ULI Washington News

The Value of Walkable Urban Places Conference Recap

On September 21, over 125 people gathered to discuss Walkable Urban Places in Metro DC. The conference focused on new research from the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. Chris Leinberger, director of the Center, summarized the study of key urban areas and walkability. There are three elements that define WalkUps:

  • Economics:  the current inventory
  • Forward Ranking:  the change in market share in this real estate cycle (over 5 years)
  • Social Equity:  the need to suggest gentrification including its downsides

Michael Rodriguez, Director of Research at CREUA described the current study. The focus of the recent WalkUp study is on Regionally Significant Walkable Urban Places that have a WalkScore of over 70 and over 1.4 million SF of office and/or 340,000 feet of retail, and are supported by the region. All the metros that were studies have premiums on rents ranking from 4 – 119% and the premiums have grown between 2010 and 2015. According to the research, there are 619 WalkUps in the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the US. DC is the second highest ranked Metro beyond New York City. WalkUps are not just being developed in center cities but also the urbanization of select suburbs. There is a large difference in productivity in per capita GDP for these regions.

wup-2The study also includes a Momentum Ranking showing that some cities are moving up the scale. These are places where policies are encouraging additional walkability and providing transit options. They include NYC, Boston, Detroit, Seattle, Phoenix, Washington, and Los Angeles. Places that are experiencing this momentum will be seeing more of a premium as walkable places increase.

The study also focused on Social Equity and outcomes found in the study are somewhat counter-intuitive. Higher score Walkable Urban Places have more social equity. At 80% AMI there are higher housing costs and rent premiums but these are offset by substantially lower transportation costs and more accessibility to employment. There is a true movement toward the end of sprawl and policies need to support this development pattern. There was discussion about the increase in efficient transportation (Uber/Lyft) and its impact on walkable places. A goal of future research will be to overlay the density of these trips on the WalkUp regions.

The highway system, financing programs, and consumer desire created suburban sprawl. We are still subsidizing transportation for sprawl. So what are the key catalysts that triggered the reverse movement from the suburbs to the city? When developers continue to build subdivisions in greenfields, there are diminishing returns for these developments. The reason for high prices is land prices and if the amount of land that could be densified increased, prices would be lowered. There is a need to recycle the money from gentrification into affordable housing.

Dr. Tracy Loh of George Washington CREUA gave a presentation on DC’s WalkUps. The 2012 number of WalkUps was 44 and is now 50. Acreage was 408 acres and now are 228 acres. There are local serving places as well as regional considered in the research. There are emerging and potential walkups in DC also. Only 3.5 percent of land area are in WalkUps – over 12 percent of the people live in them, and a large majority of commercial real estate inventory is located in these areas. All of the WalkUps in Metro DC were classified as downtown, downtown adjacent, urban commercial, urban university, suburban town center, redeveloped drivable sub-urban, and greenfields.

Next was a presentation on tourism rankings for WalkUps that showed that 13 WalkUPs have a tourism rank based on hotel density. There is not an overconcentration of tourism in any area of the city. There are current rankings for WalkUps that will be recalculated taking into consideration the tourism component.

Economic rankings were shared that are based on rent premiums. In each category, additional components were compared such as WalkScore, current Intersection Density, and Regional Rent Premiums with rankings ranging from Platinum to Lead. On the Social Equity Index Silver Spring is the only platinum Walk Up; it has 10% transit access, density, how much income is spent on housing, how much is spent on transportation and parks/capita. In the lead category, households are spending more than 50% of their income on housing and transportation. Even lead walkups are outperforming drivable sub-urban places. Job growth has taken place primarily in drivable edge cities; there is a need to analyze why that happened. Recent trends in job growth and office absorption were described as canaries in a coal mine for WalkUps. WalkUps and Walkable Neighborhoods are showing how vulnerable we are.

The final panel was moderated by Martin DeCaro, WAMU Traffic Reporter and panelists were Jodie W. McLean, CEO, EDENS; Calvin Gladney, Managing Partner, Mosaic Urban; Shyam Kannan, Director of Planning, WMATA; and Rich Bradley, former Executive Director, Downtown DC Business Improvement District; and Christopher Delfs, Chief of Staff, DC Office of Planning.  The subjects covered by the panel were wide ranging.  A theme running through the panel was that constraining supply continues to keep prices high and housing affordability will continue to be an issue that demands attention.  For example, EDENS has focused its amenity base on retail and needs to have appropriate levels of workers within a reasonable, affordable commute to continue to keep staff for the retail operations.

Other topics covered by this panel included the changing demographic of households that has to be addressed in WalkUp development, how the meaning of what it means to be suburban is changing, the need for managing places to make them secure and active, the importance of diversity in WalkUps in terms of age and ethnicity, how investments in connectivity can provide major benefits at lower costs than major infrastructure projects, that dedicating bus lanes to move people would increase capacity on roads, the impact of autonomous vehicles on the future of parking spaces and structures, and the high cost of owning a car (transportation costs for car owners range from 6-16 percent of wages but with no car, transportation costs are much lower at about $500 per year.

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