DC Streetcar Land Use Study

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Location: Washington, DC. Major U.S. city

Context and site: A major American city is planning a 37-mile streetcar system running throughout its neighborhoods and districts, and the previous planning initiatives primarily addressed transportation infrastructure itself. This pioneering project studied the expected land-use related impacts from the streetcar to gain an understanding in three major areas: 1) Benefits – for resident quality of life and economic development; 2) challenges – potential for gentrification, right-of- way constraints and real estate market shifts toward streetcar corridors; and 3) preliminary public policy strategies to optimize the benefits and mitigate challenges. An interdisciplinary team conducted the study and brought together diverse expertise in areas including: housing market analysis using demographic-based target-market methodology; office and retail market analysis; development finance analysis; multimodal transportation planning; analysis of historic buildings, districts and public spaces; analysis of urban design qualities and development potential; and planning expertise in demographic analysis and outreach to key stakeholders. This interdisciplinary approach used a series of team workshops to develop comprehensive findings that tie together the complex dynamics of real estate, business, transportation and community. For background, the project studied effects of recently implemented streetcar service in places like Portland and Seattle, but also observed that many outcomes from those relatively few precedents are not directly transferable to different city contexts. Thus the project involved extensive analysis of local demographics, real estate markets and transportation flow within the proposed streetcar corridors. About two thirds of the proposed routes revive former streetcar corridors of the early 20th Century, so some development and use context with roots in streetcar transit exists, whereas other context is currently based in auto-oriented or industrial development and use patterns.

Project mission: The project identifies how and where streetcar service would offer the most significant opportunities and challenges. This will help the city in three major ways: 1) Prioritizing which streetcar segments should be built in which order; 2) Identifying the most promising strategies for funding streetcar, utilizing both Federal and local sources; and 3) Updating city policies to optimize benefits and minimize challenges. These policies, which will be developed further in a subsequent effort, range from identifying where the city should consider revising zoning and design guidelines to enable transit-oriented development, to expanding affordable housing production.

Market and program: Market studies assessed demand for transit-oriented housing, office and retail space over the near-term (5-10 years) both with and without the streetcar to determine its new impacts. Precedents from other cities informed determination of how streetcar would impact development markets. Development demand and supply were distributed among the streetcar corridors based on urban character and site availability, and projected decades into the future to understand potential long-term impacts. Development potential was compared to development capacity under existing zoning to identify places and ways to consider updating zoning.

Core principles: The study implicitly assumes and supports core principles of compact, transit-oriented development, including: (1) Lively walkable environments enhance economic vitality by making cities more competitive as places to live, work, and invest. (2) Community quality of life benefits expand choices among transportation modes themselves – emphasizing walking, transit and biking as safe, healthy, convenient and economical alternatives to driving – and among the more diverse options for housing, jobs, retail, recreation, education and other life activities attracted to transit- oriented settings.

Community process: The project drew input from key stakeholders such as business improvement districts, and outlined the agenda and techniques for a subsequent community dialogue on streetcar opportunities and challenges that will reach out to each neighborhood on streetcar lines using interactive public meetings as well as social media.

Implementation strategy and progress to date: Key next steps include facilitation of the neighborhood community dialogue, and further technical analysis of specific issues (i.e. regional economic competitiveness) and local conditions (i.e. resolving certain right-of-way constraints in commercial districts through alternative routes, street design and/or traffic/parking management approaches). A pilot streetcar segment is under construction and expected to start operations in 2012.



The region: Metropolis, city, and town.

4 ... infill development within existing urban areas... The streetcar network would serve a mix of existing neighborhoods and major underdeveloped sites transitioning away from industrial and institutional uses. Streetcar would have particular impact transforming these latter sites into walkable neighborhoods of high-value mixed-use development, enhancing the city’s economy and promoting more efficient regional use of land, economic and transportation resources.

7 ...a regional economy that benefits people of all incomes... The project looks comprehensively at housing, office and retail market impacts of streetcar through several lenses including: New development potential; opportunity to revive existing underutilized and historic buildings/districts; job growth; property value growth (for existing and new development); fiscal benefits through increased tax revenue; and increased potential for creative industries to locate along streetcar corridors. The project also looked at existing incomes along streetcar corridors, how markets will expand housing choices, and how policies may be needed to mitigate gentrification impacts.

