Amazon HQ#2 may be headed to a wealthy suburb

Crystal City, Virginia may be the new home of Amazon’s second headquarters site. Here are a few features of the suburban neighborhood located in Arlington:

With the Ronald Regan Washington National Airport two miles to the east, the heart of Washington D.C. five miles to the north, and a few stops on Washington’s Metro linking all three, Crystal City is in the right geographic spot for the Seattle-based company…

Today, the neighborhood, although a part of Arlington, has its own distinct downtown area. The walkable Crystal Drive is dotted with businesses, restaurants and public art, while public/private partnerships are bringing investment in parks and open space

Home prices in Crystal City might be more affordable than they are in Seattle, but that’s not saying much. The median home value in the 22202 area, a zip code Crystal City shares with neighboring Pentagon City, Aurora Highlands and Arlington Ridge, is $625,800, according to Zillow — nearly three times the U.S. median.

Might the lack of single-family homes also be attractive to Amazon?

Crystal City is dominated by one apartment building after another, most of which don’t have ground floor retail or restaurants that would create a sense of community or neighborhood vibrancy. Walk a few blocks away from the shopping mall during any evening of the week and it’s a quiet, almost desolate place. This lack of a community might have been the final piece that Amazon was looking for since it means they can come to town without much opposition.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. On one hand, it is interesting for Amazon to choose a suburban location. A sizable headquarters would be a boon for numerous communities, particularly cities that need a shot in the arm. On the other hand, this is an urban suburban location. The location is technically outside Washington D.C. yet it is a community of high-rises with little distance with the central city in the region.
  2. A location in this region contributes to the rising status of the Washington D.C. region. While other cities and regions may still be larger, this region with its collection of government, military, and business opportunities just keeps growing.
  3. It would be interesting to see how much Amazon would want to contribute to a thriving streetscape in the community. Based on several articles, it sounds like there is limited activity in this community after business hours. Does Amazon want to contribute money to trying to develop a vibrant urban neighborhood (even if it is located in a suburb)?

Historic preservation of a strip mall and parking lot

Benjamin Ross in Dead End retells the story of a historic preservation movement to save a Washington D.C. strip mall:

It fell to a suburb-like section of Washington, DC, to test the limits of historic preservation. In 1981, the new Metro reached Cleveland Park. Riders entered down a stairway alongside the parking lot of a fifty-year-old strip mall. The owners of Sam’s Park and Shop wanted to replace it with a larger, more urban structure. But the wealthy and influential homeowners who lived nearby liked things as they were – the neighborhood had led the successful fight against freeways two decades earlier – and they didn’t want any new construction. Tersh Boasberg, the local leader, told the Washington Post that “the central question is, ‘Can an urban neighborhood control what happens to it, or is development inevitable?”…

Sam’s Park and Shop, its neighbors thus proclaimed, deserved protection as a pioneering example of strip-mall architecture. But for the historic designation to succeed in blocking new construction, it wasn’t enough for the store building to remain intact. The parking lot had to be saved as well.

The residents’ base was not an easy one to make. In front of the original Park and Shop were a gas station and a car wash (an “automotive laundry” in the preservationists’ inflated prose), later town down to make room for more parked cars. Nearby stores were built in a hodgepodge of styles, without parking of their own…

It was a long way from landmarks to human and appealing places to shop, but in 1986 the fight for the parking lot ended in victory. (p.93)

A fascinating story that illustrates the power of NIMBYism and local control. Generally, those opposed to sprawl really dislike parking lots: they are only filled at certain hours of the day (usually during business hours), often are too large (though parking at a mass transit stop may be for the larger good), they are ugly, and their surfaces encourage water runoff. Yet, in the right setting, this parking lot was viewed as a better alternative than denser construction. (And the stated concerns about such construction might have been about traffic and safety but it often involves social class and status connected to denser development.)

