Matt Yglesias and Lydia DePillis have been having an interesting discussion about the DC commercial real estate market that I have some thoughts on, so I thought I’d weigh in. I apologize for the length of this post, but I think it’s a really important point that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Matt started by stating the following:
Downtown DC is full. There’s basically no land left to build on, and you’re not allowed to build higher. If you make it a more attractive place to locate jobs, no additional jobs will be created because there’s noplace to put the jobs. The improved quality will show up as higher rent for landlords, and our rents are already the highest in the nation. If you relaxed the height limit, the high rents would spur new construction (=jobs) which would lead to lower rent per square foot which would make downtown, DC a more attractive employment destination.
Lydia agreed that the height restriction should be lifted (I don’t want anyone to think that Lydia is an apologist for this – she’s definitely not, and if given total discretion over DC land use, I think all three of us would implement very similar policies), but argued that Matt is downplaying growth possibilities outside the core of DC’s downtown:
But to say that “there’s noplace left to put jobs” is simplistic. Although many office projects stalled during the recession, they’re starting up again in a big way around the city, from Mount Vernon Square to Anacostia. On the longer term horizon, massive office capacity is planned for McMillan, L’Enfant Plaza, and the Capitol Riverfront. Recent changes in who gets what at Walter Reed – the District may now get all of the Georgia Avenue frontage – has Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning thinking about “more ambitious uses” like a “major employment center.” The list goes on. So yes, rents are high, but jobs are still coming, and there’s plenty of space to put them–in places that could really use the lift.
I think I’d come down more on Matt’s side. While there is definitely room for growth near the core (for example, L’Enfant Plaza and Mt. Vernon Square, or NoMa), there isn’t that much more room. DC’s office rents have already surpassed New York City’s to be the highest in the nation – clearly DC has a very, very serious problem when it comes to commercial real estate affordability, which has a huge impact on job creation.
Which brings me to my main point: All those outlying districts. The DC metro area has put a lot of stock in density in neighborhoods far from downtown. Lydia cites a few within the District – McMillan, Anacostia, the Capitol Riverfront, Walter Reed – and then there are huge projects in Northern Virginia like Tysons Corner and the Orange Line corridor. But frankly, I’m not convinced that it’s these sorts of “edge downtowns” are realistic long-term solutions.
To see why, you have to understand why downtowns developed in the center of metropolitan areas to begin with. Geometrically, the center of a circle will always be the point that’s closest to the average of all other points within the circle. As a city sprawls outwards, the average difficulty of going from one random point to another grows exponentially, while the difficulty of commuting directly to the center increases linearly. (I’m not the best at explaining mathematical concepts, so if someone could formalize this in the comments, it might help others understand.) Transit entrepreneurs during America’s huge urban boom around the turn of the last century understood this well, as every elevated line or streetcar route was designed to funnel people in and out of downtown. In fact, as I learned from Robert Fogelson’s aptly-titled Downtown, early 20th century city dwellers fully understood and accepted the need for commercial space to be in the center and residential on the outskirts – many people in 1910 believed (and accepted) that by the year 2000, Manhattan would be largely devoid of residential neighborhoods. To use the example of New York City, while many (most?) of the private transit lines, for efficiency reasons, started in one outer borough and ended in another, they all (/almost all?) made a beeline straight for Lower and Midtown Manhattan. Nobody was seriously expected to ride, for example, the 4 train from the Bronx to downtown Brooklyn. Yes, there was a downtown Brooklyn (and a downtown Queens, and a downtown Bronx), but it was a secondary job center at best, and I doubt anybody believed it would ever host the variety of jobs that Lower and Midtown Manhattan did (and still do).
While mass transit technology has improved (though not nearly as much as it would have had we not regulated the private companies out of existence and replaced them with sclerotic publicly-managed shitholes), I doubt it will ever get to the point where extra density downtown is not the market equilibrium. For example, in DC, even when the Silver and Purple Lines are completely built out, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for someone living in Maryland on the Purple Line to commute to work every day in Tysons Corner. The trip, like one to the already built-up Orange Line corridor, would involve transferring to the overcrowded Red Line, which you’d then have to taken into the city and change at Metro Center for the Silver or Orange Line, and then ride that a few stops into Virginia. Without even counting the time it would take to walk to the station from your house or to work from the station, the travel time could easily reach an hour each way – and that’s for peak trips when the trains are running with short headways. For those of you outside the DC bubble, imagine commuting by rail from Bryn Mawr to Cherry Hill in the Philly region, or from North Jersey to Long Island City in the NYC metro area, or from Oakland to San Jose in the Bay Area (California geography isn’t my strong suit – maybe that one’s more doable?).
Now some might respond by saying that such commutes are not necessary because people can work closer to home. Those in Jersey ‘burbs can work in Jersey City, those in Maryland can work in New Carrollton, etc. But then that makes you wonder, what’s the point of everyone living in one metropolitan area anyway? Conservatives and pro-sprawl libertarians might point to the relatively small amount of people who commute to city cores every day – even in very transit-accessible places like Philadelphia and New York – but I think they’re discounting the impact of the people who do. They tend to be very high wage-earners who support a lot of commerce in their local communities. Without access to lucrative jobs in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, would Scarsdale still be able to support all its local jobs? Without the R5 bringing people from Philadelphia’s Main Line into Center City, would all those local jobs still exist? Probably not.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that the vast majority, if not all, cities in capitalist countries have a wedding-cake style design. The ones that don’t are largely cities built by communist dictatorships – cities like Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang. For more on this, see this post, which excerpts from an interesting article about land use in socialist economies. Even Paris has a very high core density, which it achieves through large amounts of six-story structures, few parking lots, and narrow streets – all things that DC lacks in key close-in neighborhoods. (Looking out the window from Reason’s office a couple blocks north of Dupont Circle – one of the busiest Metro stops in the region – I don’t see a single building that rises to six stories.)
Now, this isn’t to say that Lydia and DC’s planners are wrong to argue for density where they can – after all, it’s hard to imagine DC actually lifting its height restriction in the near future. Having rail-based edge cities along the Anacostia waterfront or Tysons Corner is definitely better than the status quo – I have no doubt about that. But I don’t think they’ll ever be a very good replacement for extremely high-density, easily-accessible downtowns at the exact center of metro areas.
(…by the way, this post is way too long for me to thoroughly proofread. Apologies for the inevitable typos and bad writing.)