Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Tomorrow a New World

Finally -- a neighborhood in Washington DC that doesn't suck: Dupont Circle. Metro center, where I work (near the new convention center), barely even caters to the business/office crowd. My coworkers are actively praying for a Starbucks to move into the neighborhood. Georgetown, which I thought was going to be cool, turns out to be the city that Ann Arbor wishes it was: a main drag (M St) of 2 and 3-story buildings that house the crappiest mix of gift shops, upscale clothing stores, and hair-and-nail salons since...ever, I guess. I'd say it was worse than Main St. in Ann Arbor, but at least Main St. has Espresso Royale. It took me a good hour of wandering to find a cafe with free wireless internet access. Jesus. I've since found this guide, along with this one, but it seems like nearly ever frigging corner should have a coffee shop and that coffee shop should have wireless internet, if my experience in Portland and Ann Arbor is any guide.

Larry Kestenbaum's enthusiasm for DC density is way off the mark. While it has some great housing stock (literally every house here is about $50,000 of renovation away from being the most beautiful row house since...the one next door), the modest heights are contributing to sprawl in the surrounding counties. As soon as you cross the Key Bridge into Virginia, the buildings shoot up from the 2-story jobs of Georgetown to 15 or 20-story buildings that economics dictates. Nearly everyone I work with is priced out of the city and lives in Maryland or Virginia -- and these are professionals making 80-100k a year, frequently with spouses doing the same. Throw in the need for federal approval of the city's budget and you have a good old fashioned clusterf**k.

So anyway, I'm living in some hellhole in Alexandria Virginia, but only temporarily. The hour-each-way commute isn't doing it for me, so I'm looking for a place in the city starting June 1 or thereabouts. God, I hate the suburbs.

This summer I'm working on a study of a huge apartment complex in Greenbelt, Maryland. Greenbelt, you might recall, was the brainchild of Rexford Tugwell, an econ professor at Columbia who became part of FDR's Brains Trust. Tugwell conceived of the Resettlement Administration, part of the Farm Security Administration, as a means of moving farmers off of unproductive land and moving low income urbanites into planned suburban communities. Tugwell was really a visionary of the value of planning (favoring Garden City ideas) and also strongly espoused cooperation as a means of helping the poor help themselves.

Greenbelt was originally about an 880 unit community of modernist row houses, opened in 1937. It was a make-work program to give people construction jobs during the Depression, as well. After the Lanham Act was passed in 1940, another 1000 units of row houses were built by the Federal Works Agency and housed war workers. The term "Old Greenbelt" refers either to the original 880 homes or the combination of the Depression homes and the war homes as distinct from everything that came afterwards (it's a decent-sized community, its own city east of DC and College Park, MD). The original development was purchased by a cooperative formed for that purchase and continues today as Greenbelt Homes, Inc. I'm studying Springhill Lake apartments, a private garden apartment development of 5000 units. It's slated for demolition in favor of a community designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk. The demolition is unnecessary, as the buildings are in good shape and home to a surprisingly diverse population that will be displaced -- first by the demolition and construction; second by the exclusion of the poor inherent in a name-brand development.

My job for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS, a New Deal make-work program for architects) is to document the history of this community over the next 12 weeks and write a series of reports that will eventually be accessioned to the Library of Congress. For more background, check out the Greenbelt Museum, ably curated by Jill St. John, a fellow Michigander.


Blogger Buttercup and JOHN-43 said...

great blog to read :))))

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Brandon said...

But Dale, a DPZ community will be income-diverse due to diverse housing choices such as ADUs! theory.

Jane Jacobs was right about the need for old buildings.

10:00 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

One improvement will be that the DPZ version will be better connected to the Metro station about a half mile away; the current Springhill Lake complex was built 30 years before the station and of course doesn't really address it.

However, pretty much nothing in the DC metro area is affordable, so I doubt that a chic development like this one will be any different. Shares in Greenbelt up until about 2000 or 2001 went for 70k; now they go for about 200k (you can sell your share at market rate) and climbing. They were the most affordable thing around, as far as I can tell, at a range of 800-1400 sq ft.

The problem with Springhill Lake is not that these are modernist garden apartments; the row houses in old Greenbelt are very similar. It's not really design; it's that these apartments are not well maintained and their transient population doesn't feel "ownership." In the 60s and 70s these were luxury apartments with a great deal of community activity; that was the kind of place greenbelt was. In fact 98.6 percent of registered voters voted in the 68 elections -- unprecedented. Now there are a lot of college students who don't get involved in the community and a lot of people who are just hanging on. Without an overarching community impetus (like a cooperative, for example), there are few means of getting people involved and solving these community problems.

I'd give a link, but since they have frames on their site, I can't. Go to projects...Springhill Lake. It seems fairly boilerplate DPZ stuff (I saw a bunch of it in Milwaukee, if I remember correctly), and their historical references seem kind of thin to me. Anyways, they're giving a presentation in Greenbelt on the 31st I hope to go to.

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Larry Kestenbaum said...

My enthusiasm for 4-7 story DC density may be "way off the mark", but consider what I actually wrote back in May (since the link no longer works):

Washington DC (with 4-7 story buildings everywhere) may look sprawled in comparison to Manhattan, but it is wonderfully dense and efficient compared to any city in Michigan including Detroit.

And that is absolutely true. No Michigan city even approaches DC's density.

7:46 PM  

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