DC punk music takes on gentrification

One writer explores how punk music in Washington D.C. has long since moved on from Ronald Reagan and is now attacking gentrification:

It’s a total Empire Strikes Back play: Satellite Room is one of the latest bars produced by Eric and Ian Hilton, entrepreneurs who are regarded by many as the face of gentrification along Washington’s hippest corridors. For example: In a recent cover story on dive bars for the Washington City Paper, Paul Vivari, owner of one such dive bar (Showtime), complained that the Hilton brothers named one of their properties, Marvin, after life-long D.C. resident Marvin Gaye. Specifically, Marvin is a Belgian restaurant that refers to the year that Gaye spent in Belgium—a swagger-jacking move if ever there was one. (To be fair, Marvin is also one of the most diverse bars in all of Washington.)…

A pseudonymous punk going by the name Jack on Fire put out a song called “Burn Down the Brixton” just days after the Post‘s story. In this song, “The Brixton” refers to another one of the Hiltons’ properties, a multi-story bar and restaurant in D.C.’s historic U Street corridor that’s packed to the rafters most nights. The song couldn’t be more topical:

Burn down the Brixton!
Send it to its doom!
Then we’ll have a milkshake at the Satellite Room

[ . . . ]

They paved Black Broadway for a breeding ground
A nice patch of grass for some K Street cows

But the snappiest pushback against gentrification—and against development of any kind, really—is by Chain and the Gang. “Devitalize the City” is an anthem celebrating chaos in the face of market-driven homogenization in Washington (and elsewhere)…

While it makes sense from a certain perspective for D.C. musicians to target developers who appear to turn over properties and churn out bars by a formula, artists’ wrath may be better directed at a higher office. Only Congress has the power to lift the Height Act of 1910 that puts a cap on building height in Washington. That law restricts the supply of housing, office buildings, and taverns alike, meaning that when demand is as high as it is today there’s that much less room for dives, group houses, art galleries, and DIY venues—things that help a scene to thrive. To be sure, plenty of developers, homeowners, and local pols are satisfied with the status quo, but only Congress can change it.

Gentrification has raised concern in a number of American cities but not all of the movements against it have prompted songs. Any of these songs draw the attention of activists who use it for their cause?

It might also be worth exploring what exactly gentrification does for the careers of punk music. I suspect punk groups are not exactly welcome in swanky spots for young professionals in gentrifying neighborhoods. But, that suspicion is based on a single notion of gentrification where it is only white and wealthy people who quickly take over a neighborhood. The process is often slower and can include a wider range of people, perhaps leaving space for theaters and bars and other performing spots for punk artists.

Panel: keep Washington D.C. building height restrictions, preserving height to street-width ratios

A panel recently suggested height restrictions for buildings should remain in the older areas of Washington D.C.:

Building heights in the 68-square-mile (176-square-km) area are determined by the width of the street on which a structure fronts. The maximum height is 130 feet (40 meters), with some exceptions.The result is a distinctive low-lying skyline that showcases historic monuments and distinctive landmarks such as the U.S. Capitol, National Cathedral and the Old Post Office. The tallest structure is the Washington Monument, which stands at the center of the Mall and is about 555 feet (169 meters) high.

The National Capital Planning Commission recommended leaving intact the federal height rules for the part laid out in the 18th century. The area of wide avenues and traffic circles is home to the White House, National Mall and museums.

The commission left open the possibility that buildings in the area developed beyond the city’s original layout can be higher – but only after additional study and as long as they did not interfere with federal interests.

Another article I saw about this suggested this would restrict growth in Washington, a city whose suburban counties are growing in both population and wealth. Without opportunities for taller buildings in the city, money that could go to the city through property and sales taxes will instead go elsewhere.

But, taller buildings in or near the National Mall would change it quite a bit. These height restrictions are reminiscent of a more traditional kind of architecture. For example, New Urbanists often suggest linking building heights to a particular ratio compared to the width of the streets to create a more comfortable feeling. Contrast the National Mall with the experience of midtown Manhattan, a place busy and interesting but also full of concrete canyons and structures that tower over anything going on in the streets. These two areas serve different purposes but the experiences are quite different.

Analyzing the SuperZips of the Washington D.C. region

There are a lot of wealthy and educated people living in SuperZips around Washington D.C.:

Clarksville sits in one of the nation’s “Super Zips” — a term coined by American Enterprise Institute scholar and author Charles Murray to describe the country’s most prosperous, highly educated demographic clusters. On average, they have a median household income of $120,000, and 7 in 10 adults have college degrees…

A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education. But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.

