Friday, September 17, 2010

hyattsville = U street, or how to sell rowhouses in the suburbs

At Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, Richard Layman complains about an ad for Hyattsville's Arts District development that claims to be a cheaper version of U Street. He calls it "puffery." To certain potential homebuyers, however, Hyattsville might as well be U Street. It may be incorrect, but it's still an honest reflection of how some view the relationship between the city and suburbs.

Kennedy Street
For suburban residents, a new rowhouse in Hyattsville (pictured) might be a good substitute for an old one on U Street.

A research project I started over the summer (but never finished) was to map where my twenty-something friends and coworkers had moved after college. Supporters of smart growth and urbanism like to argue that young people are flocking to the city. For my peer group, that hasn't been the case, as many of my friends still live in suburban Maryland or Northern Virginia.

where people live at
A map of where thirty-five of my friends and coworkers, all within three years of graduating college, were living in 2009. Yellow houses represent people living with their parents, while red beds represent those living on their own.

There are two reasons why that happens. One is that our lives are in the suburbs: our friends, our families, our jobs, our hangouts. The best ethnic food is in Rockville, Langley Park and Annandale. There are growing nightlife districts in Bethesda, Clarendon and (fingers crossed) Silver Spring. We no longer have to go into D.C. for work, for culture, or for alcohol.

But even if you want to live in the city, housing there is either too expensive for an entry-level salary, or perhaps undesirable to kids raised in newish McMansions with free parking. One of my friends grew up in Clarksville and for two years commuted from her parents' house to a job in Baltimore. After looking at century-old rowhouses in Federal Hill, she moved to a room in a newer townhouse in Columbia because she wouldn't have to share a bathroom.

Love Cafe, 15th & U
The real U Street.

That's not to say we don't want urban lifestyles. In fact, if there's anything that I noticed in my map, it's that most of my friends chose to locate within a mile of Metro stations. We don't want to be reliant on our cars. But, either by choice or by default, we're looking for suburban analogues to urban neighborhoods.

Hence the comparison between Hyattsville and U Street. The homebuyers EYA wants to reach with their ad aren't moving to U Street. They've already decided to live in the suburbs. But they like U Street's amenities - its diversity, its bars and restaurants, and its accessibility.

Hyattsville can claim some of those things. There's a yearly arts festival and a growing district of real artists. Gay couples, including some with kids, are moving to the area because of its progressive reputation. The University Town Center development a mile away has shops, restaurants and a movie theatre, while the Arts District will eventually include a coveted branch of Busboys and Poets - which, of course, first opened on U Street.

McMansions, Cypress Hill Drive
If you grew up in a house like this in Gaithersburg, Hyattsville and U Street might seem pretty similar.

Of course it's not the same as U Street. On the other hand, Hyattsville has a weak brand - many potential visitors or buyers don't know anything about it. And those that do don't have a positive impression of it, like these University of Maryland students who complain that the town is "sketchy". EYA, the developer of Arts District, has to sell this neighborhood somehow, and if you're currently living in a more distant suburb like Gaithersburg or Bowie, Hyattsville might as well be U Street.

Over the past fifteen years, the District has undergone a remarkable transformation, drawing thousands of new residents. Slowly but surely, the traditional concerns about city living - chiefly poor schools and crime - are being dismantled. There will be people who still won't move there, but if they want to live in compact, urban settings outside city limits, that's a triumph.

Hopefully, Hyattsville will be able to attract people on its own merits, and we won't have to take the name of hip D.C. neighborhoods in vain.


Bossi said...

I was seriously considering Hyattsville's Arts District if it weren't for one thing: Hyattsville's transit accessibility if considerably lower than U Street, particularly with their Metro station being so far removed from their downtown.

In the U Street area you can find yourself within 5 minutes of one station, 10 minutes of three stations, and 15 minutes of five or six stations. Spanning Green, Red, and Yellow lines, too; and bus connections along U Street vastly outnumber those in Hyattsville.

