Tonight was the kick-off meeting for the Pike Neighborhoods Plan Charette. You may be wondering "What is the Pike Neighborhoods Plan?" or "What's a Charette?" or "What did I miss if I wasn't there?!" Read on to find out.

What is the Pike Neighborhoods Plan?

You may be familiar with the work being done to revitalize Columbia Pike, or you may not. There is a lot of history that provides important context: the Columbia Pike Initiative, the Columbia Pike Revitalization Plan, the Form Based Code, the Street Space Plan, the Multimodal Project, the Pike Transit Initiative. The opportunity before us all right now, however, is giving input on the Neighborhoods Plan. In the interest of getting to the end goal, here's the short, short version of Pike revitalization history.

The County and community have been working together since the late 90s to revitalize and reshape the Columbia Pike Corridor into a better place to live and have identified several goals we would like to achieve. Past initiatives have focused on goals such as improved transportation options, better pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, improved commercial design including street-engaged retail and careful transitions between building heights. The current initiative (the Columbia Pike Land Use & Housing Study) is addressing another goal of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Plan, maintaining an ethnically diverse and culturally rich community by retaining enough affordable housing for a diverse community to be able to remain here.

As property on the Pike has gotten more valuable and living on the Pike has become more attractive, it has become more and more financially attractive for apartment complex owners to renovate and then increase the rent in their complexes. A good example is the Whitmore at 4301 Columbia Pike. They evicted their existing residents, renovated their apartments and then re-leased at higher rents. If we as a community do nothing about this, the trend is likely to continue. There are 7,500 "affordable" housing units on Columbia Pike. Of those, only 1,000 are so-called "committed" units which are in some way obligated to stay affordable. The other 6,500 or so-called "market rate affordable", or units which are essentially affordable only because the landlord doesn't feel the market will bear a higher rent. With a loss of affordable housing comes a loss of diversity, one of the traits that many people love about the Pike communities, so a study was commissioned by the County on what could be done to retain those affordable housing units on the Pike. The Pike Neighborhood Plan will be the end result of that study, and that is what is being hammered out at this Charrette.

What is a "Charette"?

A Charette is what happens when you let business majors plan public meetings. Instead of 2 hours of boring lecture, you get five hours of break-out sessions, small group activities, collaboration and deliverables. Tonight was the kickoff meeting which set the stage of what we're trying to do as a community and what we need to be thinking about. Tomorrow (Saturday the 25th from 9am to 2pm) is the down-and-dirty business of detail work. Those who participate will be broken into small groups, given some guidelines on what questions need answering and let loose with giant sheets of paper and magic markers.

What happened at the Kick-off Meeting?

A whole lot of background material got spit out all at once, then individuals in the community were given a chance to talk a bit about what is on their minds going into this process. Here's my attempt at summarizing the background material; if you were there, please feel free to add any additional insights I may have missed in the comments.

As I noted above, the goal of the Neighborhood Plan is to retain affordable housing. The dangers facing the current affordable housing are twofold: as the land becomes more valuable and the Pike becomes a more attractive place to live, the economics make it more and more likely that the landowners will in some way redevelop the existing market-rate affordable units. Either renovating and raising rents, or conceivably converting the rental units to townhouses to sell. In order to create the best policy to retain these affordable units, it is essential to understand the market forces at play for these apartment complexes. Several consultants have been brought in and they have done a lot of analysis about what is economically feasible on the Pike. It is up to us as a community to use that information and analysis to determine the best possible policy to produce the kind of community that we want to live in.

The consultants selected a few representative complexes on the Pike and worked out number of possible redevelopment scenarios for them. They essentially said "In what ways might a landlord want to redevelop their apartment complex?" and worked out the economic realities of trying to do each of them. Since changing zoning laws (or providing an alternative to existing zoning like the Form Based Code) is one of the potential strategies being considered, they didn't limit themselves only to redevelopment scenarios that would be possible under the current zoning.

The most interesting and relevant findings include:

  • In order to be worth the investment, landowners will generally need to replace each existing unit with 3 new units.
  • In most cases, current zoning does not allow enough density to be worth redeveloping
  • The current rental rates born by the market in the Pike corridor are insufficient to support the construction of buildings over 5 stories
  • The kind of low-rise, high density development that best fits the current economics of the Pike lend themselves to large, regularly shaped (rectangular) lots

The potential toolbox for retaining affordable housing is some combination of the following in exchange for the inclusion of committed affordable units:

  • Providing low or no-interest construction loans.
  • Granting bonus density over what would normally be allowed
  • Granting tax breaks or payments in lieu of taxes
  • Paying for Green improvements to lower the developers operating costs
  • Providing historic tax credits to renovate historic apartment buildings

After the background presentation, attendees were given a chance to raise questions or offer comments. One person questioned how committed the county is to retaining affordable housing. Another questioned why we should try to retain affordable housing at all. The majority however, spoke in strong support of retaining the diverse cultural communities we have on the Pike, though there were clear divisions on the best way to do so.

With all of the information and analysis provided, it is up to us as a community to determine what strategies we're willing to use to retain our communities diversity. Do we want to pay landlords to include affordable units if they develop? Would we rather allow them to build higher density buildings in exchange for those units so we can stretch those dollars a bit farther? Would we rather pay for Green improvements for redeveloped apartment buildings so our communities get some environmental benefit in addition to the diversity benefit? If we're willing to grant bonus density, then how much? What should those building looks like? Where should they go? How should they interact with the streets around them? With the neighboring houses? These are the questions we need to settle at Saturday's Charrette. I encourage you to attend as much of the Charrette as you can - there are many opportunities, just check out the calendar.