One in four households in the region are in a Super Zip, according to the Post analysis. Since the 2000 Census on which Murray based his analysis, Washington’s Super Zips have grown to encompass 100,000 more residents. Only the New York City area has more Super Zips, but they are a much smaller share of the total of that region’s Zip codes and are more scattered…

Yet many who live in these rapidly evolving communities do not think of themselves as rich or elite. The cost of living, particularly for housing, eats up a large chunk of the two incomes it typically takes to afford a comfortable home in a good school district.

Interesting look at social class today in America; those on the upper end tend to argue they worked hard to get there, deserve what they have, and they aren’t really rich (though comparisons to much of the U.S., let alone most of the world, suggests otherwise). As the article goes on to note, a number of people are concerned about what the lack of interaction with others might mean down the road.

This is a story that has developed in recent years. For example, a number of people have noted that a large number of the wealthiest counties in the United States are in the Washington region. While conservatives tend to tie this wealth to the growth of big government (and the businesses associated with it), how come scholars haven’t looked at this more closely? There have been some studies of a few areas in the Washington metropolitan area, such as Prince George’s County and its large suburban black population or the growth of the edge city of Tysons Corner or responses to growing immigrant populations in Prince William County, but little look at the region as a whole. Perhaps this is a lingering artifact of American urban sociology’s emphasis on some “traditional big cities” like Chicago, New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia and not paying as much attention to newer big cities like Washington D.C., Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and others. Do we need something like a “Georgetown School” or “Brookings Institution School” of urban sociology?

The booming housing market: Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. may be growing in influence and its housing prices are certainly growing – they just reached a record high.

The median price of a home in the District reached its highest point in history last month, according to the latest data from RealEstate Business Intelligence, a subsidiary of MRIS.

D.C.’s median sale price soared to $460,000 from $405,000 in February, an increase of 13.6 percent month over month. For the entire metro area, the growth was more modest. The median sale price for the region rose 8 percent, to $372,500 in March from $345,000 in February.

Falls Church boasted the largest median price in the area last month and the biggest percentage uptick year over year. The median sale price for homes in Falls Church climbed to $631,000 in March, a 37.7 percent increase. However, there were only 16 sales in Falls Church in March, which likely skewed the numbers…

While this is good news for sellers, it is not as good for buyers who are combatting not only rising home prices but also depleted inventory. The number of homes for sale in the region continues to hover at historic lows. The 6,289 active listings in March were down 4,200 from the same month a year ago and have dropped nearly 20,000 since their peak in the fall of 2007.

A couple of thoughts:

1. This seems to reinforce the figures that suggest the Washington D.C. area is doing quite well. Housing prices are up, the population is growing, the region now has some of the wealthiest counties in the United States…this is a contrast to the fate of many Rustbelt locations as well as some Sunbelt communities that are still recovering from the real estate bust of recent years.

2. This will feed into ongoing conversations about the expansion of the Washington D.C. region and sprawl. In recent decades, there have been a number of discussions and fights about sprawl in Maryland and Virginia and with these housing prices and housing demand, there will be plenty of people who want more new homes.

Arguing over Frank Gehry’s plans for the Eisenhower Memorial illustrates the social construction of memorials

Architect Frank Gehry’s designs for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. are drawing criticism. Curbed sums it up:

Anyone who still believes that “any press is good press” doesn’t know a thing about Frank Gehry’s plans for D.C.’s Eisenhower Memorial, which, ever since renderings were released for public fodder well over two years ago, has attracted a publicity buzz not unlike flies swarming a dying animal. Indeed, the memorial’s most hyperbolic and outspoken critic, the National Civic Art Society, has called Gehry’s plans for an architectural memorial park—which, with 80-foot columns and woven steel tapestries, is as nonlinear and flourished as the rest of his oeuvre—”sentimental kitsch,” “a temple to nothingness,” and a “behemoth [that] commemorates Gehry’s ego, not Eisenhower’s greatness and humility.” President Eisenhower’s grandchildren have spoken out against the design, as well, most recently calling it “regretfully, unworkable.” Oh, and don’t even get them started on those tapestries, which have been likened to the stuff of Communist regimes, derided as an “Iron Curtain to Ike,” and described by the NCAS as “a rat’s nest of tangled steel, a true maintenance nightmare.”

