Saturday, February 15, 2014

D.C. planner: Affordability is cities' next big challenge

“Rock star planner” may be an oxymoron, but if there are rock star planners, Harriet Tregoning is one. Tregoning has been chief city planner in Washington, D.C., since 2007— a time of rapid growth and change in the District of Columbia. She's stepping down to run the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A looming problem in many U.S. cities is affordability, she said in an interview with Next City, but looking only at real estate prices masks the problem.  “I think the challenge for American cities for the next decade or more is indeed affordability, but it’s not just about housing,” she said. (Read the whole interview here.)

She noted that for the 8 million jobs lost in the recession, the average wage was $24 an hour. While that number of jobs has been created in recent years, their average wage was $11 an hour.

“Middle-wage jobs are declining,” she said. “Or if they’re growing, they’re growing at a much slower rate than the other categories (high-wage, and low-wage hospitality and retail jobs). So affordability needs to be broadened to talk about job creation, middle-income job creation. What are we going to do with our infrastructure to enable us to produce more employment?”

Two topics in the interview have specific resonance for Charlotte. Tregoning talked about the retrofitting of some
suburban areas. “We have more urbanizing suburban development here in the Washington area than in any place in the country,” she said. “When Tysons Corner decided to do this, when Fairfax County decided to do this, it tipped the balance for a lot of other places.”

And she talked about the challenge for the city (which has a height limit) in accommodating new growth. Should the city, which has many areas of one- and two-story buildings, scrap or at least raise the height limit in order to allow towers in some areas in order to keep the growth from spreading into less-dense neighborhoods. Tregoning said:

“Our relatively torrid rate of [population] growth — more than 2 percent a year, 1,100 people a month — is causing the dialog to change. ... Plenty of other places around the world accommodate much larger populations in the same kind of geography without having tall buildings. I think the dialog in our city will be, how do we want to accommodate such growth? What kind of neighborhood change are we willing to tolerate? And how will that dictate where in the city growth will go?

“ ... The starting point will be asking every neighborhood, 'Here’s the growth coming to the city, here’s what we project over the next 30 years. This is what your share of that growth looks like. How would you most like to accommodate that growth in your neighborhood?’ I think the easy answer is, 'I know, let’s grow in that neighborhood over there! They need some growth, but our neighborhood, we’re good.’ The question is going to be, how to have a dialog where people really have to consider real choices about how that growth will be accommodated?”

Charlotte has yet to seriously confront that same issue: Where do you allow intense growth and how do you balance it alongside a wish to keep older, less-dense areas from being wiped clean of the past? The conundrum is most likely to arise as transit-oriented zoning comes to historic, low-density neighborhoods like NoDa and Optimist Park along the route of the Blue Line Extension. The city's TOD zoning allows heights of as much as 10 or 12 stories. Even a beloved area like NoDa, which has no historic district protection, may well see most of its historic fabric scraped away in favor of 10-story buildings. Think that can't happen? Just look at uptown Charlotte, which lost virtually all its old buildings and is now mostly new office and condo towers scattered among parking decks and surface parking lots that replaced its historic fabric.