My current residence and Shaw is within 5 minutes of two Circulator lines as well as bus connections to Georgetown and the Waterfront; I can be on any color Metro line within 15 minutes; and I can walk to pretty much any area of interest to 20- and 30-somethings within 15 minutes. All from a good-sized studio that's the same price as a 1 BR in Hyattsville.

D said...

While I get your general points, I still thing this development falls short. When a rowhouse needs to devote 1/4 to 1/3 of it's space to a 2 car garage, you aren't in a walkable community. Granted this will change, but they proudly list their 66 walkscore on their website, but if you click on the Walkscore link, you'll see this is far from the top 10% of even Hyattesville (89).

I agree that two big things driving location choices are proximity to work/social life and cost. For people working near Hyattsville, it might be desirable, but its prices aren't much lower than other nice areas. They also did a stupid thing that turned me off to other properties when I was home shopping. One of the benefits of living in a suburban environment is more green space. I didn't need my own yard, but I saw too may properties where they converted most land into a townhouse or road without even a communal spot for kids to play.

Also, I suspect few of your friends are buying property right now. When you switch from renting to owning, you're asking if this is a location that will fit my needs for the next 5 years to life.

Your survey of friends sounds interesting. Try to get another few hundred recent graduates from UMCP, follow them for 3 years and you'll have a dissertation.

It would also be cool if you could collect their average commute distances and times for work or their core social life. I strongly suspect the numbers will be much lower than regional averages across the larger population.

Anonymous said...

The living situation in the DC area is a LITTLE different if you're from here already. Most people moving into DC aren't from this area. The fact that most of my friends from Penn who moved to DC after graduation actually moved INTO DC, contradicts your informal "study", but gives huge evidence to the urbanist movement. Of those who didn't move into DC, a few live at Metro stations in Arlington and Silver Spring, and one in downtown Bethesda.

The percentage of people who move to area will still be higher outside the District than within simply because the suburbs are more populous and much larger. This is the case with every single large city in the U.S. Looking at your map, it seems that about 6 of the 19 of your friends living on their own moved within District borders. Almost 1/3! That is an incredible percentage.

Dan Reed said...


If I do a more formalized version of this study, I plan to ask people where they hang out and how they get there. Overall, it seems like my friends/coworkers/etc. drove to their jobs (in other suburbs), but took Metro to go out on the weekends.


I should note that quite a few of the people on my map went to the University of Maryland or other schools in suburban or rural locations - or grew up in suburban Maryland to begin with, which may have influenced their later housing choices. It makes sense that kids who went to Penn and lived in Philadelphia would go on to live in other cities. After living in Philadelphia myself, I can imagine doing the same.

retgroclk said...

Row Houses?
In the suburbs they are Townhouses.

With their two car garages, decks, and big windows, where people can sit in their living rooms. sip chablis and stare at the unwashed masses.

Bob Fustero

Jim Groves said...

The Row houses in Hyattsville are right on Rt. 1 which has constant bus service. You will find 2 metro stations (West Hyattsville and Prince Georges Plaza) within a 1 1/2 miles. It is 6 miles from Hyattsville to downtown DC - not the district line - downtown. Along with Bus Boys we will also have a Terra Thai, Yes market opening to go along with Franklins and Reds. Hyattsville has numerous parks within walking distance from the town houses. Check out the HyattsvilleWiki - for other info about how great Hyattsville is. Oh, there are lots of small to large homes for sale as well if you do want a yard!

Richard Layman said...

Perhaps I didn't make clear, and should have, is the point I was trying to make is that EYA should sell the value of locating on Rte. 1 in its own right, rather than making a stretch and somewhat unapt comparison to U St.

But I still think that this site should have developed as multiunit buildings.

I wrote about this more in the comments thread.

whitney said...

Great points! I am also really interested in the changing demographics of the city and suburbs in this area, particularly age and race. Most of my friends are under-25, African-American and fairly recent grads and we all live in the suburbs. Most work in the city, but commute via buses and trains. However, when I network, I find that the majority of people in my age group who are not black live in the city. I think the various reasons for that are never really talked about when we say that "young people" are "flocking" to the city.