Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The business implications of creating a 37-mile D.C. streetcar system

February 2, 2012 - 09:28 AM
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(Photo: flickr/MrTinDC)

The District of Columbia has imagined resurrecting its streetcar system for awhile now, but as we approach the anticipated 2013 debut date, what becomes ever more clear is the need for careful planning, especially as our businesses, officials, and residents realize the economic implications of what 37 miles and eight lines of streetcar will bring. To get a sense for how the mere idea of streetcars kickstarts our communities, just take a look at the blocks of H Street. 

"We were really able to sell H Street with the potential of the trolley," said Anwar Saleem, executive director of H Street Main Street, to the D.C. Council at yesterday's roundtable discussion. "Tourist dollars are huge ... I think the potential is unlimited."

In the past three years, Saleem has seen 82 businesses emerge in the Ward 6 neighborhood as streetscaping beautified the sidewalks and streetcar tracks paved the way for the much-discussed cars. The District held a huge meeting in December to assure residents that the first three-mile line was coming. Mid-2013, Mayor Vince Gray assured, would be the time. Yesterday's talk focused on the D.C. Office of Planning's recently released land use study, which predicted that the $1.5 billion streetcar network will add $5 to $7 billion to our city's property values. Not a shabby verdict, especially considering the economic revival such value is bringing to places like H Street.

But such value is a double-edged sword, isn't it? Because more value also means rising prices in an expensive city already full of the rich. How to preserve affordable housing and accommodate the investment that may surge with new streetcar reports and plans? Councilmember Tommy Wells mused that the report's release itself was delicate since developers may have looked at "the deepest shades of color" on the streetcar map and gone after the implicit dollar signs with their investments. The nature of how values spike is also unpredictable because of how inconsistent and ongoing the streetcar planning has been.

"For the H Street line," Julia Robey Christian, executive director of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants & Professionals, said to the Council, "we've had a 2010 start date, a 2011 start date, a 2012 start date, and now a 2013 start date. Deadlines can't keep moving."

That uncertainly also speaks to future uncertainties and the likelihood of future delays. As Wells said, "It's the operating costs that we currently have no plans for." Not to mention the operational realities. Should there be a sales tax? Should there be an independent authority in charge of the streetcar network? People are considering these questions but don't have answers yet.

In the meantime, the shifting land values will impact the way businesses plan and the way people live and the ability of others to buy.

Councilmember Mary Cheh alluded to the "time lag" in which values can rise before the new form of transit even arrives. Harriet Tregoning, director of the Office of Planning, noted in her presentation that one-third of areas along the streetcar corridors will likely experience "strong upward pressure on housing prices" and one-half would face "moderate" pressures. Already you see housing prices climb upward in neighborhoods described as "emerging." Think about Columbia Heights in the last few years or Petworth. Current businesses will encounter rising rents and new competitors eager to break into developing spots, and the bubble of wealth and value continues to creep ever upward. Streetcars also have the potential to attract 4,000 to 12,000 new households, the office predicts, creating all the more of a crunch on the District's residents.

"If mom and pop stores do benefit," Wells observed, "they don't benefit until the streetcars are running."

Do the benefits of "cool space potential," as Tregoning called the neighborhood vibes that streetcars will encourage, and the hipster creative class adoration for quirky locales fix this deeper socioeconomic concern? Yes and no. The Office of Planning has plans, of course, as you would hope from their name. Tregoning mentioned 100 acres of public land that may be used for affordable housing. Perhaps, she argued, D.C. could target areas with specific tax credits and create accessory dwellings. The better transportation network resulting from the streetcars' introduction would also save residents some cash. The cost of a car for individual District residents was $8,437 in 2010, and transit tends to cost less than a third of that.

But to former ANC commissioner and Council candidate Kathy Henderson, the city has already failed to effectively communicate the implications of the streetcar network. She remarked on the vistas torn up as workers built the streetcar maintenance facility. She said that for the D.C. government to hold its big streetcar meetings during the holiday season was "inappropriate." ANC commissioners shouldn't have to hunt online for the report when it's released but receive hard copies.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves talking about dollar signs," Henderson warned the Council. "We need to really engage the community." 

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(Image: The Transport Politic)
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