Sam Kalda

As the Great Recession recedes and construction cranes once again stride across Washington, the city finds itself confronting the unlikely problem of scarcity. Not so long ago, the city seemed locked in a vicious cycle of depopulation—as middle-class families fled (taking with them a crucial tax base), services worsened, driving still other residents away. Now, amid a long economic boom and a sustained drop in crime, the District is quickly transforming fallow land into homes, offices, and other cultural and entertainment uses. Population is growing again. And large, underdeveloped tracts of land are increasingly rare—and valuable. With luck, this scarcity may prompt the District to think about the limiting nature of its land-use choices: specifically, how dearly the city purchases its low-slung cityscape. Nowhere are these trade-offs more obvious than in the battle over a misbegotten piece of real estate known to the city as Reservation 13.

A sad, 67-acre parcel in the Hill East section of the city, Reservation 13 has long been a place apart from the rest of the city. Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, late 18th-century designer of the plan for the city of Washington, seemed himself unsure what to do with it, ultimately opting to shade in the curious box along the Anacostia River in a manner suggesting a bit of park. Tucked along the west side of that neglected waterfront (but separated from the water by a decrepit sewage plant), the Reservation now stands between the old Congressional Cemetery and the crumbling parking lots of RFK Stadium. For over 150 years, it has been home to institutions unwanted elsewhere in the city, such as the Washington Asylum, a hospital for indigent Washingtonians, which first occupied the site in 1846. Today, it houses the defunct D.C. General Hospital, as well as the city jail, STD and substance-abuse clinics, and a homeless shelter. The Reservation’s present character could be described as overwhelmingly institutional. The city’s street grid ends at its borders, morphing into a series of short roads winding between surface parking lots that surround, at intervals, blank-faced buildings that fairly scream government-use.

In the early 2000s, the city recognized both the looming obsolescence of Reservation 13’s building stock and the redevelopment potential granted it by an adjacent Metro station. Metro was proving a catalyst for investment and redevelopment elsewhere in the resurgent city, and both the city and the residents of nearby neighborhoods were interested in seeing the land put to more productive, attractive, and tax-generating use. In 2003, then-Mayor Anthony Williams signed off on a master plan for the land that would extend the street grid and add offices and residences along the newly created city blocks. The Great Recession delayed efforts to find willing developers, but with recovery boosting redevelopment plans elsewhere in the city, hopes ran high for progress on the site. But late last fall, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray threw a monkey-wrench into the works.

In November, reports surfaced that Mayor Gray and two D.C. councilmembers had visited Tampa in order to tour the headquarters and practice facilities of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That the Washington Redskins lack a presence in the District has long been a sore spot for some residents; since 1997, the team has played its games in suburban Maryland, and its headquarters and practice fields are near Dulles Airport in Virginia. The Mayor no doubt expected residents to greet the possibility of a relocated headquarters with excitement—not least because the move might lay the groundwork for a return of the games themselves when the existing Maryland stadium lease ends in 2027. Instead, residents fumed. Mayor Gray and his supporters on the D.C. Council spoke at a public forum on the issue in late March, in which they professed that no deal was on the table, but they nonetheless made the case for an effort to recruit the team to Reservation 13. The entreaties fell flat.

The Mayor’s flop of a plan might be attributable to fandom or sheer political miscalculation. It may have been rooted in more legitimate worries, however. Reservation 13 has long been home to the sorts of uses that aggressively repel private investment. The Metro station is an advantage, but there is little else nearby to attract interest. Mayor Gray may have feared that without the draw of the team, the land would continue to lay fallow. Elsewhere in the city, the plea might have worked. Washingtonians know both the Verizon Center arena and Nationals Park—stadiums perceived as catalyzing the redevelopment of surrounding neighborhoods.

Along Hill East, however, the opportunity cost of an athletic facility is too glaringly obvious. Tampa Bay’s headquarters and practice fields take up some 33 acres—or more than half the land available for redevelopment on Reservation 13. Football facilities would do little to “activate” the neighborhood; foot traffic from public events would be smaller and less frequent than might be expected of, for example, a multipurpose indoor arena. The land left over might not permit enough new building to support the community-serving businesses and streetlife nearby that residents so badly want. Given the limited land available for such wholesale redevelopment, the use of such a large portion of Hill East for the deadening presence of a practice structure looks intolerably profligate.

Consciously, in the case of urbanists opposed to the practice facility, or unconsciously, as is likely to be true of nearby residents, opponents are expressing an awareness of the importance of density to urban life. To make Reservation 13 come alive, there must be people there—enough of them to support local businesses such as coffee shops and corner stores. With sufficient critical mass, the neighborhood might support restaurants, bars, and shops, which could then draw residents from other corners of the city. A healthy density helps integrate a neighborhood into the broader city, which then reinforces that neighborhood’s local amenities. Were more than half of the parcel dedicated to a relatively stultifying land use, critical density might fall out of reach.

Lurking within this compelling argument, however, is an unjustified assumption. On its own, the use of 33 acres for football need not reduce the parcel’s density. Development proposed for the remaining land could simply be made taller. In the 2003 master plan, the city recommends building heights of two stories on the western, neighborhood-facing side of the property, rising to 10 stories on the waterfront side (the property slopes downward toward the water). In practice, the only thing preventing Washington from having its cake and eating it too is a devotion to short buildings.

Indeed, the scarcity of land that has so energized residents to question the mayor’s efforts is entirely a product of the District’s laws and regulations. The neighborhoods just west of Reservation 13, like much of the city’s residential land, are zoned R-4. This allows for matter-of-right development of single-family homes on lots with minimum specified widths and maximum specified heights. If Washington wanted to do so, it could substantially increase the available developable area. A zoning area that doubled the District’s population density—essentially creating an entire second city on top of the first—would be achievable without so much as questioning the city’s statutory height limit—and leaving the District at less than a third of the population density of Manhattan.

The city may have its reasons for preferring short buildings. And it may not feel that accommodating both football and a community in a neglected part of the city justifies a change to its development rules. What the battle over Reservation 13 makes clear, however, is that Washington’s height aversion crowds out attractive amenities—a football facility in this case; parks or museums in others; willing would-be residents, artists, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers in many, many others. It has a substantial cost, in other words. That has always been true, but perhaps it takes a tone-deaf football fan of a mayor to make the point clear to all.