Autumn on Lake Audobon

Autumn on Lake Audobon
Autumn on Lake Audubon, Photo by Alison Kamat

Sunday, August 31, 2014

UPDATED: The people designing your cities don’t care what you want. They’re planning for hipsters. Washington Post, August 15, 2014

UPDATE:  This WaPo article takes a hard look at the specific problem of the lack of availability of less expensive rental units in Washington, DC.  Apparently not everyone in the WDC metro area is a hipster although developers keep building housing for them, not people with moderate incomes.  

Does the recent Reston Master Plan amendment for the Metro station areas mean Reston is abandoning its principles as a place for everyone to "live, work, and play?"  Will these areas be built for upscale "hipsters" at the expense of Bob Simon's ideals?

This excellent Washington Post article by Joel Kotkin, Roger Hobbs Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and author of The New Class Conflict, lays out expertly the pattern of planning we have seen in thinking about Reston's Metro station areas for the last five years.  Indeed, the small and by in large very expensive dwelling units--condos and apartments--being planned in the 1/2-mile circle around each station are generally inaccessible to any household earning less than $80,000 per year in today's dollars or is larger than 3 people.

The core Reston Task Force planning assumption was these living spaces would include 1,200 gross square feet (GSF) per unit, which includes all the common areas including ground floor retail, elevators, hallways, etc.  That translates roughly into less than 800 square feet of livable space per apartment/condo. 

Right now, price ranges for high-rise condos in Reston Town Center range from about $350,000 for a low-floor 2BR condo to more than $1.3 million for a penthouse level condo with 2BR unit. Even at the low end of that range, a mortgage of $300,000 would cost the homebuyer about $2,000 per month in PITI payments ($24,000 per year).  On the apartment side, you'll be hard pressed to find a rental unit under $1,500/mo ($18,000/yr) and some go as high as $5,000/mo ($60,000 per year). 

OK, there are recommendations in Reston's new master plan that a small percentage of units (12% to 18% depending on the size of the development) be set aside for workforce housing, but they will be even smaller than the average (minimum ~300SF for efficiencies to ~500SF for 2BR) and the number of units will be well far less than the demand for them.  (Note:  The "Workforce Housing" program is intended for households generally with income between 80% and 120% of the County median income, which is now about $107,000.  That means families with incomes ranging from about $85,000 to $128,000 are eligible for this housing.)

Still, by far the largest share of Reston dwellings are--and will be--suburban style single-family residences.  Indeed, speaking only for my own neighborhood, we have seen a nearly full generational transfer in housing from my 60s-70s generation to young families in their 30s-40s with young kids.  Just a few of us from the last generation are still hanging around--and actually enjoying the renewed vitality of our neighborhood with younger adults and dozens of kids playing outside.  And so we reasonably expect it to go for at least another generation--including the move of many of those "hipsters" to neighborhoods like ours as they begin their families.

But let's take a look at what Kotkin has to say:

What is a city for?
It’s a crucial question, but one rarely asked by the pundits and developers who dominate the debate over the future of the American city.
Their current conventional wisdom embraces density, sky-high scrapers, vastly expanded mass transit and ever-smaller apartments. It reflects a desire to create an ideal locale for hipsters and older, sophisticated urban dwellers. It’s city as adult Disneyland or “entertainment machine,” chock-a-block with chic restaurants, shops and festivals.
Overlooked, or even disdained, is what most middle-class residents of the metropolis actually want: home ownership, rapid access to employment throughout the metropolitan area, good schools and “human scale” neighborhoods.
A vast majority of people — roughly 8o percent — prefer a single-family home, whether in the city or surrounding communities. And they may not get “creative” gigs at ad agencies or writers collectives, but look instead for decent-paying opportunities in fields such as construction, manufacturing or logistics. Over the past decade, these jobs have been declining rapidly in “luxury cities” like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
In contrast, such jobs, which pay $60,000 to $100,000 annually, have been growing — particularly as the industrial and energy sectors have recovered — in cities like Houston, Austin, Nashville and Salt Lake City. These locales also feature housing, relative to incomes, that is more affordable.
Of course, few urbanists wax poetic about Dallas or Des Moines. . . .
Click here to read the rest of this article.

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