Is "infill" the sensible answer to dreaded suburban sprawl? Or just one more way for builders to take advantage of suddenly cool close-in neighborhoods?
The term infill development hasn't made it into Webster's, but the definition often used is housing that fills gaps in neighborhoods. It can be houses, town houses or apartments tucked onto vacant lots or subdivided lots, usually in cities or close-in suburbs. It's a national phenomenon because of new interest from empty-nesters, young professionals, people weary of long commutes and buyers deterred by area slow-growth movements.
Reaction depends on whom you ask--neighbors or developers--and how compatible they believe infill is with what's there now.
Neighbors often say infill can destroy the character of the community. They claim builders sacrifice green space and compatibility to squeeze every inch--and penny--out of supersize houses or looming higher-density complexes.
Builders say they are responding to the need for more housing without sacrificing the countryside. They contend they are revitalizing long-derelict lots and trashy woods or turning once-unbuildable properties into buildable ones.
Recently, The Washington Post played host to a roundtable discussion on infill. This is an edited transcript of that discussion.
Inside this section, we also look at four local infill projects. As builders and neighbors can attest, each instance has its own complicated story. The participants in the roundtable were: Susan Ingraham Bell, director of the Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development; Phil Dearborn, president of the Greater Washington Research Center; Gary Garczynski, president of National Capital Land and Development Co., an infill builder, and officer of the National Association of Home Builders; Phil Mendelson, a Democratic D.C. Council member; and Cathy Wiss, president of the Tenleytown Neighbors Association Inc., a group fighting proposed apartment buildings near their homes.
'The Issue Is Compatibility'
GARCZYNSKI: Infill is important to the building industry because of the whole "smart-growth" process evolving in this country. . . .
Infill is a major component of our smart-growth initiative; no matter where you go, they talk about the revitalization of America's cities and first-tier suburbs.
I think the paradox is that the American people are against two basic precepts--sprawl and density. If we can figure that one out, we'll go a long way to solving the problem.
In my experience, there are two types of infill: the "open-arms" infill that may rejuvenate or replace deteriorating housing stock; and the situation that's much more tenuous where you're going into a piece of land that has neighborhood opposition, like the situation in Tenleytown.
MENDELSON: Infill--to my view--is not necessarily bad. When you look at an area like the District, you really can't have any development without it being infill.
It gets to be very problematic when it's a house in an established single-family neighborhood. But infill is also what we saw on K Street in the 1960s and 1970s, and what we want to see on New York Avenue or Georgia Avenue.
The issue is compatibility. And compatibility can be defined in a number of different ways, whether it's trees, traffic, height, building design, or fitting within the historic district. And I don't want to make that sound too easy, because that's really where it's difficult.
I don't think infill is an antidote to sprawl. I think it's a quality-of-life issue. If we want an antidote to sprawl, we have to think of some big-picture things like what makes the District economically more attractive for people than moving to Manassas or Prince William County. . . .
I have a vision of seeing the District be what it was before in population--700,000 residents--or even larger. And if people feel safe, and if people feel they have good-quality services such as education, I think people are willing to live in a more dense environment--not everybody, but a lot of people--and that's what we're talking about, just attracting a lot of people, not everybody.
BELL: Infill takes more of our time than some larger projects because of three issues: the compatibility of new construction with existing neighborhoods--we have many houses 50 years old or older; the perception or reality of increased traffic; and then what I call "trees," the loss of what is perceived to be public open space, though it's privately owned. There are many folks who have looked at those heavily treed lots for years and see them as part of the fabric of their community, part of what makes it home. And while you might be able to mitigate traffic, it takes a really long time to bring the trees back.
In my role as department head and previously zoning administrator, a lot of what I have done, and what staff and elected officials have done, is to try to find a course that allows for investment and new construction, but at the same time mitigates the negative impact. And we have developed some tools that we think help some.
DEARBORN: My principal interest since 1974 with the advent of home rule has been how to make the District a successful city. . . . The city is at somewhat of a turning point, and to a great extent it will succeed or fail based on what happens in its residential areas. . . .
One problem that has plagued the District since home rule is an inability to think about where we want to be 30 years from now. The area, and especially the District, has a huge investment in Metro, and it's going to be very important that we maximize this investment.