8. ... a framework of transportation alternatives... The project carefully considered the distinct roles streetcar service can play versus those that are and will be played by other transit modes including subway and local, express, and circulator buses. It emphasized how streetcars can improve connections between jobs and housing (existing and new). The project also identified where existing walkable street networks are ripe for streetcar service and where they must be developed through pedestrian-oriented development and streetscape.

The neighborhood, the district, and the corridor

10 and 11. Neighborhoods, districts, corridors... The project assessed streetcar’s impacts at multiple scales. This included both the whole city (especially fiscal and quality of life benefits) and the individual streetcar corridors as they passed through a variety of contexts such as individual neighborhoods, districts and major redevelopment sites. It addressed streetcar’s expected impact of further concentrating housing, jobs and amenities in corridors.

12. ...activities of daily living should occur within walking distance... The project looked at a key land uses impacted by streetcar and the potential synergies of combining them – such as the increased retail viability stemming from presence of both residents and workers in walking distance.

13. ... a broad range of housing types and price levels... The housing market analysis, using target-market methodology, determined the streetcar’s housing market potential through specific household profiles that addressed income, age, size and other characteristics.

14 and 15. Transit corridors and appropriate building densities and land uses. The project comprehensively identified soft sites along streetcar corridors by examining data on property value, density, size and ownership, with follow-up field surveys. Un-built development capacity under current zoning was modeled and compared to potential streetcar-induced demand to determine areas to consider higher density development of quality design.

The block, the street, and the building.

22 and 23. ...development must adequately accommodate automobiles; streets and squares should be safe, comfortable and interesting... In some cases existing rights of way may not fully accommodate streetcars as well as on-street parking, necessary delivery space, sidewalks, street trees and traffic. The project identified strategies to solve these conflicts through alternative streetcar routes, traffic management or other solutions. The project also identified areas of auto-oriented development needing new design guidelines so that pedestrian-oriented development accompanies streetcar service.

The canons of sustainable architecture and urbanism.

General: The project fully supports General canon (2) in looking to the comprehensive cost-effectiveness of the streetcar in supporting city and regional development patterns, economic growth and community quality of life including affordability. It supports Building and Infrastructure canon (4) by examining how streetcar-attracted reinvestment can support preservation and renewal of historic buildings and districts, and where additional protections may be needed. It supports Neighborhood, Town and City canon (2) by examining how streetcar can be effective in directing new development to underutilized and already developed land. It supports Region canon (4) in studying streetcar’s benefits to the spatial balance of jobs and housing at city scale.


Lessons learned:  An interdisciplinary approach is needed that includes design, economics, transportation, and heritage. These will all inform each other, and none can be viewed in isolation.  The impacts on housing appear to be stronger than commercial, but both are very important. For housing and commercial, the most significant benefits occur when streetcar adds service to underdeveloped areas.  Timing of property value increases occur at different stages between residential and commercial. For residential, value increases occur after streetcar system is implemented. For commercial, values can increase during the planning phase.  Every city – and neighborhood – is distinct. While it is important to be aware and understand the implications of national examples, determining local results must be based on local conditions.  Local sources that leverage real estate value created by streetcar can be very important to supplement or replace Federal funding.  By “extending the walk,” pedestrian nodes such as those centered around existing transportation nodes and commercial districts can be significantly expanded by streetcar, building on and increasing neighborhood “Main Streets.”  Streetcar is especially effective in places where it can serve multiple roles such as connecting existing and emerging neighborhoods; providing transit in areas frequented by both locals and tourists; and combining work commutes with trips for shopping, schools and other errands.  Streetcar offers a better ratio of benefits to costs compared to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Transit. While BRT is less expensive to implement, it does not generate the real estate investments to the same degree that streetcars can. While light rail can produce similar benefits to streetcars, implementation costs are many times more than that of streetcar.  Challenges should be addressed early in the streetcar planning process. These include affordability concerns, rights-of-way issues, and potential loss of future development in non-streetcar corridors. In most cases, strategies can be developed to mitigate these challenges.

Transect Zone(s): T4 general, T5 center, T6 core, SD district.
Status: Proposed
Project or Plan's Scale: Region
Features: Affordable/subsidized housing, Transit oriented development.
Total built area (in sq. ft.):
Total project cost (in local currency): 1.5e+09
Retail area (in sq. ft.): 1800000
Office area (in sq. ft.):
Industrial area (in sq. ft.):
Number of hotel units:
Number of residential units (include live/work): 35000
Parks & green space (in acres):
Project team designers: Good Clancy
Project team developers: N/A

Previous site status:

Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: -