This is how gentrification happens: Northwest DC and the height restriction

Lydia DePillis wrote the Washington City Paper’s cover story on the case for Congress overturning DC’s height limit, which should be very familiar to readers of this blog. It’s got some interesting history in it (DC’s height limit was apparently influenced by George Washington’s personal aesthetics, despite the fact that he never governed from the city), but the part that was really interesting to me was the part where she discusses what the new limitations should be. It’s not politically practical to advocate for lifting the limit without reservations, as we here would like, and there are the usual caveats and equivocations (“What if additional height were granted on a competitive basis, and awarded for the best design?”). But the part that really stood out to me was this graphic (click on the image and scroll to the bottom of the linked page to see a bigger version), outlining where Lydia thinks the height restrictions should be lifted:

Anyone familiar with DC geography will notice that the area most insulated from change – Northwest DC – is the richest part of town, full of desirable white neighborhoods. The areas where DePillis advocates lifting the height limit – neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River figure prominently in the graphic – are far blacker and poorer than the rest of DC. Sure, there are pretty buildings in NW and a lot of ugly ones in Anacostia, but there are also beautiful homes off of Benning Road and shitty ones in Burleith. (Which, I should add, could desperately use some taller buildings, given its proximity to the perpetually housing-strapped Georgetown University and its rather ugly architecture compared to Georgetown proper.)

This tactic of upzoning poor black neighborhoods while leaving white neighborhoods unchanged is very common, and I realize that Lydia is just trying to be politically palatable. Her previous (very good) reporting at the WCP indicates to me that she, personally, is probably a lot more amenable to density citywide than she lets on. She may even resent the fact that the staid, white Northwest neighborhoods, where I’m sure many of the Committee of 100 members live, are off-limits to dense development.

But still, the fact that the only incremental steps towards redensification we can take will disproportionately displace black families is something that should be recognized and discussed. If upzoning poor neighborhoods is the only way to get the city to allow dense development, then so be it, but we shouldn’t pretend that these sorts of half-measures won’t have consequences. Lydia DePillis in the past has taken the position that gentrification is too often used to stymie useful development, which I definitely think is true. But we should also recognize that the way we’ve been upzoning cities in the last few decades has definitely encouraged the sort of radical gentrification that pushes blacks out of their neighborhoods. Anti-density zoning in the long term has been shown to cause racial segregation, but there can be no doubt that allowing condo towers along a streetcar route on Benning Road will price blacks out of the neighborhood in a way that could be mitigated if Glover Park, Columbia Heights, and Dupont Circle also had to accept a few towers of their own.

  • Jason

    “neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River figure prominently in the graphic”

    Only five of the 16 streets/neighborhoods in the graphic land east of the river, two of those (Pennsylvania ave SE and Benning Road) stretch across both sides. Not sure if this qualifies as “figuring prominently” but whatever, I’m a stickler for DC geography.

  • Sasha

    So then you don’t think 5/16 is disproportionate for an area that looks to comprise about 20% of DC’s area?

  • Jeff

    She includes Conn. Ave., Wisconsin Ave., and 16th St. NW. I realize that is only “3/16″ of the locations, but those corridors encompass a huge, huge swath of “staid, white Northwest neighborhoods,” and certainly include Glover Park. As far as I can tell, she wants tall new buildings pretty much everywhere (which I’m all for) but didn’t want to come out and say so.

  • Guest

    2 of 8 wards is 25%; I’d also throw out that Foggy Bottom is on the map– so 4 of 16 are in “white” NW

  • Guest

    2 of 8 wards is 25%; I’d also throw out that Foggy Bottom is on the map– so 4 of 16 are in “white” NW

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    Yeah, like I said in the post, you’re probably right about the last point. I wasn’t trying to pick on her, just show how politically palatable compromises slowly lead to basically mostly poor places being gentrified. But also, I’m pretty sure Glover Park isn’t included on that map…I spent a lot of time moving back and forth between a Google Map and that one, and it looks to me like the upper Wisconsin stretch that she lays out in the map starts waaay above Glover Park.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    Foggy Bottom is almost entirely commercial, institutional, and GWU dorms – as with NoMa, there aren’t really residents to upset.

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  • Anonymous

    Flooding the market with new rentals will drive rent prices down citywide, which tempers displacement. There’s a major housing shortage at the moment:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/20/AR2010122006525.html

    You can’t stop the forces of gentrification. The city can, however, shape its progress — offer incentives for a high % of affordable units, which would decrease segregation (in my mind, a far worse detriment than displacement).