommodate 5,000+ people are quite anti-urban hotels and convention centers (this is the most flattering angle I could manage of the typical presentation room).


The Georgia World Congress Center. All that’s missing is you.

But I’m in Atlanta, and glad again I made the decision to attend.

For this year, my focus is on paying it forward, to the students and other folks that are just entering their time as planners. I have been fortunate enough to have a number of people serve as mentors and informal guides to me. This was crucial as I applied to grad school and got it funded, assembled a strategy for job searching, reassessed my strengths and jumped to new positions, and so on. None of us made it to successful points in our careers alone, and that’s why I want to return the favor. APA has been helpfully set up a more formal mentoring program that matches us with students (and I encourage you to participate next year) seeking this kind of help. I will be meeting with two folks on that program.

Regardless of the reason, enjoy your time in Atlanta and the interactions that being present together allow.

* Disclaimer: my employer is not paying for me to be here this time, so I feel the challenge directly.

The Walkable Suburb: A Primer

I just wrapped up a four-day trip to Miami. To be perfectly accurate, the little and lovely suburb of Miami Lakes, which is a few miles northwest of the city proper.

Miami Lakes started as a master-planned community and has since spread west of the Palmetto Expressway to include lots of neighborhoods with conventional tract housing, and the corresponding parks, schools, and roads. My hosts’ home is in the original portion of the town, near the traditionally planned center.

The “town center”* of Miami Lakes has been completely built out over some years (I don’t know how many), so in theory it is an excellent place to complete your daily routine by walking. Which we as planners tend to smugly tell people should be desirable, and in theory it is.  And we have strong evidence that walkable neighborhoods also correlate with higher property values.  In the case of Miami Lakes, there are two banks, a grocery store, police station, two churches, several restaurants, medical offices and a pharmacy, a multiplex, and a few more tiny businesses I’m forgetting in a fairly compact center, all within less than a quarter-mile square. Hundreds of detached houses and apartments are arranged in concentric circles around that, and there is unusually good sidewalk coverage for a community in Florida. And the weather was pretty darn nice throughout my visit.

Yet almost no one was walking, and most people here never walk from home to nearby destinations on foot. Why?

Miami Lakes has the same issue that most master-planned developments like this suffer from: they are of course much too small to contain the job sites and schools that their residents need, and it’s not as though all of my hosts’ family and social circles lives in the same bubble. Being connected to the rest of the area is a necessity. Thus it isn’t practical to live there without a car, and when the rest of the city around you is car-dependent, so are you. The older folks that can’t drive are largely dependent on others to drive them, save the occasional walk out to the Publix.

My impression from several visits there? The folks that live in Miami Lakes and similar master-planned centers like the proximity of all the stuff, but because it comes with parking and most folks own cars anyway, walking just doesn’t occur as an option. All in all they still drive very short distances compared to neighbors in the newer neighborhoods to the west, so the master planning wasn’t for naught. But the differences from places that are organically walkable are clear: the presence of transit, fewer parking spaces and fewer car owners, a greater density of all needs (especially schools and job sites) to make “alternative” transportation the best choice.

* I have to admit I hate that term. And my company was founded by a guy that built “town centers” for a living.


Happy New Year from Plannerthon

Happy New Year from Plannerthon

Improving the communities where we live is what planning is all about. I spend a lot of my time, both in the day job and outside of it, honing best practices in planning and trying to improve them. I look forward to another year of sharing thoughts about how we can best do that, and hope you will continue to engage with me here.

Pictured: the entrance to the Dwan Light Sanctuary at the United World College-USA, Montezuma, New Mexico

After 15 weeks, a check-in on my Twitter experiment

As I mentioned in my last post, I set out at the end of the summer to attempt a new focus for my Twitter account. I liked the idea overall, but I altered it in two ways. First, I didn’t exclusively post about the three focal cities. There is far too much news of all types and content from across the country and beyond that I wanted to and did tweet about. So some of the tweeting that only scratched the surface of a place or an issue remains on my account, as it probably always will.  But I feel I supplemented that effectively with content on the three places I wanted to learn more about.

plannerthon on ABQSecond, and most importantly, I chose to keep the experiment running much longer than originally anticipated. There was one important reason for the latter decision: there’s a lot to learn and a lot to read and broadcast about even one major city, let alone three. So I spent the end of the summer and into the fall finding and sharing content about Albuquerque, Detroit, and Seattle.

plannerthon on DTWAnd I’ve learned a great deal, fulfilling one of my original objectives. I read about primary candidates for Albuquerque City Council. I followed the ups and downs of the General Motors boardroom as the company divested itself of the federal government’s “bailout” rescue funds, then named its first female CEO, then announced significant investments in existing plants all within two weeks. More closely related to Detroiters’ everyday life, I discovered how some of the most challenged neighborhoods, including Brightmoor, are leveraging philanthropic money to help attract new residents. I learned how many mega-developments can be supported by a strong (possibly overheated) real estate market like Seattle.

plannerthon on SEAThere’s a great deal more to be learned, too. While I haven’t yet found a large number of tweeters in those respective cities, I’ll continue looking.