WISS: Tenleytown in Upper Northwest has gone through a series of infills. It is the second oldest settlement in the District, after Georgetown. It's older than the city of Washington.
In the past 15 years or so, we've had subdivisions of large lots. In the last five years, we've had tear-downs where two houses [or more] can be built in the place of one without changing the zoning.
But in the past six months a developer bought a half-acre piece of property that had two houses on it and now proposes to rezone it to build 26 condominium units.
We feel this is not compatible with the neighborhood. It's going to be 40 feet in height, and although 40 feet is allowed in our zoning, nobody's house is anywhere close to that. It's going to be a whole block of buildings, whereas we have lots of very small houses.
We think it will also complicate traffic on a very narrow street, because there are several very complex intersections. . . .
And, of course, we have worried about the trees: It just so happens that this land is next to a national park, as well as a high school property that has been undeveloped and has a stream.
THE WASHINGTON POST: How do you ensure compatibility?
BELL: Some people do it better than others. We have a tool that is relatively new, called Unified Residential Development. It allows people within existing zoning to do infill projects, but one of the key aspects is that the developer meets with the community and we ask them to take design cues from the community. . . .
That give-and-take can take longer, but I think you get a more satisfactory product at the end. Everybody gives a little bit.
GARCZYNSKI: We face an overall problem of housing 1.2 million more people in the Washington metro area by 2020, while the surrounding outer counties are attempting to put a green belt around the area. With more people being able to get on the homeownership ladder, it all points to the fact that we have to make density not be a dirty word.
MENDELSON: I don't think density is the issue; it's compatibility. And oftentimes compatibility comes down to how the developer approaches the project.
A developer who is fairly sophisticated will figure out that he has to work with the community. I'm thinking, for example, of the Kennedy-Warren apartments, a historic building on Connecticut Avenue next to the National Zoo where they wanted to build a new wing. The developer worked with the community. Objections came up, and those objections got worked out. But in the Tenleytown project, the developer began by tearing down the house and then clearing out ancient trees, so that right there, the neighborhood was in opposition.
Density is not the issue. The District had about 700,000 residents in the '50s. . . . We can house them. We've been having a fight for years about trying to get more housing downtown. . . .
DEARBORN: But some [District] neighborhoods are going to shift from being single-family, low-density neighborhoods to high-density neighborhoods.
Cities have constantly undergone this transition. Wall Street was at one point single-family homes, and Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street was single-family homes. That's where I think the District has to plan for the future. I mean, for whatever reason, the District decided to build a Metro station at Tenleytown. It strikes me that if you come back 50 years from now, no matter how this 26-unit infill development comes out, Tenleytown will be very much changed from what it is today.
WISS: On the question of density, in fact, we are not opposed to having more apartments in Tenleytown. They have planned apartments for years in our commercial strip but it has simply never developed. We have one-story stores, parking lots, lots of vacant stores. We have apartment buildings that have lots of vacancies. So there is a great deal of space that could be higher density.
The difficulty for us is that this is development suddenly jumping into the neighborhood and saying, let's rezone the neighborhood. And that's scary.
DEARBORN: It seems to me that we need to be less concerned about small infill developments, because most of them get resolved one way or another. What concerns me much more are macro infill decisions, like . . . the St. Elizabeths Hospital site and the policy around Metro stations. The District has got to think about the big picture. The numbers are a little frightening: From 1990 to 1998, the District lost 24,000 housing units. In those eight years--actually nine years, because this number includes '99--it added 2,661 units.
MENDELSON: The trick for the District is to get the kind of development interest that's happening with Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues going on some of the other avenues. . . . I think we have to look at economic incentives. And we have to look at our public transit system, to make it easier for people to go up streets like Georgia Avenue.
BELL: I think what the District really has to do is be intentional about where they want the density, because that helps make your market. It helps people know where sites are going to be entertained for development and where developers will be welcomed. . . . And part of that is having the dialogue with the community in advance of the developer coming in and tearing down houses, and putting it in your comprehensive plan.
Once you've got it there, to the extent that council members may change, the developer still knows, generally, that if I go down this corridor, I'm likely to get a favorable response as long as I respond to the community. I think that's why Arlington has been successful at getting housing at Metro.