This week, Congress joined the clamor: Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, has just introduced legislation that would officially halt all of Gehry’s efforts and start the whole process afresh. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) chimed in: “I want to know how we came up with this monstrosity.” This, of course, has ruffled a whole other set of feathers, namely those of the American Institute of Architects, which has said in a statement that the bill “is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized at home and around the globe.”

This highlights the socially constructed nature of memorials. What are they supposed to look like? To know, we often look at genres. We have memorials that celebrate war victories and they look a certain way: perhaps a big arch, perhaps a leader on a horse. We have memorials to celebrate the loss of life and the ambiguous outcomes of war. See the Vietnam War Memorial or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in Berlin. These public discussions can help ensure the public or leaders get what they want out of the memorial but might also stifle innovation.

In addition to this issue of genre, I see a few other issues in this criticism:

1. Why build a memorial for Eisenhower in the first place? Is it for his actions as president in being in charge during a time of prosperity or is it for his leadership in World War II (though we tend not to honor generals in these large ways anymore)? Here is the reasoning courtesy of the official website: eisenhowermemorial.gov.

Why honor President Eisenhower with a Memorial?

Congress approved the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial in 1999 with the passage of Public Law 106-79, signed into law by President Clinton. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission is entrusted with the task of building an enduring memorial honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and the 34th President of the United States. Eisenhower understood war as only a soldier could and believed the possibility of a nuclear or thermonuclear, World War III, would be unwinnable for mankind.  He set in place a strategy for winning the Cold War, that was followed and implemented by future Presidents until the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Eisenhower’s prescience and his strategic understanding of science and technology in establishing the United States as a pre-eminent world power was essential to securing freedom for generations of Americans to come. Eisenhower was influential in bringing World War II to an end and his efforts throughout the War, especially with the planning and execution of D-Day, stopped the Nazi war machine. He also ended the Korean War and maintained active communications with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.This Memorial will not only tell the story of Eisenhower, the young man from Kansas who became a great soldier, a U.S. President, and a world leader, but will also reflect the story of America – humble, isolated beginnings, and a rapid ascension on the world stage.  His example is an inspiration that, through leadership, cooperation, and public service, we too can achieve the American dream and make a difference in the world.  Eisenhower, like America, rose to the occasion with courage and integrity.With the 60th Anniversary of his election to President and the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, it is fitting to celebrate Eisenhower´s numerous accomplishments as a General, President, and world citizen. Dwight D. Eisenhower´s dedicated service to his country spanned 50 years. It is appropriate that the first national presidential memorial of the 21st century will honor President Eisenhower.  If there was ever a moment in our nation’s history to recognize a leader committed to both security and peace for the good of his nation and the world, now is that time.

How many presidents will receive memorials like this? How many should and who gets to decide?

2. I wonder how much of this is tied to Frank Gehry as architect. Gehry has a particular approach to structures. What if it was a lesser-known architect or even an unknown? Back to the official website:

How was Frank Gehry selected to design the Eisenhower Memorial?

Mr. Gehry was one of four finalists in a competitive process  managed by GSA under the guidelines of the General Services Administration Design Excellence Program.  The process consisted of three stages.  A notice was published in FedBizOpps announcing the opportunity for any designer with an existing portfolio to compete for the project.  Submissions were received from forty-four qualified design firms in 2008. Evaluation factors included previous work, ability to work within the constraints of an urban site, interviews, and responses to the memorial´s pre-design program. That program addressed Eisenhower´s accomplishments as well as the physical parameters of the memorial site. Mr. Gehry´s creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness demonstrated his understanding of Eisenhower as a General, President, and world citizen. An independent panel of reviewers, including Commissioner David Eisenhower, reviewed the presentations by the final four designers and recommended Frank Gehry.  The Eisenhower Commission unanimously accepted their recommendation.

3. How much should the family of the memorialized person be involved? Curbed cites the family’s dislike for the structure. But, isn’t the memorial more for the people of the United States? This is a matter of competing interests.

4. I wonder if there are any critics of Eisenhower’s presidency who might object loudly to the design of the memorial. The Eisenhower administration wasn’t perfect…

In the end, this memorial partly reflects something about Eisenhower himself but also strongly reflects our understanding of Eisenhower from the years 1999 when the Memorial process started to 2016 when the project is supposed to be done.