For now, I’m choosing to move on. Starting in January, I will choose my next three geographic foci and continue the experiment. And while much of my approach will be the same as the first round, I also plan to approach this somewhat differently. I intend to find more locals in those places to interact with and ask questions of, and I hope to delve more deeply into the demographics, the infrastructure needs, and the governance of these places.

I hope you will continue to follow along.

Trying something new with Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter for over three years, and I love it. As you can probably tell, it gets more of my attention than my blog. That said, the advantage of having a blog at hand is that I can use it for the occasional longer thought. Welcome to a longer thought.

Twitter is easy to keep up with, true. It requires very little in the way of content production, and since every other user is limited by the same 140-character ceiling per tweet, it’s more or less a level playing field. And I’ve e-met lots of new and interesting people in the course of tweeting, some of whom became IRL acquaintances. The intensity of the social aspect of Twitter has always been great, and I hope for that to continue.

The issue with my tweeting is that I’ve developed a scattershot approach to Twitter. Everything I post can progress from material skimmed to content drafted to tweet scheduled in a few seconds. I at least proofread, but that is usually about it. I can’t be an expert in everything, and at this point I’m not really delving deeply into any of the content I post, regardless of how interesting or uplifting or concerning I find it.

In response, I’m going to spend the next few weeks narrowing my focus to a few topics. I want to try only tweeting about a few of the many cities that I usually cover, and get a bit of a deeper understanding and context of what’s happening in those places. The content on each place will be denoted by a short hashtag, usually the three-letter airport code serving that metro.

For the first two weeks, I’m choosing:

  • Albuquerque (#ABQ)
  • Seattle (#SEA)
  • Detroit (#DTW)

Follow along, and offer your feedback on how you feel it’s going. Better than the prior approach? Want more detail? Want detail on something else? I hope you’ll comment here or reply to me over there.

Experiment begins today!

2012 in review for Plannerthon

I have to admit the infographic-style “review” of the year in this blog, prepared by WordPress and excerpted below, is interesting. I don’t use this blog on an everyday basis, but I enjoy having it when I have thoughts, photos, or events to write about and share on the web.

If you’re still reading, stay tuned; I’ll be back at various points in 2013 to share more.
The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Going Big to Become Resilient: Austin, TX

One of my favorite sessions of the Greenbuild conference thus far was the last of yesterday afternoon. Entitled “Connecting the Dots in a Big Way @City of Austin” and helmed by Lucia Athens, the Chief Sustainability Officer of the Texas capital city, the presentation summed up exactly why working toward sustainability matters so much. That is because we want and need our communities to still exist and still have fulfilling jobs with livable wages, clean air and water, and places that we want to go for recreation and entertainment when we are gone and our kids and grandkids run things. To ensure we get there, we must THINK BIG!, as I wrote in an enormous font on my notes. Basically, almost everything that a local government does can contribute to building a resilient community, hence the “connect the dots” theme.

The City’s Office of Sustainability has structured the Rethink/Austin plan with ten action areas to ensure Austin will indeed be prosperous and healthy for the long term, the true meaning of the nebulous “sustainable” mantra. Athens emphasized focus on three types of sustainability that each action area requires: economic, environmental, and equitable. As an aside, I also suggest a fourth one, most relevant to our built environment: aesthetic sustainability (or esthetic, if you want to keep the “E” theme going). This is an idea I gleaned from Doug Kelbaugh at the University of Michigan, where he convincingly argued that people will be more likely to want to save things that are visually appealing, that have a sense of beauty. What counts as beautiful is admittedly subjective, but it is tough to argue with some of the basics: open space near where we live, streets that can accommodate people and not just cars, and architecture that is built to last and with local influences are generally what most people want in their communities and will fight to save once it already exists. Happily, Austinites seem to get this, according to Athens.

ImageAnyhow, the plan is carefully tailored to the cultural, environmental, and economic uniqueness that is Austin. For example, the healthy and safety action area includes a component on wildfire safety, a common concern in south Texas. Also, the arts & culture action area is closely tailored to large events that Austin hosts annually: South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits festival, and even Formula 1 racing. These events are reducing their impact on the air, food systems, and traffic impact in collaboration with the City, and out-of-town attendees will soon be able to purchase carbon offsets along with their tickets (Greenbuild itself offered this in 2012, too).

To ensure the sometimes nebulous plan is visually appealing, the City used icons from the (highly recommended) Noun Project. Simple and evocative graphics can go a long way toward grabbing and keeping the attention of residents and other potential stakeholders you want to be involved. And I mention this because I know from experience that not everyone has the time or interest to read through many pages of planning documents to the extent that I do.

