Building Up, Building Out

I've written before about my opposition to DC's height limit. Yglesias brings up an interesting thought experiment to counter the argument that the height limit is good for underdeveloped neighborhoods in the city.
Consider some other inefficient rule about the use of downtown DC space. Maybe the City Council is proposing a rule that everyone in the downtown business district needs to wear blue on Monday, green on Tuesday, red on Wednesday, purple on Thursday, and yellow on Friday. Someone says “you know, that’ll be bad for business.” But the proponents of the new rule say “no way; not only will the impact be minimal, if anything it’ll help the city by encouraging investment in under-developed neighborhoods.”

I say false. The best thing under-developed DC neighborhoods have going for them is proximity and connectivity to the valuable land and economic activity in downtown DC. Measures that reduce the value of that downtown land and activity reduce the value of proximity to downtown DC, and impair the chances of development in under-developed neighborhoods.
From my perspective, the biggest problem with Downtown DC, or Downtown [insert major city here] is that it's not mixed enough in its uses. The balance between people who live there and who work there is too lopsided. This leads to the unfortunate "closed by 5pm" syndrome that leads people to write-off downtowns as viable places.

(from StreetsofWashington on Flickr)

But that's not the only problem. People have to live somewhere. If they work downtown, chances are that they're going to live in a neighborhood or in the suburbs.

Commuting lost distances is awful, and more and more people are coming to realize this. An easy solution is to bring a company to where its people (or more specifically, its executives) are living. In many cases, that's the suburbs.

So yes, a weak business environment downtown will push some economic development outward, but not necessarily into underdeveloped urban neighborhoods. In the worst cases, it weakens both the downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods by pushing everything out toward the fringe.


    On December 06, 2010 rg said...

    I agree with you. The debate about the height limit is interesting as far as it goes. But the real problem is how much of DC's downtown core is single use. Indeed, apart from a a few hotels, I think that K Street NW from approximately 11th street NW to 20th Street NW is exclusively office buildings. Which means that K street is bustling from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm Monday through Friday but is pretty dead the rest of the week. The same is largely true for much of "old Downtown" west of 12th street. Similarly, the old rowhouse neighborhoods are great, but their commercial corridors suffer in some cases because rowhouses, while dense, are not dense enough to support strong neighborhood retail corridors. The exceptions, such as Dupont Circle, have apartments mixed in, which gives them the density to succeed. Unfortunately, groups such the Committee of 100 and Capitol Hill Restoration Society oppose any and all density and most mixed-use because it would interfere with their ability to drive and park everywhere. (It's ironic that the groups that fought the freeways back in the day now spend so much of their energy defending parking!)