We have, in our land-use plan . . . what we call the "bull's-eye concept," where you have the highest heights and densities at Metro, and then as you move away from the Metro station, you taper heights and densities down. . . .
We have, over time, embarked on addenda to our plans, to address issues as they have arisen. We're about to embark, later this year, on another review.
THE WASHINGTON POST: Does the District do that?
MENDELSON: No. Our planning function completely fell apart. Mayor [Anthony A.] Williams has begun to restore it. We have a new planning director, and the council has approved funding for more positions. We actually now have some planners in the Office of Planning.
THE WASHINGTON POST: Phil Dearborn suggests small infill projects will resolve themselves. But there are so many of them and people get really, really angry about them.
WISS: This is the problem of infill. It is right next door. It is right across the street. It has a serious impact on your life. . . . It's your loss of privacy, loss of convenience. All of these things hit you very, very closely. One concern is having to raise money in order to fight. You just feel you're sitting there in your house, and all of a sudden, you have to put out a lot of money to try to keep your circumstances comfortable. It's as if it's the other guy's fault, but you have to pay for it.
GARCZYNSKI: I never want to go into a public hearing, Cathy, having your homeowners stand up against me in front of Phil [Mendelson]. I want to avoid that, because I'm either going to get turned down, or I'm going to get delayed. That's not what I want.
WISS: Basically what we're up against is a philosophy that's new--which is, let's develop in neighborhoods around Metro stops versus earlier philosophies to keep development along the commercial strip. . . .
It's destabilized [the neighborhood], people are starting to move out, they're uncomfortable. People are saying "I've had it, I'm going to move to Bethesda." And that is what we are afraid of.
GARCZYNSKI: There is a change in philosophy. The American Planning Association, I think, next year will put forth a treatise that advocates mixed use, the blending of different housing types. It's getting away from the single-use zonings pushed in the '60s. There was a time in Fairfax where if you didn't come in with a curvilinear street and a cul-de-sac, you were dead. Now, those cul-de-sacs are considered soul-less, and planners want a grid section of pedestrian-friendly streets with neighborhood stores.
WISS: But Tenleytown is different because you don't have large developments. . . . Tenleytown started out as a village, and it remains a village.
GARCZYNSKI: It's hard to take a stance on any one particular project because it's so personal. I can't judge who's right or wrong. But you have to remember that these parcels [close to subway stops] are in demand. There is almost this frenzy to get property near the stations. If it's vacant right now, somebody is looking at it.
THE WASHINGTON POST: How does the "mansionization" of houses alter infill development?
GARCZYNSKI: In a particular neighborhood, say McLean or Bethesda, there could be a property with a single-family home built 50 or 60 years ago, [but] the value of that ground today . . . is unbelievable. And if a buyer is willing to pay . . . 10 times what [the lot] was worth 50 years ago, he's not going to put that same type of home on that lot.
That's where compatibility comes up, because there may be neighbors now who don't want to see a 4,000-square-foot, two-story Colonial next to a 1,500-square-foot rambler. However, there will come a point in time when the person in that rambler wants to sell his house, and you can bet he'll be looking at what happened next door and want that appreciation.
BELL: Well, there's a land right [to build mansions on small lots], but there is a quality-of-life issue too.
We [in Arlington] have had so much tension [over houses that maximize height and square footage] that we have gone back to look at our base requirements. Our ordinance was adopted in 1930 and updated in '42, '50 and '62. What people want to live in today is entirely different.
We're going to have a series of recommendations about how the zoning ordinance might be changed to address infill development, as well as how people manage and maintain additions.
DEARBORN: At this stage, I think it would be very hard for the District to enact a policy to discourage very wealthy people who would like to come here and build a monstrous house. If a Bill Gates--
GARCZYNSKI: Or a Michael Jordan?
DEARBORN: --Wants to build a big house, while it would be nice if they would build it as appropriate with a nice style, I would be reluctant for us to say, "Don't come, we don't want you."
GARCZYNSKI: I think the challenge for the District is not to worry about the Michael Jordans . . . but to develop what planners today call the 24-hour city--so you don't have a downtown that becomes a ghost town after 5.
To really revitalize cities, we have to bring in a good cross section of housing. It's not just the wealthy and the mansions; it's bringing the everyday working families back in with their children.