Stay tuned to this blog; I’ll be back tomorrow to post some other Greenbuild and San Francisco highlights.


Rethink/Austin logo courtesy of City of Austin, Texas. Greenbuild/Moscone Center logo photo mine, and snapped harriedly on an iPhone.

At Greenbuild and ready to go

I’ve arrived in San Francisco mostly free of work tasks and am ready for Greenbuild. Ever since June, when I served as a reviewer for potential sessions, I have been anticipating the opportunity to be in the same space as the many other folks presenting, attending, and exhibiting. A major personal milestone since that time is that I now work in the field of housing and community development, at an employer committed to better affordable housing for all. I’m enthusiastic about this work and I’m glad to be around others that share the passion.

With that change in mind, I’m looking for the intersections of greening the built environment with the twin objectives of housing equity and creating high-quality residences. If you are here at Greenbuild, I look forward to chatting with you about how these goals do and do not parallel one another, and how we might improve that. Leave a comment if that’s you. If you aren’t in San Francisco but are interested in these topics, be sure to follow this blog and my Twitter account for updates in words and photos.

The Southwest Ecodistrict: Washington, DC Reimagines Another Neighborhood

Continuing my blog catch-up theme of finally writing about events I attended last fall, the DC Office of Planning came to visit the American Planning Association’s monthly “Tuesdays at APA” gathering in November. Their presentation detailed major projects proposed for southwest DC to improve the area’s connectivity to the National Mall and the nearby waterfront and make federal spaces more sustainable, per Executive Order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve building performance.

The DC Office of Planning, along with the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service is currently engaged in a long-term reimagining of part of the city’s Southwest quadrant. One project just approved is the Maryland Avenue SW small area plan, and another, longer-term initiative is the Southwest EcoDistrict. I will be talking mostly about the latter in this post but they are complementary and inter-related.

Map of the Southwest Ecodistrict area. Note that the railroad tracks and Maryland Ave. together form one of the sight lines toward the US Capitol, which is just off the map to the upper right. Courtesy of Google Maps.

This fifteen-block area is the home of multiple federal agencies, including the FAA, NASA, and the Department of Energy, and is bounded by Independence Avenue and the National Mall to the north; see the map above for context. If you have visited DC and been to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the Sackler Gallery, or the National Botanic Gardens, you have been in the general vicinity of the proposed ecodistrict. However, there are relatively few attractions actually within this area–whether for workers or visitors–and that is something this plan seeks to change.

Part of L’Enfant Promenade in Southwest DC. The concrete office building surrounded by a large concrete plaza is a typical sight in this area, and something the Ecodistrict wishes to improve with mixed-use, energy-efficient buildings and livelier streets with many types of activity. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes.

The proposals for the eco-district include: analysis of existing infrastructure and modernization at a district rather than building or block level, the return of the Maryland Avenue corridor to a usable street for pedestrians and autos, and improved pedestrian connections to nearby neighborhoods. These will all pave the way for the addition of residential units, hotel rooms, and retail/restaurants. The proposed rezoning of the area to the DD-4 designation would allow offices to be retained, while adding these multiple new uses. At the same time, the area must still accommodate existing CSX freight trains and the Virginia Railway Express commuter trains, which has a busy station near L’Enfant Plaza.

Many of the buildings here were built in the mid-20th century modern style, and are showing their age. They will be due for either major upgrades or demolition soon, so this is a good time to think about money-saving possibilities for the long term. For example, a district energy system (which provides power and heat to many buildings from a central point) or mixed-use buildings, possibly with retail on the ground floor and residences above. I know that lots of folks lament the flood of newly constructed condo and apartment buildings in the last few years and protest that we don’t need more, but this is slightly different. There are very few residences in this part of town, at the same time that the Census Bureau tells us droves of new folks are moving into the District. Building residential components into SW is an excellent opportunity to entice some of those new residents to a neighborhood that is centrally located, walkable and well-served by transit, and will hopefully have more services like grocery stores available in the medium- to long-term.

Trains pass underneath L’Enfant Promenade. A critical transportation link that must be maintained in SW DC. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matt Johnson.

The Maryland Avenue small area plan, which was just approved and adopted by Council this week, is actually a separate but complementary project. I attended another public meeting last summer specifically about that, but I mention it only in passing here because I’m focusing on the Ecodistrict project. It is an interesting placemaking attempt on its own in addition to improving an important transportation corridor.

Finally, if you live in DC and wish to comment on the Southwest Ecodistrict plan, the DC Office of Planning will hold a public meeting on Thursday, July 19th at 6:30 p.m. at their building, 1100 4th St. SW. If you’ve never been, I encourage you to go; their offices are quite nice and almost directly on top of the Waterfront Metro station.

Flickr photos reposted under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.